Long before American Idol top-three finalist and Normal native Leah Marlene captivated a nationwide audience, her older brother, Shea Grehan ’20, had a clear picture of Marlene’s incredible potential.

man standing with a camera
Shea Grehan ’20 is a professional photographer who also serves as the “in-house” photographer for his sister, American Idol finalist Leah Marlene.

When Marlene played local gigs as a teenage singer/songwriter—her acoustic Taylor guitar in hand, Grehan was often in the crowd holding his tool of choice—a Canon DSLR camera. Through his viewfinder, Grehan captured Marlene’s burgeoning music career, from live shows to album art portraits.

“It’s a family thing,” Grehan said. “I definitely want to support my sister. I also just love music. It’s amazing to be able to see musicians in person and how they perform and the emotion that they put into the songs.”

Drawn to landscape photography as a high school sophomore, Grehan attended Illinois State University and graduated with a double major in studio arts photography and geography. As the owner of Normal-based Shea Grehan Photography, his work ranges from shooting portraits to weddings. Grehan said he also embraces the role as Marlene’s “in-house” photographer.

“Being her brother, I kind of know how to bring her out during photo sessions,” Grehan said. “And it’s been great photographing her throughout the years to see the person she’s grown into.”

Grehan said Marlene is particularly fun to shoot because of her authentically vibrant and eclectic persona.

“I definitely wish I had her sense of style,” Grehan said. “I can’t keep up with it. She’s really good at thrifting and just being able to pull off wearing something that you normally don’t see someone wear.”

  • woman playing a guitar on stage
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  • family embracing on stage

Dawning a pink denim jacket with green pants and a leopard print bucket hat, Marlene showcased her uniquely powerful and engaging voice during an acoustic hometown concert Tuesday, May 17, to an audience of thousands stretched across nearly two blocks of Uptown Normal, steps away from Illinois State’s campus.

Illinois State University joins in the community-wide support for American Idol finalist Leah Marlene.

“This is the honor of a lifetime,” Marlene told the sea of fans, many of whom were wearing yellow “Leah Marlene” T-shirts. “Everything I do on that American Idol stage is for you guys in this community. You guys are the reason I’m here. There are so many people here who have believed in me since I was so young, and I wouldn’t be here without you guys.”

After Marlene’s performance, she was joined by Grehan and their parents, Derry and Deanna Grehan. The family of four shared an on-stage embrace while the crowd cheered and chanted “Leah! Leah! Leah!” Footage from Marlene’s return to Normal for “Leah Marlene Day,” as proclaimed by Normal Mayor Chris Koos, will air during American Idol’s three-hour season finale Sunday, May 22, beginning at 7 p.m.

“The support of this community has been absolutely amazing, and Leah was really excited to get to come home,” said Shea Grehan, noting the saturation of yellow balloons and “Leah Marlene” signs that have appeared throughout Bloomington-Normal.

“It’s been really cool to just see how much everyone cares about Leah and wants to be a part of it,” Grehan said. “It also shows just how much she’s gone out and played in our community. There are a lot of local people following her on American Idol who are like, ‘Oh my gosh, I heard this girl singing at a festival.’”

Marlene and her family return to Los Angeles for Sunday’s finale. Grehan, who will be among Marlene’s supporters in the audience, said he is proud of, but not surprised by, his sister’s ascent to American Idol’s top three.

“She has always worked so hard and has been so dedicated,” Grehan said. “This is where she belongs.”

Normal native Leah Marlene played a hometown concert to a crowd of thousands in Uptown Normal ahead of appearing in the American Idol finale.