Tia Pickett delivers a rousing version of Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" to win over the crowd and secure the top spot in Yokota Idol 3 Saturday night at the Yokota Enlisted Club.

Tia Pickett delivers a rousing version of Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" to win over the crowd and secure the top spot in Yokota Idol 3 Saturday night at the Yokota Enlisted Club. (Mark Allen / USAF)

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — So who’s the next Yokota Idol?

Meet Airman 1st Class Tia Pickett, a 20th Operational Weather Squadron forecaster. Her powerful vocals and stage presence wowed three judges and a packed crowd in the Yokota Enlisted Club’s main ballroom Saturday night to help her claim the title.

The Meridian, Miss., native — who arrived at Yokota about a month ago with her husband, Malcolm, and daughter, Mekia — was awarded a $500 cash prize and one-song demo opportunity in the studio, courtesy of Hunger Entertainment, which tossed in an extra $100.

“I’m so pumped up right now,” Pickett said, minutes after edging Debra Lorica and Staff Sgt. Jessica Hayes in a vote based entirely on audience applause. “This feels like the equivalent of winning the lottery — and it’s not even the money. Just having so many people into my craft like that is an unbelievable feeling.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this. I just love to sing, and to have a crowd feel you like that, it’s just awesome.”

Yokota Idol 3, patterned after the Fox hit “American Idol,” featured 10 contestants willing to showcase their talents before more than 400 spectators and the critical glare of a panel of three judges, who didn’t shy from delivering the occasional scathing review.

Leo Polanco and Deanna Jenkins played the roles of “American Idol” judges Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul, respectively, while the infamous Simon Cowell part was filled by a Hunger Entertainment representative who simply went by Sterling. Hunger Entertainment is a radio recording company that targets the U.S. military and searches for talent within its ranks.

Sterling’s key piece of advice?

“Don’t be afraid,” he told the group backstage. “That’s the biggest thing. If you’ve got it, you’ve got it. It doesn’t matter if there’s 10 people out in the audience or a million. Don’t be scared to sing the song. Let it all out. Make me cry.”

The 10 performers sang for three minutes each in the first round; the judges narrowed the field to six for the second phase and then three for the final round.

Staff Sgt. Don Cruz, a 459th Airlift Squadron flight engineer and the lone male singer among the contestants, managed a top-six finish in his first competitive appearance.

“It’s really nerve-racking,” he said, “but not because of the crowd. The girls here sing really well, and it's tough being the only guy. I’m having fun, though.

“I’m just glad getting into the top six. It’s been a good experience, and I might do it again next year.”

His wife, Marissa, who works at Yokota’s Child Development Center, also made the first cut on her debut public performance.

“It’s awesome. I’ve really enjoyed it,” she said, adding that her husband first floated the idea of entering the contest. “It’s fun, but I’m probably not gonna do it again. Sterling is very harsh, but he’s right. I admit, I’m not that good and messed up a bit. I’m not going to take it personally.”

Marissa Cruz, who sang Gloria Estefan’s “Anything For You” and The Eagles’ “Desperado” in her two trips to the stage, conceded she was “so nervous. I’m not used to singing in front of 400 people.”

Sharon Chen, a fan favorite who competed in a previous Yokota Idol, also reached Saturday’s second round with renditions of the country tunes “Satin Sheets” and “Help Me Make It Through The Night.”

Other “Idol” entries included Rebekah Wilcox, a civilian contractor for the CDC; Sara Mautner of the 374th Dental Squadron; Shantel Kuntz of the 374th Communications Squadron; and Lacey O’Hara, a songwriter and dependent.

In the end, however, Pickett delivered an inspired version of Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” to win over the crowd and secure the top spot.

“Now, that’s how a contest is supposed to be run,” Polanco gushed.

Added Jenkins, “Nowadays, you make Whitney Houston sound bad.”

Pickett, who once sang backup for Dionne Warwick, who happens to be her godmother, said she plans to make the most of her studio time.

“No. 1 is the mission but No. 2 is the music,” Pickett said. “Alicia Keys is not my idol but my aspiration. One day, look for me to be doing something like that.”

Lorica, a cashier at the Yokota Enlisted Club, collected $300 for claiming second, after her final-round performance of Bette Midler’s “Wind Beneath My Wings.”

Hayes, another first-time performer who chose Deborah Cox’s “Nobody’s Supposed To Be Here” in her bid for the title, earned $200 as the third-place vocalist. But the staff sergeant from Yokota’s 20th Operational Weather Squadron said she walked away with something more.

“It’s a big eye-opener to the music industry for me,” she said. “It shows how harsh and real it can be. Only one in a million make it, and now I understand why. It’s subject to the judge’s interpretation of what they think is good.

“I have a greater respect now for those people who have made it. They’ve been subjected to it for years. I just got a small taste of it. I’m sure they heard a thousand ‘nos’ before they ever heard a ‘yes.’ But if the opportunity comes up again, I would definitely take it.”

Jenny Brown became the first Yokota Idol in September 2003, while 17-year-old Cheyenne Ross claimed the crown last April.

“We had 10 really talented folks tonight and another very good turnout,” said Yokota Enlisted Club assistant manager Aaron Feinberg, who organized the event. “We got a packed house again. The first one we did was good, and the second one got huge. Tonight, it was a nice, comfortable crowd. We’re happy we didn’t have to turn anyone away.”

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