11/23/2011 at 10:00 AM EST
With the eyes of the world on her, Melanie Amaro decided she just couldn't hide any longer.
The X Factor
contestant, 19, one of the Fox show's front-runners,
broke down Tuesday night after revealing her Rihanna
-esque Caribbean accent for the first time – and she tells PEOPLE it wasn't planned.
"To be where I am, from where I'm from, here today, is a big, big thing," she said. "Not lots of people come out of the Caribbean to become big stars. I'm so humbled and so gracious and so thankful to be where I am that it just came out. I could not help myself."
Up until now, Amaro, who's from Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, has been speaking in an American accent, partly for practical reasons. "I would try to cover it up so that you could understand me," she says. "Some people say they have a hard time understanding me when I speak."
Now, though, she feels a weight lifted. "The comment Paula
[Abdul] made last week, 'Just let loose and be yourself,' really affected me," she says. "Now that everyone knows, I have no choice but to continue to speak this way."
She adds: "I feel like something has just been let go, something has been dropped off my shoulders. I don't have to worry about covering up my accent anymore. So, that's good."