"American Idol" finalist Lauren Alaina Suddeth swooped into Chattanooga like a pop diva this weekend.
She stepped off a Friday evening flight to a flurry of flashbulbs and fans, and the circus didn't end there. Film crews followed the 16-year-old Rossville native every minute of her homecoming trip, and thousands of fans saw the singer perform at two venues.
"It's been since February since I saw her last," said Suddeth's grandmother, Linda Stephens. "She stepped off the jet ... we hugged and cried and that's the extent that I've seen her."
But she said the massive crowds warmed her heart.
"I live in Fort Oglethorpe, and I didn't know we had this many people," she said. "I've just been crying the whole time."
Suddeth performed to an estimated crowd of 10,000 people at Coolidge Park in Chattanooga. Fans filled the park from the Tennessee River to the park's fountain. At Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School, where she is a sophomore, devotees lined Battlefield Parkway for miles and then filled the football stadium.
"I think it's amazing that someone with a talent like that could come from such a small town," said Meg Harness, 12, who staked out a spot with her best friend, Jaime Parker, and her dad, Jeb, at Coolidge Park at 7:45 a.m. just so she could see Suddeth perform.
Suddeth is in a three-way competition with 17-year-old country crooner Scotty McCreery, of Garner, N.C., and Haley Reinhart, 20, of suburban Chicago. The other contestants also had homecoming events.
At a sold-out Chattanooga Lookouts game Saturday night, cheers erupted as Suddeth walked out onto the field, wearing a pink ball cap and a Lookouts jersey emblazoned with "Suddeth" on the back.
Her ceremonial first pitch sailed over the catcher's head, but the crowd still broke out into whistles and applause. After signing autographs and meeting fans, she belted "God Bless America" from home plate.
Many of the weekend events were dedicated to April 27 tornado victims. She dedicated a song in Chattanooga and one in Fort Oglethorpe to victims, just as she did on a previous "American Idol" episode.
"I can't believe that happened here," Suddeth said to fans, her voice cracking. "I'm so sorry."
Film crews taped footage of Suddeth for a four-minute "Idol" segment that will air Wednesday.
There were constant pleas for locals to call in and vote during the events.
"She's just amazing," said Bethany Hemphill, 20, who drove to Chattanooga from Atlanta for the concert. "I think Lauren has the whole package: the talent, looks and the story. People have to vote for her."