When Ramiele Malubay takes the stage on "American Idol," the 20-year-old with punkish blond streaks in her dark hair comes off as bubbly, polished and even a little edgy. That's not exactly the young woman her friends and family say was too shy to sing "Happy Birthday" a few months ago.
When her parents tried to get her to sing a karaoke version at high school friend Arthur "A.J." Ke's birthday bash, the 20-year-old Malubay just hid in the corner and rolled her eyes.
"Since it was a really cheap karaoke machine, a bunch of the words were spelled wrong," Ke said. "But once she was up there, we were all cracking up, and we all ended up having a great time."
"I think she was lacking a bit of that confidence and didn't want the people close to her expect too much from her," neighbor Isidra Yokose said Tuesday night at the lobby of Hilton Garden Inn in Miramar, where family and friends have been meeting every week to watch the show, cheer for Malubay - and furiously text in votes on their cell phones, of course.
"She is so incredibly special to us and to the rest of the Filipino community," added family friend Geny Panaligan-Ke, who organizes the "Watch 'N Vote 4 Ramiele" gatherings.
"I don't know where she gets it, but she definitely has the talent, the potential and the confidence to make it," Yokose said. "We are so proud of her, and we have all the faith in the world that she will make it big."
Before her good looks, tiny stature - she's 4-foot-11 - and big voice made her a fan favorite, Malubay worked part-time as a waitress at a sushi restaurant in suburban Fort Lauderdale, where she grew up with her younger sister and her Filipino parents. The family moved to the United States from Saudi Arabia when she was 5.
She's aware of the comparisons to fellow Filipino Jasmine Trias, who finished third in the show's third season. But she wants to top that.
"First Filipino 'American Idol,' that's kind of still a surreal reach," Malubay said in an early "Idol" interview. "I don't want to be ahead of myself. I don't want it to go fast. I want it to just come as it does. I'm really excited to just get onstage and show everybody what I can do."
Malubay - pronounced "mah-loo-BYE" - also became the focus of a minor "Idol" scandal this season when Facebook photos of her goofing off with friends in provocative poses were made public. She doesn't understand the fuss.
"It's not a big deal," she wrote on a MySpace blog. "For me, those photos are not racy. But if you think they are, it's OK, that's your opinion. ... It has nothing to do with the show, which is looking for the next singing superstar and not looking for the perfect human."
Razor-tongued "Idol" judge Simon Cowell wasn't convinced she could get far at first, saying after her audition that she reminded him of a "hotel singer." But judge Randy Jackson disagreed, telling her "You definitely got a big voice for a very cute, smaller girl."
Since then, Cowell has acknowledged to feeling differently after watching her perform.
"I knew that Simon would come around," Panaligan-Ke said. "I knew she was going to impress them."
But Cowell came full circle on Tuesday, saying he was "bored to tears" by Mulabay's version of the Beatles' "In My Life."