March 22, 2012 03:00 PM

Carin Baer/FOX; Michael Becker/FOX

Usually Erika Van Pelt rocks the
American Idol
stage with her voice, but Wednesday night, she made an equally lasting impression — with her hair.

Before delivering a rousing rendition of Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” she debuted a dramatic new look. Under the guidance of the show’s new image advisor, designer Tommy Hilfiger, she shed her long blonde and red-streaked locks for a short, jet-black hairdo.

“I knew I wanted to do something drastic with my hair,” she told PEOPLE after the show. “I get this sense of liberation when I get my hair cut. It’s a stress reliever for me, to be honest.”

Another perk: “It’s nice to feel my neck again.”

Van Pelt said she’s no stranger to style decisions, and she’s sported both short and dark tresses before, just “never at the same time.”

“It’s actually been shorter than this before, so I wasn’t scared about that part,” she continued. “But I was sort of thinking what my fans would think and what would America think.”

So did her friends and family back home dig her new do? “They didn’t know until tonight,” she said.

“I am loving it,” she added. “I really hope that my fans and everyone in America likes it, too.” Tell us: What do you think of Van Pelt’s dramatic makeover?

–Alison Schwartz and Mia McNiece


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