When The Daily Beacon called Valisia LeKae at the scheduled time of interview, her phone rang numerously before going to voicemail. After another failed attempt a few minutes later, LeKae called back.
She had just finished performing the lead role of Diana Ross in the Broadway hit show Motown: The Musical.
"I worked out my life for this moment," LeKae said.
"Whether it was performing in theme parks in high school or singing in churches or anything else I did.
"I definitely knew this moment was going to come."
The Memphis native graduated from UT in 2001 with a bachelor's degree in psychology. Although she had been singing since she was six years old, LeKae knew she had to pursue something to fall back on during her undergraduate education.
"I lived with my grandmother when I was in high school and she's an educator and she wanted me to do something real and she wanted me to have a real job so then I remembered that I had a love for psychology," LeKae said. "I found my way into psychology but throughout college I was still performing, whether it was mascoting or performing at Dollywood.
"But I just need to have something concrete, something to fall back on if things didn't go right for me."
When attending UT, LeKae never lost touch with her passion to perform. During her freshman and sophomore years, she was one of Smokey's Mascots and spent two years working as a performer at Dollywood.
"Even though I didn't major in music or theatre or anything like that, I was very persistent about continuing on my love for performing," LeKae said. "I knew I was going to New York, regardless of whether I had a place to stay or whatever, so that's why by the time I was having my graduation ceremony, I bedazzled NYC on my hat because I knew I was going to be going to New York city and I knew I was going to be either a recording artist or something like that because I had it in me to do something like that."
After graduation, with barely any money, LeKae headed for New York and picked up a job as a United Service Organizations girl. When one of her fellow USO girls couldn't make an audition, LeKae got stuck with it, and then met Charles Randolph-Wright, an award-winning Broadway director.
"Every one has dreams that they want to achieve but at the same time, sometimes your luck just doesn't match up with it," said Jordan Achs, junior in journalism and electronic media. "She was lucky enough to get that audition but she had the drive to go to New York with barely any money.
"Even though that's the scariest thing that I've ever heard, I think it's really cool."
LeKae did not get the role she auditioned for that day, but she did impress Randolph-Wright and now works with him on Motown: The Musical.
"It was just a matter of continually doing that and continually believing in myself and just doing anything and everything for experience," LeKae said regarding how she got to this point in her career. "You never know what one thing you're going to do that could prepare you for such a great moment in your life.
"Everything in my life has prepared me for this moment, including college."
LeKae received numerous nominations and awards for her role as renown female vocalist Diana Ross, including a Theatre World Award and Outer Critics Circle Award. But one stood out.
Last April, LeKae received a Tony nomination for best performance by an actress in a leading role in a musical. Although she did not win the award, LeKae said the nomination was a "blessing."
"It's like the pinnacle of your Broadway career, being nominated or winning a Tony award," LeKae said. "I worked very hard over these years and treating Broadway like my schooling so to be recognized by the Broadway community is a huge honor."
The show is based off of founder of Motown and the father of Ross's daughter Berry Gordy's autobiography "To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown." In 1959, Gordy created the record company entitled Motown in Detroit and soon after had young artists such as Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and The Supremes under his label. Diana Ross, who originally fronted The Supremes and then became her own act, was one among many of the label's success stories.
"She reminds me so much of Diana," Gordy said in a promotional video for the musical. "I was so in love with Diana and it's so hard not to fall in love with (Valisia)."
Before Motown, LeKae also had roles in other Broadway productions including "The Book of Mormon" and "The Threepenny Opera."
Motown: The Musical now calls the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York City its home. LeKae performs the show multiple times on a weekly basis, even twice a day. The show will be on Broadway until March 30, 2014.
"It's what I love to do," she said. "It's a part of my life, it's what I feel like I was born to do which is to perform and entertain and share my gift to other people."
When she hears success stories behind UT alumni, Achs said "it makes me proud to go to UT."
"It reminds me that college is helping you get ready for your future and that people do have successful futures and that UT is actually a good school, it's not just a random state school," Achs said.
LeKae said she encourages aspiring performers to believe in themselves.
"Don't stop believing in yourself, you're on the right track, you're so on the right track," LeKae said. "People may want you to do other things, but always trust your gut, and have faith."
When asked if there was anything else she wanted to add to the interview, LeKae revisited her Volunteer roots.
"Go Vols," she said, laughing. "I love that I can still say that because I know it means so much to many of the Volunteers there, so go Vols."