VonderHaar takes the stage

By Bonnie Stiernberg

“Two beautiful girls stand before me, but I only have one photo in my hand…”

Those words, uttered by Tyra Banks, usually signal the end for contestants on “America’s Next Top Model,” but for former contestant and Lake Zurich, Ill., native Sarah VonderHaar, they were just the beginning.

After being eliminated on cycle eight of the hit modeling show, VonderHaar began pursuing a career in music and working on her debut album. On Saturday night, VonderHaar joined Chicago acoustic guitar virtuoso Mer for a set at the Highdive, 51 Main St., in Champaign.

“I’m one of those people that I just follow what makes me happy,” VonderHaar said. “I love modeling, but you know, I always knew I wanted to do music.”

“I never thought that I could have done everything that I’ve done so far, but I kind of follow what makes me happy and follow what I’m feeling at that moment,” she added.

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Chris Hart, graduate student, came to Saturday’s show to see Mer but he was impressed by VonderHaar as well.

“She has a good voice,” he said. “I like the acoustic stuff, just kind of chill and laid back.”

This latest career move isn’t the first for the 21-year-old VonderHaar, whose work as a photographer led to her casting on the show.

“My friend was trying out (for cycle seven), so I knew when the auditions were, and I actually went to an after-party for the auditions in Chicago,” she said. “I was just promoting my photography. I thought I might get some work out of it and shoot a lot of models’ portfolios and stuff. The casting director came up to me and was like, ‘Yeah, are you here to audition?'”

VonderHaar auditioned but didn’t make it onto the show. Later she was asked to audition for cycle eight, but she never lost sight of her musical aspirations.

“‘Top Model’ definitely gave me a lot of inspiration for songs, like the struggle of going through all that,” she said. “It was probably the most physically and emotionally draining experience of my life, but I had so much fun.”

VonderHaar said she uses her personal experiences as inspiration for her songs. Her album features songs about breaking up and falling back in love, but ultimately, VonderHaar said, it’s about making people happy.

“It’s a collection of things that I’ve been through in my life … I wanted a record that you can kind of bop to in the car, you know, throw it in and it just puts you in a good mood,” she said.

Mer (real name Edmer Abante) said VonderHaar’s passion for music is clear.

“I’ve worked with a lot of people, and she just loves to play music,” he said. “She really just really likes to play. She loves talking to people, I mean anybody that gets excited about her stuff, she’s all over it.”

In August, VonderHaar was asked to go to Milan, Italy, for two months and model, but she opted to stay in the United States and work on her music.

“If I would have decided to go to Milan, I would have been giving up my music, so I said, ‘I’m gonna pass on Milan,’ and my agency was very mad at me, and I decided, ‘You know, this is what I want to do. This is what I want to make my career out of,'” she explained. “My calling is definitely in my music.”

Mer said he appreciates VonderHaar’s dedication to her chosen path.

“It’s just nice and refreshing to know somebody who doesn’t really have an ego or isn’t really in it for the money or materialistic (stuff) like that,” he said.

VonderHaar’s album, “Are You Listening Now,” will be released on April 22. In the meantime, there’s a good chance you’ll find her on stage.

“I love that feeling, the feeling when you’re on stage looking out and everyone’s listening to the songs that you’ve written,” she said.

“It’s indescribable. You get this high when you’re on stage, and it lasts for days. It’s beautiful.”