When Lee DeWyze left Mount Prospect for Hollywood, he had no apartment. No job. No game plan for his future.
"I got kicked out of high school, but that's totally not who I am now," said DeWyze on his "American Idol" audition tape.
"I totally know this is what I'm supposed to do. There is no backup plan for me."
Less than a year later, it's looking like he might not need one.
Today, DeWyze returns to Mount Prospect for a televised hometown visit as one of three "American Idol" finalists. He comes home to a parade, a three-song concert in front of thousands at Arlington Park and a sea of fans wearing neon "Vote4Lee" shirts.
Grocery store cashiers ring up vegetables wearing "Vote for Lee" buttons while banners supporting his "Idol" run hang all over Mount Prospect. Electronic signs in neighboring towns remind drivers to vote every week.
Regardless of what happens when the final "Idol" votes are tallied on May 26, DeWyze will tour the country with other finalists and likely get a record contract of his own.
Win or lose, his life has changed forever.
DeWyze grew up in Mount Prospect. He never took a music or voice lesson, said his mom Kathy DeWyze.
"He taught himself," she said.
Kathy has worked as a radiology transcriber at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights for more than 20 years. Lee's father, Lee Sr., is a mail carrier in Elk Grove Village.
Lee is one of four kids.
Music was always a part of the DeWyze home and, one of Lee Sr.'s favorite artists, Cat Stevens, is also one of Lee's favorites. DeWyze cites Kris Kristofferson and James Taylor among his musical influences.
As a kid, he attended St, James Catholic School in Arlington Heights. High school was a bit rough. He was kicked out of Prospect High School, reportedly for fighting in defense of a friend, and later attended Forest View Alternative School. He never graduated.
Starting at age 15, DeWyze worked on and off at Mount Prospect Paints on Northwest Highway. He'd talk to customers and tint paint.
Chicagoan Louis Svitek discovered DeWyze, then 17, playing guitar and singing at a house party in the Northwest suburbs. "I just heard his voice and said, 'Man, you got a gift,'" said Svitek, who runs the independent record label WuLi Records with Ryan McGuire in Chicago. "He's a natural."
Svitek and McGuire signed DeWyze to a record deal.
DeWyze led the Lee DeWyze Band and recorded two albums, "So I'm Told" and "Slumberland." Both the band and his music were known locally, even getting radio play on WXRT.
Two years ago, he recorded six songs to promote Square One Organic baby foods. He also judged talent competitions - including an "Ice Cream Idol" contest - and was popular at local karaoke joints.
In 2006, the band started touring local bars and festivals. They played gigs at Chicago's House of Blues, Durty Nellie's in Palatine and Naperville's Ribfest.
Ribfest drew quite a crowd, but a far larger audience was yet to come.
Ticket to Hollywood
Last year, "American Idol" was back in Chicago holding auditions for the popular Fox TV show, and DeWyze's buddy Vincent Ferrara convinced him to try out.
They arrived at the United Center at 4 a.m. on a hot morning in June. Thousands of other people did the same.
DeWyze almost didn't make it to the front of the line.
"He wanted to go home," Ferrara said. "It was so hot out, and the line was so long. But I told him, 'No way, you have some serious talent, we're staying.'"
DeWyze sang "Stand By Me" and "Lean on Me" for producers. He moved on. Ferrara did not.
Finally, DeWyze stood in front of "Idol" judges Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Kara DioGuardi and guest judge Shania Twain.
DeWyze belted out "Ain't No Sunshine;" he got his ticket to Hollywood.
In the beginning, DeWyze was reluctant to pursue his chance. He's an alternative folk song guy, a songwriter, and there's nothing more pop than "Idol."
Ferrara had to talk him into the idea.
"If anything, I helped Lee get the opportunity, but since the audition, it's been all Lee," said Ferrara who has flown to California to watch his buddy sing. "I don't think Lee understood exactly what 'Idol' could do for him."
He knows now.
Support back home
Over the last several weeks, he's sung for a TV audience of millions. He's worked with musical greats like Shania Twain, Usher and Jamie Foxx. Harry Connick Jr. even told the shy DeWyze that his supermodel wife thought the "Idol" contestant was cute.
Judges have hailed his talent, while urging him to smile more and believe in himself.
"I want you to go home and write 100 times I can win this thing. Because that's the confidence you need," Kara DioGuardi chided last week.
Back home, anyone associated with DeWyze is already a believer - or be-LEE-ver as his new round of T-shirts suggests.
Friends have become mini-celebrities, especially Mike Binek and Bill Lagattolla, owners of the paint store that employed DeWyze for years.
They sell Vote for Lee T-shirts and baseball caps, and the store's windows are plastered with signs congratulating DeWyze.
The store paid DeWyze $500 a week until very recently to help him in Los Angeles.
"We're just doing this to support him," said Binek, who encouraged DeWyze to play guitar on Sundays at the store.
In the back of Mount Prospect Paints hangs a photo of Binek, Lagattolla and a 16-year-old DeWyze, posing around a customer service award.
All three have their arms around each other.
Eight years later, DeWyze still gets lots of support from Lagattolla and Binek.
Only now, a few more people have joined them.