The holiday lights were twinkling, the tables were sparkling and the appetizers and cocktails were flowing on December 19th at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa's annual VIP Holiday Party.  Guests were treated to a swanky poolside night under the stars with fabulous food from Executive Sous Chef Mike Balles and a special performance by Kris Allen, the winner of the 8th season of the popular television show American Idol. 

The holidays are a very special time at the Hard Rock Tampa.  Every year, the casino thanks their loyal guests by throwing an exclusive VIP Holiday Party and this year, I was lucky to be on the list!  Held poolside, the setting was absolutely gorgeous:

The sparkly tables, festive lights and "cool" temperatures put everyone in the holiday spirit!

Guests came dressed in their holiday best and enjoyed a continuous flow of culinary treats and holiday sweets from Executive Sous Chef Mike Balles and Pastry Chef Alon Gontowski. The menu included Lamb Wellington, Chicken Ravioli and the never-ending array of desserts. Yum, yum!

The highlight of the evening was a performance by musician, singer and songwriter Kris Allen. Best known as the winner of the 8th Season of American Idol, Allen's interest in music started at a very young age while growing up in Conway, Arkansas.  He played the viola in elementary school, plays piano and taught himself to play the guitar at age 13.  Allen attended the University of Central Arkansas where, in addition to his significant philanthropic work, he began writing music and performing in local bars.  He realized he wanted to play music professionally during his junior year of college and dropped out to follow his dream. 

Allen played shows in Little Rock and Fayetteville at night and worked as a shoe salesman during the day to pay the bills.  After writing and self producing his album Brand New Shoes in 2007, Allen was persuaded to audition for American Idol by his brother.  Although Allen had planned to return to college, finish his degree and "get a real job", he decided to audition for the show as a "last hurrah" before giving up on his dream of being a professional musician.  Allen's dream came true in May 2009 when he was declared the winner of Season 8 of American Idol.

Allen recently released his third full-length album Horizons and dazzled the crowd with songs from the album including "Beautiful and Wild", "Young Love", "In Time" and "Everyone Just Wants to Dance".  Allen also performed the popular "Live Like We're Dying" as well as a host of traditional Christmas songs including "I'll be Home for Christmas", "Holly Jolly Christmas", "The Christmas Song" and "Baby It's Ain't Christmas Without You".  

After Allen's performance, I had a few minutes to chat with him about his American Idol experience and post-Idol life in the Hard Rock Tampa's fabulous new restaurant Grey Salt.  Although winning American Idol was a dream for Allen, being thrust into the spotlight virtually overnight did come with some challenges.  Winning allowed Allen to "do what I want to do for a living which is awesome" said Allen.  "It was also extremely positive because people are very caring about what you're doing and most of the fans and people that watch the show are very generous and appreciative of what I did".

After being voted into the Top 3 on the show, Allen returned to his hometown of Conway, Arkansas to film material for two American Idol episodes. This is when his "new reality" hit home.  Allen explained, "During the show you're pretty much in a bubble, you're only hanging out with a certain group of people and are shielded from public opinion."  That bubble burst when over 20,000 people, in a town with a population of only 45,000, greeted Allen for his hometown appearance. According to Allen, "this is when it really sunk in. I didn't get to see any of it until I did my hometown appearance and it was crazy! There were so many people there and it all happened really fast after that."

Allen is very appreciative of his success but adjusting to life in the spotlight has not been easy. "I feel like I'm a very private person and if you're not welcoming in that fame it can get a little interesting. It's not like I've shunned away from it but I've enjoyed my time by myself" said Allen. Although the pressure can be enormous, Allen continues to write music and is touring extensively this spring.

Like the Hard Rock Tampa, Allen is devoted to philanthropy and helping others as much as he can. While in college, Allen participated in Christian missionary work that took him to Burma, Morocco, Mozambique, South Africa, Spain and Thailand.  "The missionary trips I started doing in college changed my life, how I thought about myself and how I see the world. When I was on the show (American Idol), the first thing I wanted to do was to make sure I kept doing those things because it's a huge part of my life" said Allen. While Allen supports many causes, he works closely with World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to tackling the causes of poverty and injustice, and Global Genes, one of the leading rare disease patient advocacy organizations in the world. 

Since the Hard Rock Tampa is dedicated to finding and developing local musical talent, I asked Allen if he had any advice for musicians looking to break into the business. His advice? "If that's what you live to do, just play. Find avenues to play, play in your room, play as much as you can and everything else will just kind of happens as it happens" said Allen.

Many thanks to Kris Allen and the Hard Rock Tampa for a magical evening!