This is the first of a two-part interview with country music singer-songwriter Emily West.
After spending 10 years in Nashville trying to develop a country music career, 28-year-old Emily West finds it funny to still be called a "rising star." More ironically funny than ha-ha funny, but the emerging talent with the booming voice and precise comedic timing hopes to have the last laugh.
If anyone in country music these days can tickle your funny bone, it's West. Check out her West Side Stories -- and her impersonations of everyone from Renee Zellweger and Faith Hill to Britney and Cher -- at AOL Music or YouTube for proof. "Well, I've been called a rising star ever since I was 8," she said, laughing (of course) at the very thought of her years of struggling.
Born Emily Nemmers in 1981 in Waterloo, Iowa, West changed her last name before making the move to Music City in March 2000, and has been trying to make it there ever since.
Mark down 2010 as the year. With a possible career-defining appearance on The Celebrity Apprentice (the NBC reality show that portrayed her as a "young country artist") in April, a seat with the boys on the bus for the testosterone-filled Country Throwdown Tour that began May 14 and her first full-length album for Capitol Nashville set for a summer release, these are the best of times for West.
During an April 30 phone interview, before Nashville and middle Tennessee felt the brunt of weekend storms and flash floods that resulted in numerous deaths and billions of dollars in property damage, West discussed her part on the tour and her upcoming album.
She found particular glee, though, in looking back on her Celebrity Apprentice appearance and how it might have provided her career a much-needed jump-start.
"It was different being called a rising star by my hometown paper and then having Cyndi Lauper or Donald Trump calling you a rising star," West said of her Apprentice acquaintances. "Everybody seems to be a rising star these days," she added. "Everyone is talking about somebody, you know, with your promotion coming up or, whatever, your single coming out. Everybody is a rising star. I'm just enjoying the ride. I'm enjoying when somebody says, 'I loved your new song. I love listening to it. It touches me.' That's surreal for me to have that connection between the fans. It makes me feel a little less crazy. ... I think that at this time of my life, everything seems to be a little surreal. Finally my dream is coming true."
After appearing on The Celebrity Apprentice (with Episode 906 still streaming on nbc.com until June 6), the country cutie-pie didn't own up to having any inside information, but was more than willing at the end of April to predict which contestants would persevere down the stretch toward the May 23 live finale.
"Well, I'm rooting for Bret (Michaels) to get his health back and I hear he's feeling better," West said of the rock star who has since been released from Barrow Neurological Institute at St. Joseph's Hospital in Phoenix and is expected to make a complete recovery from a brain hemorrhage suffered April 21. "And I think that he might win. I don't know, though. I think that Curtis Stone is a very good-looking man (laughs).
"I think that Sharon Osbourne, Cyndi or Bret Michaels will win. I don't know ... I don't like to start anything ... but I don't know if the thing is a publicity stunt. 'Cause I think he's gonna be fine. I've been praying for him. But I don't think it is. I think it really is happening, you know. He's been in the hospital for so long. ..."
While Michaels, 47, (pictured with West on Celebrity Apprentice) might be her sentimental favorite, West also thinks he has a chance to win "because he's really smart, a really cool guy and seems to know what he's doing." Yet, for other reasons she explained later, "I'm fighting for Cyndi, though."
She was fighting a losing battle, finding out with the rest of the world on Mother's Day that the scrappy Lauper couldn't escape the boardroom without hearing Trump's two-word catchphrase that makes every paranoid American flinch each week -- "You're fired."
At least Lauper and West shared their moment in the Celebrity sun. On the NBC show that aired April 18, the same night she attended the Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas, West helped the women of Team Tenacity kick ass in a challenge to make over a "young country artist." Male singer Luke Bryan and team RockSolid were the competitors.
Tenacity project manager (and pop icon) Cyndi Lauper took a personal interest in West, whose performance of "Blue Sky," which West wrote and recorded with Keith Urban for that upcoming album, proved to be a pivotal, moving moment in the challenge. Even hunky country bruiser Trace Adkins, a former Celebrity Apprentice contestant and 2008 runner-up who returned for this episode as a boardroom adviser, was shown shedding a tear or two.
"I didn't know if it was allergies up in New York or if he had to sneeze or something," West joked. "But a lot of people are saying, 'No, I think you made Trace cry.' So I ran out to him at the ACMs backstage and I just gave him a big old bear hug and he gave me a huge bear hug back. And he's just so tender ... you know, he's like such a bear, but he's so tender and so sweet. It just really made me feel good. He's such a real dude. And I think I did maybe make him cry 'cause he's kind of a softie."
West obviously made a connection with Lauper, too. For winning the challenge, Lauper's charity, the True Colors Fund, received $20,000, along with proceeds from West's live performance of "Blue Sky" and Bryan's "Rain Is a Good Thing" that are available for a limited time as iTunes downloads.
"I've been obsessed with Cyndi Lauper like all my life," West said of the quirky but lovable "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" singer-songwriter, who won two Grammys in 1985 and is releasing her 11th studio album, Memphis Blues, on June 22. "She taught me as a girl to kinda wave my freak flag, because I totally had one, and to not feel bad about it. And that's what she's done for so many girls. And, I guess, being in this business, it's really ... a lot of female acts kinda tend to stay pretty shy and look really pretty (laughs) and they watch their mouth. And I'm not just one of those girls. And I don't think Miranda Lambert is either. But I just think a lot of women in today's music are just starting to wave their freak flag. And I've never had a problem with it. So I'm excited about the new rules about being a woman and not being pretty and having a mouth on you."
Of course, the appearance wasn't a total love-fest, and scenes of cat-fights involving Lauper, Osbourne, Maria Kanellis and Holly Robinson Peete were undoubtedly ramped up for dramatic effect. West, in the middle of it all, admitted there were a few real-life anxious moments and the experience felt like, "I ate too many Cheetos and then took a nap, because it was such a weird, weird thing happening.
"Oh my gosh, these women I've really learned to look up to throughout my career growing up," West continued. "It was chaotic because you only had like a couple hours, but it was just fun. Like I don't remember it being stressful at all. I remember, there were some egos in the room. And there was ... Cyndi was kinda like the (villainous 101 Dalmatians character) Cruella De Vil of everybody. But she's the girl I'm gonna pay attention to. She's the one that I've looked up to all these years. Her and Sharon, 'cause they're in the music business. But, I mean, everybody was so helpful. Maria Kanellis was giving me great advice with interviews and Holly Robinson Peete was awesome."
Now that the show is behind her, West is looking forward to the Country Throwdown Tour that includes 24 dates in prominent arenas and amphitheaters across the country and concludes June 20 in Mountain View, California.
"It's kinda like Woodstock with tassels," West said of a country production headed by Montgomery Gentry, Jamey Johnson, Jack Ingram, Little Big Town and Ryan Bingham, whose "The Weary Kind" from Crazy Heart won an Academy Award this year. "And this is the first time that country music has done this and it's so amazing to be a part of it, especially when it's on my first tour ever."
Although being one of the few female solo performers onstage -- where there's enough testosterone to rival a WWE event -- might make a newcomer like West nervous, she just laughs it off. For one thing, she won't be totally alone, getting support from "freaking awesome" (her description) Jonathan Singleton and the Grove. Asked if she believes the country music kingdom will take a bubbly babe seriously as a performer, this dangerous mind quits kidding around, winding up to deliver a powerful punch line.
"Yeah, of course," said the wit-smart West, whose catchy "Rocks in Your Shoes" from her 2007 self-titled EP for Capitol (the label that signed her in 2004) made a slight dent on the charts. "I think a lot of humor, a lot of these comedians definitely have the dramatic bone in their body. They're very sad within. And in a lot of my songs, I think I use my humor as my weapon, you know. I think a lot of women have to do that.
"A lot of women have their tits. I have my personality."
(The original version of this article first appeared at Blogcritics.org.)
• Celebrity Apprentice photo by Ali Goldstein/NBC.
• Emily West publicity photo courtesy of Capitol Records.
In Episode 8 of West Side Stories, Emily West's impressions make quite an impression with a group from 93.7 Kiss Country: