Born in Tampa, Florida, Melissa began singing at four years old. McGhee is the oldest of four children, and one of her siblings, Crystal Johnson, is also a singer and has signed a recording contract with Divercity Records under the artist name of LIL’ Crystal. McGhee graduated from Sickles High School in 2003. Prior to being a contestant on the popular singing competition American Idol, she participated in various beauty pageants.
In 2003, McGhee had auditioned for the second season of American Idol, but didn’t advance through the early audition rounds. In 2005, McGhee decided to audition again. She took her first plane ride from Florida to Colorado, where she has family which she stayed with during the audition rounds. She was able to proceed to the third audition round in which she auditioned in front of Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell. She chose to sing “Can’t Fight The Moonlight” by LeAnn Rimes. Despite Simon giving her a 6 out of 10, she was given a “yes” by the majority of the judges, and flew out to Hollywood. During the round in which contestants break into groups and perform a song, Simon declared her group the best of the day. During the “Green Mile” episode, it was revealed that McGhee would be one of the top 24 contestants vying for America’s vote.
McGhee began to be perceived as an underdog as she received no airtime prior to being told she made the top 24, a situation that just one other contestant faced that season. During the semifinals, she seemed to garner support from judges Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul, yet Simon continually criticized her performances. After performing What About Love by the rock band Heart, Simon told her that she would be going home. He was proven wrong during the results show when, what came to a surprise to many viewers, McGhee was the final girl to advance to the top 12, over Ayla Brown. During the first week of the finals, along with the other 11 contestants, she met with Stevie Wonder, and was embarrassed when she flubbed the lyrics to his song, “Lately” in front of him. She did the same thing during her performance, flubbing a verse and singing the word recognition rather than premonition in the chorus. On March 15, 2006 it was revealed that she received the lowest number of votes and she would be the contestant leaving that week, placing 12th overall.