Singer Katharine McPhee cut her chops over a decade ago on American Idol. Aas Paige Dineen on CBS’s Monday-night thriller Scorpion, she captivated audiences as an actress. Here, McPhee talks about achieving her Hollywood dreams, life after divorce, and why she’s still looking for love.
Modeling: Katharine McPhee | Author: Jared Shapiro | Photography: Randall Slavinoceandrive.com
It’s a scene that plays out in living rooms across America. The remote-control microphone, the tennis racket guitar, the bucket drums—what kid hasn’t performed an epic ballad or two in front of their adoring family and friends? But rarely do those moments translate into actual stardom. While many dream of being the next Taylor Swift or landing on top of the charts, few actually take that dream and run with it.
Eleven years ago, that’s exactly what Katharine McPhee did. Living room performances gave way to Los Angeles theater productions and ultimately a shot at the brightest spotlight in entertainment—American Idol, where McPhee finished in second place behind Taylor Hicks in Season 5. After Idol, she went on to sell almost 400,000 copies of her first album and performed alongside titans of the industry, including Andrea Bocelli, John Legend, and Harry Connick Jr.
Public breakups, growing up in front of all of America, and a career jump to the acclaimed TV hit Smash—Katharine McPhee has had an unusual road to success. Now it’s a star turn on the hit CBS show Scorpion and a “new” musical inspiration that allow her light to shine brightest.
Did you always know you wanted to perform?
I don’t really have a memory of not knowing what I was going to do. I have videos of when I was a little kid singing—my mom is a voice teacher—and our grandparents would come to town, and we would do all of these shows for everybody. I thought I would be a pop star, like Mariah Carey, and then Britney [Spears] and Christina Aguilera came out and I wanted to get a record deal.
How successful did you think you were going to be?
I never thought in a small way. I always dreamed really big. I never really limited myself.
What was the biggest crowd you had ever performed in front of prior to American Idol?
I did a short-lived talent show called Ed McMahon’s Next Big Star on this channel called Pax, which doesn’t exist anymore. I was 17 and that was a big deal for me because other than that, it was all high school performances and rallies. I went to the very end and lost… how like me.
You were the runner up on American Idol, too. What does that do for your confidence to twice lose in the finals?
I love competition, but I always had this sense that that is not really life. I definitely remember being disappointed, but it didn’t hurt my confidence. Those experiences strengthen your vision for yourself, and also that adrenaline that you get, you want more of it. You want more of the high from performing in front of audiences.
You said that you thought of yourself as “pretty, but stupid”?
That was when I was really young. I wasn’t the best in school, but I got attention. Oftentimes, I’ll see these pretty little girls at the store with their parents and one of the first things you want to say is, “Oh my god, she’s so beautiful.” I got that a lot as a kid, especially growing up in LA with talent and modeling agencies and people giving you their cards, when you become valued only for the way you look. I knew I was really good at something—performing; I knew I had value in that way. One of the things I like the most about myself now is how emotionally intelligent I am and how I feel like I have a real, strong sense of myself. That was something I struggled with. We put these messages out there that [being pretty] is such a valuable thing, and it’s natural to want to affirm something you see is beautiful. But it’s something that people can value too much.
What’s your take on the evolution of beauty right now and with girls trying to emulate reality stars, like the Kardashians?
I love the Kardashians; I enjoy their show. I think some of the images they are constantly putting out are a part of their brand, like constant perfection. I think that they actually are pretty deep thinking, feeling people that have to deal with their issues and lives in their own ways. But there is too much emphasis on the way people look. There is nothing wrong with wanting to look as good as you can, but there is no stopping it. The thing about social media is that it brought access to this so-called “perfection.”
What is your view on plastic surgery in Hollywood?
I don’t really have a problem with it, but I feel like the reason people don’t want to talk about it is because there is this stigma on whether or not it is actually good work. I don’t have super long legs, so if I could ever trade up, I’d add an extra half an inch to my legs. You look at all the work people have done in Hollywood; even when they look amazing, everyone wants to say, “Well, it looks amazing, but it’s fake.” There is always this angle of trying to take people down. I’m not going to run out and get a face-lift anytime soon, but I don’t know how I’m going to feel 20 years from now. I do believe in aging. I think that there is nothing more unattractive than someone who just refuses to age. At some point you have to allow yourself to age a little bit. But I can’t say that I won’t want to look as good as I possibly can in any stage of my life.
You’re an actress, but how do you have time for passion projects like singing?
It’s a day-to-day job being on Scorpion. When you sign contracts like that, that’s obviously the biggest priority, but as I have had more time on the show to know what the routine is, and what to expect, I have had more time in my mind to start creating for other things. I’m working on a record again.
What is the record going to be?
I did a TV special last year, and they asked me to present and walk on stage in Las Vegas. Basically fly out just to say a line [“The next performer is…”], and get back on a plane and go to work the next day. I just didn’t find it to be worth all that time. But I put a feeler out and said, “Hey, if there is any spot for me to sing, let me know.” I’m not usually that forward, but the next thing I know I was on stage with John Legend, Adam Levine, and Harry Connick Jr. singing to celebrate Frank Sinatra’s 100th birthday. This is the music I grew up with. My mom sang all of these songs to us growing up, and it just re-inspired me in terms of making a record. I love pop music, but the reality is you have to have such huge label budgets to have any chance to have pop music be exposed [on the radio].
You’ve had quite a journey.
I feel pretty grounded. I got married really young, and then divorced, and in the last couple of years, I felt like, Wow, this is what I should have been doing when I was 20 instead of planning a wedding. But I don’t have any regrets. All of the choices I made I learned from in a really deep way. I have always been fortunate to have strong influences in my life who have forced me to look at my own choices and my own failures. I think we are all on that journey to have more awareness about who we are as a person and to grow and learn.
What about charity and philanthropy? What speaks to your heart now?
I am pretty involved with Build On, where we try to help poverty-stricken nations fund their schools and live a better life. When I went to Africa and actually got to see these places that needed the help and see where the help has gone, that’s when it is the most effective. Feeding ourselves with positive things as opposed to being obsessed with how we look, you do that by really investing in other people.
You are single now. What are you looking for in a guy?
I have not been single for very much of my life. I don’t really understand how to date or how to be single. As soon as I know that I don’t really want to be in a relationship with somebody, I don’t really care to keep it going. I’m trying to date in a way that doesn’t lock me down. There is still a certain level of attachment with the prior relationship that I was in, so emotionally to be suddenly dating other people is not as easy. People say, “You just need to hook up with a bunch of people,” but I am more of an in-love kind of person. I want to be in love with one person. I’m a one-man kind of gal and a kind of true romantic at heart.