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It was just shy of 20 years ago when a big-voiced girl from Tennessee auditioned for a fledgling singing competition that had quickly taken on a life of its own. Before she knew it, Kimberley Locke was a frontrunner for American Idol’s second season, standing on a stage in Hollywood and belting her heart out before upwards of 30 million people each week.
The months-long competition and subsequent attention were at once a thrill and a blur, and Locke — who finished third — was one of the earliest Idol contestants to parlay a non-win into a successful singing career. Now, almost two decades removed from “reality TV” stardom, Locke is ready step into the spotlight again, albeit on her own terms — and on a very different platform.
Locke is the new lead in Norwegian Cruise Line’s Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, which premiered aboard the company’s all-new Norwegian Prima ship this week. The Tony Award-nominated musical follows the story of Summer’s rise to fame, and Locke effortlessly fills the Queen of Disco’s dancing shoes in the title role.
Though she’s performed on cruise ships before (just ask her legion of gay fans who have seen her perform on boats in the Mediterranean) the residency with Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) marks the singer’s first-ever theater project at sea. Produced by Broadway and music industry vets, the Donna Summer musical features more than 20 of the singer’s biggest hits, including “Bad Girls,” “Last Dance” and “Hot Stuff,” while delving into different periods of her life. The 85-minute show will also transform the cruise ship’s Prima Theater into a full disco, allowing guests to become part of the show and live out their on-stage dreams as they dance along to Summer’s songs.
For Locke, the opportunity to take on such an iconic role came at a pivotal moment in her life, after two years of a pandemic and a broken engagement left her at a crossroads both personally and professionally. The new role is also a chance for the singer to return to her first love of music, after dabbling in television projects, a YouTube series and even opening a restaurant. That old Simon Cowell critique that Idol contestants sounded “like they belong on a cruise ship?” It’s now something Locke embraces with pride.
“With this show, so much in my life has changed,” she gushes. “Talk about turning the ship around — no pun intended!”
A few days before she departed for the cruise, Locke caught up with Rolling Stone over Zoom, to chat about the new role, her cosmic connection to Donna Summer, and how American Idol is the gift that keeps on giving.
Hi Kimberley, it’s so great to chat with you!
It’s so great to chat with Rolling Stone! I am so honored to be talking to you.
So we’re here to talk about your new role in Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. How excited are you for this role and opportunity?
You know, we’re coming out of the pandemic and I can’t tell you how many Zoom events or virtual events I did. I mean, by the end of the pandemic, I actually turned down a few events, because I said, ‘I’m working harder at this virtual event than I ever do at a live show!’ Usually I just put on my dress and go out and sing my songs and everybody’s getting into it. But with a virtual event, it’s hard not being able to see and touch people and be in the room with people. And now it’s like, I want to travel; I want to see the world and do what I love to do on a beautiful stage that nobody’s ever been on before. So when this opportunity came along I was like, ‘Why not? Sign me up for that. I’ll take it.’
You mentioned having to pivot during the pandemic. What have the last few years been like for you?
So I fell in love during the pandemic. You know, some people fell in love during the pandemic, and some people fell out of love during the pandemic. So I was one of those people that fell in love during the pandemic, and I got engaged during the pandemic, and it was really, really amazing. The two years that we were together were fantastic and I actually started planning a wedding. And then at the end of last year, in December, I decided to end that relationship and literally uproot my entire life.
I’m sorry to hear that.
It’s like you’re in the middle of planning for one thing, but your heart stops, and now you’re in another direction. So I was really, really disoriented, but I knew that I made the right decision. And so on Christmas Day last year, I called my best friend and booked a one-way ticket to see her in Florida. Literally I checked myself into a hotel room, I visited a bunch of friends and people that I love, and I really just kind of processed, like ‘Do I know who I am? Who do I want to be? What do I want to do with the rest of my life?’ Because obviously life can turn on a dime at any given time and I had not prepared for what was happening.
So how did that lead you to this show?
I had a show in New York City in March and I met a manager and casting director while I was there. And literally, when they left, they said, ‘We’re calling you tomorrow, because we’re gonna submit you for this Donna Summer show. We’ve got to do it now.’ And I was like, ‘Okay!’
Were you looking to do a musical or a production like this?
When I graduated high school, one of the things I wanted to do was go to New York and audition for Broadway. And I had never traveled or been anywhere — I was a little country girl straight off the farm — but I prepared all my music, all my monologues and was going to try to make it in New York. But then I ended up auditioning for American Idol and I went to LA and didn’t leave because I was doing so many other wonderful things. It was like, ‘Okay, I’ll do Broadway eventually.’ But I wasn’t sure when that would be.
And now here we are, and it feels like a full-circle moment. It’s a perfect scenario for me because I was actively looking for a theater project to kind of dip my toes into and get my feet wet. And when this opportunity came along, I was like, ‘This could not have been more perfect for me right now.’ I’ve just been picking myself up off the floor for the last few months, just kind of saying, ‘Wow, how did this happen?’
Had you ever met Donna Summer before?
I met her once. Wow, are you ready for this?
So years ago, I got on a plane… I think we were coming from LA to Nashville because she was living in Nashville, and I was living in Nashville. And we get on the plane and I see her, and I’m like, ‘Gosh, I know this woman,’ but I couldn’t figure out who she was. So I spent the entire flight staring at her, like peeking through the crack in the seat because she was sitting on the other side, like one or two rows back. And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s gonna think I’m crazy because I’m staring.’
And so we get off the plane, we go down the escalator and I see her in front of me. And I said, ‘I’m so sorry, I know I’ve been staring at you the entire time on the plane.’ And she looked at me and she said, ‘I know who you are Kimberley Locke!’
I immediately know it was her as soon as she opened her mouth, and I probably melted into the fibers of the carpet at the airport. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is wild. It’s so nice to meet you Ms Summer.’
She was kind and she was so poised. And she just had this presence, you know? Just the way she carried herself. It’s the way that I hope I can carry myself through the show and throughout the rest of my life.
I’m sure you’ve covered Donna’s songs before.
I put out a Christmas album last year, and guess what my Christmas single was? My Christmas single was a cover of “Christmas is Here” by Donna Summer.
Talk about a precursor to this project, you know? Donna Summer showed up before and now she’s showing up again. So there’s a bigger meaning to this entire project for me on a personal level as well as professional. And I don’t think it’s an accident that she’s the disco queen, and I had my share of success in the dance world.
So basically this residency was meant to be.
I mean, if you’re talking about the universe, just her looking at me saying, ‘I know who you are Kimberley Locke,’ was almost like she was saying, ‘You’re gonna play me one day.’ And now with this theater show happening, it’s like connecting all of those pieces together in a really amazing way.
What is something that has surprised you about Donna Summer’s life?
We’ve been rehearsing all her songs and studying her discography and she really created a genre. You know, I had huge success in the dance world, and she created that genre. Like that was never a thing until Donna Summer, right? So people know her for dance and disco, but what people don’t realize is that she really had an influence in the entire musical landscape. Like we’ll be listening to a song and be like ‘Oh that was Donna,’ and ‘This song was also Donna,’ and ‘She did this one and that one too.’
Did you have any reservations about doing a show on a cruise ship? I feel like there are often stereotypes about being a “cruise ship singer.”
I think there are a lot of outdated misconceptions. I mean, I’ll be honest, I’ve done some cruises where it does fit that stereotype, but I’m finding that with Norwegian [Cruise Line], this ship is luxurious and beautiful and well thought-out and laid out. I love being in the intimate space with the fans — it all becomes very experiential.
As an entertainer, you’re always thinking like, ‘Am I taking a step up? Or am I taking a step backwards?’ I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about that. But the level and caliber of what this show is, says a lot about Norwegian Cruise Line, and how they feel about entertainment and how they understand what entertainment represents to people. But also, on another level, they are opening up an entirely new world for entertainers and singers and giving us new opportunities. It’s been quite the seven months for me in my personal life, and, you know, when I put out to the universe that I just want to travel and do what I love to do, which is music, this [opportunity] showed up in my world. And I couldn’t be more excited or grateful.
I’m not sure if you know this, but this 2022 marks twenty years since you auditioned for American Idol.
I know, I can’t believe it.
What do you remember about that time in your life?
First of all, I feel like I’m in another American Idol moment right now, just 20 years later doing something completely different! But I think what I didn’t do then, that I will do now, is I will enjoy it more.
I was in complete competition mode during Idol, because there was so much talent, and we were all competing for one spot. And I think I was very intense in my 20s and I went into the competition to not do anything other than compete. And you know, I wish I had taken more pictures; I wish I had journaled more; I wish I had really taken it in more.
But I always say American Idol is the gift that keeps on giving. You talking to me today validates that this is the gift that keeps on giving to me throughout my career. I could not have imagined what I have done in my career just from being on that show. I got to interview Patti LaBelle because I was on American Idol. And she, you know, at the time, told me stuff that she hadn’t really told anybody else about her personal life and going through divorce and things like that. And then I did a show with Wynonna in Nashville. And you know, it was like having the two godmothers of their genres giving me advice as as a young, upcoming artist.
And so, it was a lot of things. And it was a lot of great things. And listen, you don’t get the good without the contrast, right? So there are plenty of things on the show that, you know, we didn’t necessarily like, but the good far outweighed any of that stuff, and I think we’re all now a part of this little club, you know? We’re part of a club for the rest of our lives.
You sound like you’re in a good place.
We talked earlier about believing in the “universe” and I believe we have to be very deliberate about the things we put out, because somebody’s listening, and they want us to have what we want. And when those things come, you just have to be ready to go with the flow. So here I am, and I could not be happier. I couldn’t be happier. And that’s how I feel.