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Originally published Sunday, February 13, 2011 at 7:05 PM

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Seattle's Molly Swenson passes first Hollywood round of 'American Idol'

First, it was graduating from Harvard, then interning for the White House. Now Molly Swenson has made it past the first Hollywood round as a contestant on "American Idol." Catch her on the upcoming Hollywood Week episodes.

Seattle Times staff reporter

'American Idol'

8 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays. Fox, Channel 13. www.americanidol.com

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This Garfield High School graduate is going places.

First, it was graduating from Harvard, then interning for the White House. Now Molly Swenson has made it past the first Hollywood round as a contestant on "American Idol." Catch her on the upcoming Hollywood Week episodes.

"I want to make a bigger difference than merely being a Harvard graduate," said Swenson, calling from New York. "It is my aspiration to get to a place where I would have enough social capital to be able to promote things."

Her love of the arts started way back. Early on, she got her chops with Vocalpoint! Seattle, an ensemble for young adults. She also sang for Garfield's jazz choir.

The high school has produced multiple reality-show contestants, including the recent winner of Bravo's "Fashion Show," Jeffrey Williams, and 2004 "Idol" contestant Leah LaBelle.

"It's a school that historically has very few resources," said Swenson, who wrote her college senior thesis on her high school. "All the odds are against it, but it has prevailed. It's like the American dream in a school."

But Swenson arrived at school with some pretty strong art genes. Her father is Christian Swenson, a Seattle performance artist who calls his avant-garde movements "human jazz."

"You would think that would have the opposite effect," said Swenson, who grew up in Madrona and the Central District. "I was pretty mortified for the first 14 to 15 years of my life. ... But I inherited his artistic bent on work."

When she went to Harvard, she continued singing, joining the Opportunes, an a cappella group.

After graduating, she applied to several law firms and got offers but wasn't sure that was the right path, so she applied for a White House internship. The program takes 130 interns three times a year.

Swenson did primarily administrative work but got to listen to senior-level leaders firsthand.

"It gave me more faith in the administration," said Swenson, 23. "I saw how incredibly hard everybody there is working. ... They would stay until 10 p.m. regularly and work their butts off."

Since her position was nonpaid, it wasn't a problem taking off to Milwaukee, Wis., for the "American Idol" audition. The White House staff was excited for her, Swenson said.

At the audition, Swenson was by herself. Her boyfriend was moving into an apartment that day, and her parents were off on their anniversary weekend, out of cellphone reach. "Idol" host Ryan Seacrest had to stand in as family.

Then, to top things off, when "Idol" judge Randy Jackson ran through the crowd of contestants, high-fiving them, he smacked Swenson right in the face.

"I thought it was hilarious," said Swenson, who got a fat lip from the incident. "I thought it was good luck, because Randy never punched another contestant."

Swenson did bring up the sore lip during her audition, prompting Jackson to apologize.

The clip of her audition, singing Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay," proliferated all over YouTube before being taken down.

Her attitude, however, may be helpful as the show progresses.

"I try to apply comic relief to anything awkward or upsetting," said Swenson. "I'm the eternal optimist."

Marian Liu: 206-464-3825 or mliu@seattletimes.com

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