When Lillie McCloud wowed the judges at her X Factor audition, it was a moment more than 50 years in the making.
On the Sept. 11 season premiere, the 54-year-old McCloud, grandmother of seven, strolled onstage in a painted-on leather catsuit and belted out Cece Winans' "Alabaster Box." It left the celebrity judging panel agog (just watch the video below).
"Where have you been hiding?" Kelly Rowland wondered as the crowd behind her wooted its approval.
"You have an incredible voice," blubbered Simon Cowell, not one to hand out idle compliments. "You absolutely nailed it."
On Tuesday night, the Sexy Grandma - her new nickname on fan sites and social media - steps back into battle as the singing competition resumes. And she's in it to win it. "When you're young you think you've just got it, and you're the superstar," McCloud says. "But as you experience life and you realize where to place your values, you grow. I'm ready now."
She'll be singing a ballad this week, but says if she moves forward in the competition she hopes to show off more gospel tunes and the upbeat top 40 songs she sings in her nightclub act in Florida.
McCloud's recording past - 30 years ago, she made a few albums and had a couple songs blip into the top 10 of the dance charts - caused a brief kerfuffle among X Factor fans. It passed quickly: The show limits its contestants to currently unsigned acts, and since McCloud hasn't had a recording contract in years, she's eligible.
Still, after her audition, Rowland wasn't the only one wondering where this Sexy Grandma had been. The answer: Slovakia. After leaving the music business to raise her three kids, McCloud moved abroad with her boyfriend. She didn't plan to get back into music while there, but ended up joining a band that played mostly corporate events. On frequent trips home to visit family in Florida, she played local nightclub gigs.
She moved back to the U.S. a little over a year ago to be closer to her grandkids, who range in age from two to 16. She started playing regular shows on the local Orlando club circuit. Then last spring, she showed up at T he X Factor auditions, which led to those accolades from the judges and her current career-reviving opportunity.
"To hear those people say that, I mean at my age, it was like OK, girl, you still got it," she says of the judge's reaction.
McCloud is the oldest competitor by far - she'll turn 55 on Dec. 7, 12 days before the show crowns its winner. But she likes her chances against the youngsters, and come what may the next few weeks, she's loving her second shot at stardom.
"I never stopped wanting to record or be a star," she says softly. "But I kind of gave up on the idea."