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Photography Major Wins 'Academy Idol' Singing Competition

Akayna Calkins impressed judges, the studio audience and live-stream viewers with her rendition of “Hold Back the River”

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Academy Idol judges and audience look on as winner Akayna Calkins performs during the series finale. Photo by Bob Toy.

It’s not every day a photography student goes to college and rekindles a love for music. But that’s exactly what Akayna Calkins did during her very first semester at the Academy of Art University.

When Calkins found out about the Academy’s reality singing competition Academy Idol from a friend, she mustered up the courage and gave it a try. Six weeks later, she walked off the live studio set a winner, defeating the 11 other contestants, and taking home the grand prize—a trip to audition at any singing competition in the country.

“It was a surreal experience,” said Calkins, who is making plans to audition for The Voice this summer in New York. “It didn’t really sink in when I won, but it was really exciting. It was a great feeling.”

Initially wooing the judges with a breathy, acoustic performance of T-Pain’s “Buy U A Drank,” the Chicago native hung on week after week as fellow contestants were eliminated in classic American Idol fashion. During the final episode she sang a quietly powerful rendition of James Bay’s “Hold Back the River” while gently strumming her backpacker guitar—a performance that clinched the winning vote from the five on-set judges, studio audience, and live-stream viewers who voted through social media outlets like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Encouraged by her mother, a former ballet dancer, Calkins started performing at a young age, but after unsuccessfully auditioning for a middle school talent show she stepped away from the stage, letting her defeat get the better of her. Picking up the guitar, she gradually got back into singing, performing for her family, posting videos on Instagram, and finally joining the choir in her senior year of high school.

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The final Academy Idol winner, Akayna Calkins. Photo by Bob Toy.

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The audience overwhelmingly voted "YES" for Calkins' final performance. Photo by Bob Toy.

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Confetti rains down on the Academy Idol set as after Calkins is announced as the final winner of the series. Photo by Bob Toy.

“When the opportunity came up to audition for Academy Idol I thought that would be a good chance to see what potential I had and get past the mental block I created for myself so long ago,” said Calkins, who is also a member of the women’s cross country team at the Academy. She said the experience gave her a tremendous boost of self-confidence.

Produced as a senior-level undergraduate class by the School of Communications and Media Technologies, this past season was the show’s sixth and final season. This fall, the department will debut a new show called Academy’s Got Talent, replacing Idol, and offering students with skills beyond singing, the chance to showcase their ability.

“This is a senior level class,” said School of Communications and Media Technologies Executive Director Jan Yanehiro. “The class takes pride in producing every aspect of every show—from directing and hosting to judging, shooting, managing social media, bringing in an audience, and producing background stories on the contestants—it’s all done by students in the class. They finish the semester with hands on experience and a great start to working in the professional world.”

It’s a win-win for everyone. Communications and media technologies students, including this year’s hosts, Norma Lopez, Terrell Butler, and D’Andree Galipeau, and judges, Connor Smith, Taylor Kimber, Tyler Sabino, Toyosi Oniru, and Nick Cary, gain professional-level experience producing a live show, while students across majors have a unique opportunity to gain exposure as performing artists.

“I was always very shy, especially going in front of people,” said Calkins, who grew up in a family with seven children. “So I was impressed with myself when I started getting more and more comfortable performing in front of people, and because of all the lights and cameras, it was really a different kind of experience. I really impressed myself and my family too, it was a great experience all around.”