BY PAUL LEIGHTON
---- — It was a homecoming like the city has never seen before.
An estimated 15,000 to 20,000 people lined the downtown and poured onto the playing fields at Beverly High School on Saturday to welcome home Angie Miller, the 19-year-old who has gained fame as one of the final three contestants on “American Idol.”
Fans stood on rooftops, clamored atop cars, climbed stepladders and leaned out windows to get a glimpse of Miller as she rode in a white Mustang convertible in a 1.3-mile-long parade from City Hall to the high school.
The joyous caravan arrived to a huge crowd spreading across the grass and up the hill for a concert at the high school, where just a year ago Miller was a student who, she said, “wasn’t even popular.”
“Hi,” Miller said as she walked onstage, appearing stunned by the sea of signs and faces. “I can’t believe this.”
The day’s events were choreographed by Fox TV, which each year stages hometown visits for the final three singers on “American Idol.” A camera and sound crew followed every step of Miller’s high-heeled black boots.
But there was nothing fake about the enthusiasm for Miller in her hometown, and the young star seemed genuinely touched by the reaction. In an interview during a visit to Centerville School before the parade and concert, Miller said she was “overwhelmed by the support and love I didn’t know existed.”
“I’ve been in the ‘American Idol’ bubble,’” she said. “I didn’t even know what to expect. I’m so overwhelmed. I feel like this is home.”
Miller’s long day, which ran an hour or more behind schedule, included a morning stop at Jaho. The Salem coffee shop is a favorite spot for the Miller family, which includes her parents, Guy and Tana, who are co-pastors at the Remix Church in Salem.
Miller then stopped at her home on Essex Street, where a crowd gathered outside as a white stretch SUV limousine with an “American Idol” logo on the door sat in front. When she emerged, to cheers and shouts, she picked up a toddler like a polished politician.
At Centerville School, which Miller attended as a first-grader, she greeted more than 300 students in two separate sessions in the school gym. The students gathered under a large black-and-orange banner that read, “Good Luck Angie, You’re Our Idol.”
Miller, laughing and showing off her gleaming-white teeth, high-fived the kids and posed for pictures. The students started chanting, “Sing, sing, sing.” At one point, the group closed in on Miller in what was essentially a big group hug.
Sixth-grader Sophia Lumino was one of the lucky ones who gave Miller a hug. She said her hair “smells like apples.”
“She’s my idol,” Sophia said. “It’s just a great experience.”
Miller’s first-grade teacher, Fran Ridge, showed a photo of Miller’s first-grade class from 2001. Miller is standing in the back row in the corner, next to a sign that says “Success.”
“I remember her as being very quiet and very shy,” Ridge said. “She was a good student. And I remember her having a sweet, little voice.
“If you told me 12 years ago that this girl would be a contestant on ‘American Idol,’ who knew? What she’s done for the children at Centerville, for the people of Beverly and Massachusetts, we certainly needed the good news.”
In an interview, Miller said the most important aspect of her success and fame thus far is that it has given her a chance to be a positive influence, especially on young girls.
“I remember being in high school and having terrible problems with my confidence and thinking I wasn’t good enough,” she said. “I want people to know that confidence is such a big thing and that you can accomplish your dreams. ... Just a year ago, I wasn’t even the lead in the musical (at Beverly High). I wasn’t even popular.”
After a stop at the high school to get in a quick rehearsal for the concert, Miller headed downtown for the parade. Led by a firetruck and the high school band, the parade featured Miller sitting on the back of a convertible between her mother, Tana, and brother, Jonathan.
Crowds lined Cabot Street two- and three-deep in some places, and some people even sat on rooftops. One man stood on a ladder and held a “Love Jesus” sign. As the parade moved along, hundreds of people moved with it, staying as close to Miller as they could. Police on bicycles had to keep warning people not to get too close to her car.
The parade rolled under a huge banner stretched across Cabot Street that said, “The City of Beverly Loves Angie,” and passed the Cabot Cinema, where the marquee had been changed from the name of the current movie to “Welcome Home Angie, Beverly Loves Our American Idol.”
Signs were everywhere. Bill Jedrey stood at the corner of Cabot and Herrick streets holding up a bedsheet attached to two poles. He said he took a couple of days to paint the message, “It’s Miller Time,” with a Beverly Panther paw print dotting the “i.”
Miller spent the entire parade waving, smiling, and pointing to signs and people she knew.
At the high school, a huge crowd had already gathered for the concert, which would ultimately start nearly two hours late. Mary Ulrickson, a 67-year-old retired teacher, and Buffy Little, a 57-year-old teacher’s aide, had driven two hours down from Maine to see Miller, but they didn’t mind the wait.
“We came because we’re die-hard ‘American Idol’ fans and there has never been a top three contestant close enough for us to see,” Ulrickson said. “Thursday night (when Miller made the final three on the show), we just decided, ‘We’re driving to Beverly.’”
“She is what I would be looking for in an ‘American Idol,’” Ulrickson said. “She seems poised and confident without being all about me. I will be surprised if she isn’t the winner, but whether or not she is, she’ll still have a career. We’ll buy tickets. We’ll go to her concerts.”
At Centerville School, Miller said the concert would be her first big show outside “American Idol.” Her only other live appearances had been at the Gulu-Gulu Cafe in Salem.
Miller was given a key to the city by Mayor Bill Scanlon at the start of the concert. Scanlon asked Miller where she was a year ago and she replied, “At BHS graduating.”
“Now you’re on TV more than anybody but the president,” Scanlon said.
Miller asked for a moment of silence in honor of the Boston Marathon bombing victims. She then sang the national anthem along with the high school vocal ensemble, a group she was in last year. She stepped back into the second row, saying she just wanted to mix in like she used to.
She went on to perform five songs, accompanied by her brother’s band, Exiting the Fall. Her parents, Guy and Tana, stood off to the side of the stage, singing along with their daughter.
Miller joked easily with the crowd, pointing out the dozens of signs, as well as a man in a blue beard.
“I want to walk into the crowd and say ‘hi’ to every single one of you,” she said.
“I’m so excited to continue this journey,” she told the crowd. “I don’t know what’s going to happen or where it’s going to end, but thank you for getting me here. It’s already a win. Thank you for making this hometown visit better than I could have ever imagined.”
Miller finished with “You Set Me Free,” the song that she wrote herself and the one that first wowed the “American Idol” judges. After the show, fans crowded the side of the stage, where Miller signed some autographs before police parted the crowd and got her into the high school.
Despite the huge crowds, police said there were no arrests or incidents of any kind.
“This event brought the community together more than you can ever imagine,” said Beverly High Principal Sean Gallagher, who estimated the crowd at 20,000. “We just pulled off an unbelievable event. Angie is just so genuine. It really meant a lot to her, and that’s what it’s all about.”
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.