Gore teenager Jenny Mitchell is calling on Southlanders to help her win New Zealand's Got Talent. Lauren Hayes talks to Southland's latest singing sensation.
Jenny Mitchell. It's a name you may want to remember.
The 14-year-old from Gore is only a few votes away from taking out top honours at this year's New Zealand's Got Talent.
Word on the street is she has more than an outside chance.
With her infectious laugh and strong Southland lilt, Jenny wowed the crowd and judges with a rendition of the Dixie Chicks' God Speed during the show's first episode.
Praise has since poured in for her smiley disposition and the "heck of a vocal range" she has at her disposal.
When I call, Jenny has just finished rehearsals for what could be her final televised performance.
After eight hours in the studio, she's out enjoying the Auckland sun, sneaking in a bit of shopping while some of the unluckier contestants are still stuck in practice.
Her school friends in Gore have just finished classes, and she's about to compete as a finalist on New Zealand's Got Talent.
"I can't really believe it," she says, laughing.
Reality television often gets a bad wrap, but behind the scenes, out of the dazzling lights and the camera's glare, the experience has been a lot of fun for the young southerner.
There's no pressure to act a certain way, no coercion to sing a particular song, and the crew genuinely wants to help, she says.
"They just really, actually, genuinely care about you being happy with your performance.
"It's not fake or anything . . . It's so much fun and everyone's really lovely. I've just loved it."
For many people, Jenny's success will come as little surprise.
Music has been a major part of Jenny's life, something she has enjoyed since she was a preschooler.
She has been a regular at the Gold Guitar awards, and credits her father, country stalwart Ron Mitchell, with keeping her interested through the years.
When he began recording his own album, 7-year-old Jenny sat in, entranced by the recording process.
"I remember being at the studio - I used to go a lot - and I used to watch the recordings go from just a vocal track and a guitar to a whole band. That was what sort of inspired me."
Seven years later, and Jenny is performing her own original songs to an audience spread up and down the country.
Choosing to sing her own compositions, instead of relying on tried and true favourites, is a brave move, especially for someone still in high school.
While the songs give her a point of difference in the competition, they also leave some pretty personal stuff vulnerable to attack, she says.
"If someone criticises an original, it hurts a lot more than if they criticise a cover.
"It's kind of putting your life out there and, you know, it's a bit worrying."
So far, she's had only positive responses from the judges and masses of Kiwi viewers who watch the show.
There are the messages from school friends, the fans with "Vote for Jenny" T-shirts, and even the girl who wrote an essay about Jenny and her songs for English class.
Naturally, the most ardent support has come from her home town.
Jenny believes a strong, passionate support base is one of the biggest advantages of growing up in a close-knit community such as Gore.
"The support that you get from a small town is so different from what you get in Auckland. In a big city, you're sort of just like a number, you're just someone else."
And, in Gore, the competition seems to have taken on a life of its own.
"It sort of became about the town getting through to the next round, rather than me getting through."
With the end goal now so close, it's hard to ignore the glittering allure of the show's many prizes.
Although the money would be nice - because "obviously, no-one can complain about being given $100,000" - the most valuable prize in Jenny's eyes is the exposure.
She has observed the career trajectory of last year's winner, Clara van Wel, who has since released her debut album and toured the country, and she likes what she sees.
However, the teenager is happy with how far she has come in the competition and if the worst were to happen next week, well, it wouldn't be the end of the world, she says. "I'm not going to be all like, 'oh no, my career's over and blah, blah, blah' . . . It's a good thing to have on your CV."
No matter what the outcome, the year 10 St Peter's student is adamant she'll stay in school until graduation, although she has her sights firmly set on a life in music.
She's already planning an OE year in Nashville, where stars such as Taylor Swift found fame, and where Jenny hopes to perform and pen hits for other performers.
Before that, though, she has the rest of New Zealand's Got Talent to get through.
Viewers have one more chance to show their love for Jenny, with this week's votes determining who makes the top three and who, ultimately, will win the top prize.
The teenager admits she's a little nervous although, for now, she's staying positive.
"I'm just more excited, really. There's nothing better than doing something you love."
VOTE FOR JENNY
New Zealand's Got Talent airs at 7.30pm, Sunday, on TV One. Text voting opens immediately after Jenny's performance airs, and runs through until midnight on Monday.
- The Southland Times