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For former Utahn Ashley Hess, being an ‘American Idol’ frontrunner is surreal and inspiring

SALT LAKE CITY — Former Utah resident and current "American Idol" contestant Ashley Hess wowed the judges again in Monday night's episode.

Originally from California, Hess moved to Utah to study dental hygiene at Utah Valley University, but after a risky career shift she is one of the top 20 contestants on the hit show.

Hess loved singing her whole life, but always talked herself out of pursuing it as a career.

"There's two parts of me. I'm 50 percent free spirit dreamer, creative, spontaneous. And I'm 50 percent responsible, realistic … needing that security and stability in my life," Hess said in an interview with the Deseret News. "I feel like that half of me always won over the creative, free spirit side. Because I thought I need a more practical job."

Hess knew how competitive the music industry was, but eventually, even her practicality couldn't hold her back.

"Music was still something that I loved and a passion that never really went away," she said. "So it's worth a shot pursuing because I don't want to have any regrets later down the road."

Five years ago, Hess felt like it was now or never and finally decided to give music a chance. She started playing the piano, singing, posting YouTube videos and writing songs. Last year she moved to Nashville to pursue music full time.

This wasn't her first attempt at the piano. Her parents had her take lessons between 7th and 8th grade. At the time she didn't enjoy it — she was more interested in her soccer and volleyball teams, and was hoping to pursue them in college.

It wasn't until years later she found her love for piano. Now, accompanying herself on the piano is her comfort zone. That was how she first auditioned for "American Idol." The judges loved her first performance so much they stopped her partway through so they could come sit around the piano to hear the rest.

"It's an intimidating thing to go audition in front of three superstars. And walking in knowing their job is to literally to judge you. That's why they're called judges … But to have them stop me mid-performance and then come sit around the piano was insane," Hess said. "Then when it finally aired, just to see such a positive response that it got from viewers was overwhelming in the best way."

Hess has loved the reaction and support from friends, family and even strangers as she's progressed through the show. Now that she lives in Nashville, she's distant from a lot of her family, so when the first episode aired she had them film their reaction and send it to her.

"My family's been so supportive, but just to see how proud they are of me and just the support from family and friends obviously means the world," she said. "But strangers and people I've never met are reaching out just to show their support and they're rooting for me. Honestly, it's so surreal."

Now in the top 20, Hess is considered a frontrunner on the show. She got a lot of attention from her audition, especially when Katy Perry said, "You could win this competition."

During her performance to make the top 20 Hess sang with a band, instead of playing the piano herself. She wasn't as comfortable with this kind of performing, which the judges took note of, but that didn't stop her from advancing.

In Monday's episode, she was back behind the piano and once again impressed the judges and audience. Perry had words of encouragement again when she said, "I thought I was at your show. I was literally lost in that performance. It was really amazing and very believable."

Hess is one of many talented contestants this year; she said being around fellow singers was both inspiring and intimidating. She had to remind herself to stay true to what she did best and not compare herself.

"Through the process, I've seen people who are absolutely phenomenal, and their talent is unreal. They're just incredible. It's really easy to compare yourself. … But that's not me," Hess said. "What I love to do, and where I feel like I thrive is behind the piano singing songs that I really connect to and just because it's different doesn't necessarily mean one's better or worse than the other."