11/06/2013 AT 10:50 AM ET
At 54, X Factor contestant Lillie McCloud is enjoying a reality she thought had passed her by.
“I had pretty much given up on the idea of becoming a recording artist,” McCloud tells PEOPLE. “I never thought I would be doing this again.”
Before becoming one of season 3’s top 12, McCloud enjoyed success in the 1980s and ’90s under her birth name, Nicole, with international dance hits such as “”Don’t and “Runnin’ Away.” But she had never enjoyed the artistic freedom she had hoped for.
“The hard work was there but my heart wasn’t in it,” says McCloud. “I didn’t want to be a dance queen. I wanted to do pop music.”
Now, after almost a decade away from the industry, McCloud is back in the spotlight, and garnering as much attention because of her voice as she is because of her age-defying looks.
“People always say I look so young but I don’t quite see it. I think they are just seeing that I am a happy person. I believe what you feel on the inside will show on the outside,” says the mother of three and grandmother of seven. “One of the reasons I knew X Factor was for me is because I knew they wouldn’t judge me for my age. They are just looking for talent.”
Watch Lillie McCloud’s Audition
And even though McCloud finds the Fox singing competition “nerve-racking” at times, she has her large family to rely on for support.
“They believe in me even more than I do,” McCloud says. “My grandkids are so excited for me. I get a call from at least one of them every day. They say, ‘Grandma, you’re so dope.’ I remember asking, ‘What is that?’ Sometimes I have to have them break down what they are saying to me.”
Watch Lille McLoud Sing ‘Love’
McCloud is also finding love and support from her fans, who are helping her navigate social media for the first time.
“Having to use social media is like building the Superdome for me. I have no idea what I am doing,” she says. “It goes in one ear and out … not even the other ear. I don’t know where it goes. But my supporters are beautiful and helping me. They don’t put me down for not understanding the system.”
And heading into Wednesday night’s episode, the first night viewers will vote for their favorites, McCloud worries she will become known solely for her ballads.
“I hope they are going to let me loose at some point,” says McCloud, who is being mentored by Kelly Rowland. “They really have no clue what I can do yet. I can’t wait for [Kelly] to let me go just one time to get it out of my system.”
Watch Lille McCloud Sing ‘Home’
The X Factor airs Wednesdays and Thursdays on Fox.