You wouldn't have recognized Krystle Delgado three years ago.
She was 20 then, dressed to the nines in a gorgeous floor-length gown with platinum blond hair. She sat at a piano and played "Think of Me," the classic track from Phantom of the Opera, her own voice evoking operatic tones that show off her classical training. The performance is part of her participation in the Miss Palo Verde pageant, part of the Miss America system known for breeding prim, proper, and perfect-looking (and behaving) young ladies. She answered on-stage questions about her community platform and wore a swimsuit during the pageant-girl portion of the show.
Today, she's Miss Krystle, a fire-engine redhead not afraid to don nothing more than body paint in her music videos, headline rowdy trance festivals, or rock out in bars such as Martini Ranch, Club Red, and Goat Head Saloon. She's traded the tiaras and sashes for knee-high boots and wild contact lenses, though she's still known to break out her old pageant bikini top for a show or two.
Krystle's evolution has been a curious one, going from a child performer who used to get on stage with her family band (a classical crossover group, CJA) to a self-managed electronic pop solo artist with an eye on nationwide fame. With her latest self-funded music video (for "Want a Star") topping 120,000 YouTube views in only two months, Miss Krystle seems poised to break out in a big way.
Not that she hasn't already had a taste of fame. She performed with her mother and sister in CJA from ages 10 to 16, and the group made the rounds in Arizona and California and landed spots on TV's America's Got Talent and Next Great American Band. CJA served as an opportunity for Miss Krystle to cultivate her solo act (CJA's show would include segments spotlighting her), but today she's focused solely on herself.
"I've always carried myself in a way that I believe I'm destined to be on stage," the 23-year-old says. "Since I was a little kid, I've always believed that."
Indeed, her mother, Joanne Jolee, a professional musician, says she's not surprised Krystle has forged her own music career. She says she saw Krystle's passion for performing before she even was in CJA. Though Krystle has chosen pop over classical music, Joleen has been moved to tears by Krystle's current music, she says.
In many ways, Jolee, 50, always had been prepping Krystle for stardom: Home-schooled until she graduated high school at 16, Krystle took daily vocal, piano, cello, and violin lessons from her mom. She started her own music company, Music Masters, when she was 16 and has taught piano lessons to dozens of students in the Valley. When it came to completing an honors thesis as a political science student at Arizona State University, Krystle chose to write, sing, rap, record and self-produce her debut album, Identity, in her mother's home studio, finishing the whole thing in less than three months. The album gave her confidence to establish her own sense of self, even if that didn't fit in with what people would expect from her.
"In the pageant world, I felt sort of ashamed I liked to listen to music like Marilyn Manson and Disturbed, and I showed my belly when I went out dancing, and I didn't want to feel ashamed anymore," Krystle says. "There's nothing wrong with feeling good about yourself. If people are going to respect a girl in a bikini on stage with a crown on her head, why can't they respect a girl in a bikini with a microphone in her hand?"
After she self-released Identity, she began working with Jason Camiolo, a local composer who collaborated with Krystle on her sophomore album, Run. Camiolo, who does work for film and television, doesn't typically produce other artists, but Krystle's catchy sound and professionalism caught his attention.
"On the surface, you might not hear the classical influence, but having that working knowledge of instruments makes her a pretty mature writer," Camiolo, 40, says. "She was able to run a ProTools session and record herself, and she's very capable of putting together a track, engineering-wise. I truly believe in the songs, and I feel like if they get out, they could truly make some noise."
Krystle describes Run, on which she played piano and cello, as darker than the bubblegum pop of Identity, though it's still in the pop realm.
"I finally accepted myself, what I like to listen to, and what I want to release and to be confident in what it is," Krystle, who is influenced from everything from the dubstep of Skrillex to the heavy rock of Korn, she says. "It's always going to be electronic pop music, but each single has its own twist."
Krystle's visual appeal seems just as important as her music, with carefully crafted videos featuring dancers and choreography from the team at local Scorpius Dance Theatre and to-die-for hair, makeup, and fashion. Krystle funds all the clips herself, and she also comes up with the treatments. That's why you'll still see imagery from her pageant days intertwined in some of the clips, including the upcoming "I Don't Cry" video.
Krystle's far from the typically vain pop starlet. In addition to her honors degree from ASU, she also has a beauty license from the East Valley Institute of Technology and is currently a second-year student at Phoenix School of Law. When she was 16, she founded Young Ones United, a charity that supports child abuse education and prevention, and last year, it achieved 501(c)3 status. The moves don't smack of pop-tivism, because she's not a star quite yet.
Judging by her sexy outfits and sultry dance moves, people might not expect Krystle to be such a passionate philanthropist, student, or educator — but she doesn't care. She insists her work is to make herself and her fans happy, and doing things her way is how she wants to be.
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Getting to the point where she could manage to stand out among cookie-cutter pop artists took time, but Krystle's more confident than ever about her image.
"With my stage performance — with everything — I don't question myself anymore," Krystle says. "What I want at the shows is not for people to stare at me and think I'm awesome. I want them to have the best night of their lives."
Krystle won that Miss Palo Verde contest back in 2009 and went on to become a two-time semifinalist in the Miss Arizona competition. But even though her pageant life is over, her drive lives on.
"I was a strong, confident woman in my pageant days, standing for something I believed in, pursuing my career passionately," Krystle says, "and I'm still doing that today."