"This is going to suck for you guys because I don't know how you're going to narrow it down." That was Glee star Lea Michele's reaction to her first glimpse at meeting the Season 2 contestants for Oxygen's The Glee Project.
Returning Tuesday night for its second season, the reality competition series that gives its winner a seven-episode arc on Fox's Glee expands from 12 to 14 contestants and features a cast, like the flagship series, that's rich in diversity.
"The talent is just as great -- if not even stronger," Michele told The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the premiere, in which she appears as the season's first mentor. "All of these kids, their stories are so inspirational and they're so touching that I think people are just going to fall in love with all the contestants."
After crowning all four of its finalists winners in some capacity last season, the second-year cast boasts newbie country crooners, Muslim singers, a Tisch graduate who's paralyzed from the neck down, a transgendered Jewish 21-year-old and a blind gospel singer, among others whose back stories each read like potential casting breakdowns for Glee.
"[Glee/Glee Project casting director] Robert Ulrich was telling me about each one of the kids and about their stories and I was just blown away," Michele says of her time on set. "Blown away by the bravery of these kids to come on the show and really show who they are and tell their stories; it's really inspiring."
The actress otherwise known as Rachel Berry says it's the contestants' individuality -- the theme of Tuesday's premiere -- that will best help them achieve their goal and win an arc on Glee, recommending that each of the 14 hopefuls show their stripes to executive producer and co-creator Ryan Murphy rather than hold back.
"What Ryan loves to do more than anything is know who you are and write it into the show. Part of myself is in Rachel Berry; so many of the things I've done on the show are inspired by true stories," she says, pointing to Chris Colfer's experiences greatly influencing Kurt Hummel's story lines. "Ryan loves being inspired by what you can do and what's happened to you in your life so The Glee Project is an amazing opportunity for him to really be inspired by who these kids really are."
With Season 1 co-winners Damian McGinty and Samuel Larsen each appearing in double their episode winnings and runners up Alex Newell and Lindsay Pearce entering for a pair each, Michele says their respective Glee characters -- Rory, Joe, Unique and Harmony -- were each inspired by who the kids are outside of the show with their Glee Project training helping with the transition to the Fox series' demanding schedule.
"When each one came onto the show it was like on Day 1 they'd always been there," she notes. "They'd already worked with our choreographer [Glee Project's Zach Woodlee], learned what it's like to go into the recording studios and they're well groomed to be on our show. It's great because they seamlessly come in and don't have to learn the formula and it took us a really long time to get used to that."
As for early front-runners from the expanded 11-episode season, Michele was diplomatic. "There were so many people I saw that could fit into the Glee cast that I literally told [producers] they have the hardest job. There are so many kids that I thought would be perfect on Glee."
Season 2 of Oxygen's The Glee Project premieres in its new night and time Tuesday at 10 p.m. Check out a preview of Michele's time mentoring the cast below. Hit the comments with your thoughts on the early standouts.