Just before the finalists on the current season of American Idol were sent home to await a decision about how the series would proceed during the coronavirus pandemic, they sat down with Billboard for the first in-depth interviews of their Idol run. One by one, over a two-day period, they filed into dressing room 36a at CBS Television City in Los Angeles to be grilled about their lives, their hopes and dreams and their Idol journeys to date.
Although each contestant was interviewed privately, they named many of the same series alums as their favorite Idols. Alejandro Aranda and Kelly Clarkson received the most mentions – 10 of the 21 finalists named the season 1 and 18 Idols as their favorites. Close behind were Fantasia with nine mentions, Carrie Underwood with eight and Jennifer Hudson and Laine Hardy with seven.
One note: A last-minute twist put Grace Leer and Lauren Mascitti, both traditional country singers, in a run-off for the 20th spot. Voting to determine which woman will take that last position opened at 9:55pm EDT Sunday evening (April 5) and will close at 9am EDT on April 7. Voting is being conducted on the American Idol app or here. Fans can text “Lauren” or “Grace” to 21523 to place a vote.
Faith Becnel Born: May 24, 1999 – Kenner, La. Favorite Alums: Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken, Jennifer Hudson, Carrie Underwood, Laine Hardy, Kelly Clarkson Musical Influences: Etta James, Christina Aguilera First Idol Experience: "I've watched it my whole life. My family would sit in the living room and we were really invested in it. My parents always said I'm going to be on it."
At the age of two, Becnel was already on the path. "I sang in my choir in my little daycare. We have videos. I loved that. I also used to perform concerts for my parents and forced them to watch me sing for hours every day. I put on a little talent show when I was three. I would take the Bible out and pretend that I could read it and preach to my parents, singing gospel. I made them stand up and worship with me. We had karaoke machines everywhere and I did concerts."
When she was 10, the Louisiana-born singer knew that music was going to be her career. "That's when my choir teacher inspired me to do a talent show. And I got a job with a cover band of 10-year-old boys (the Rowdy Rough Boys, who became the Rowdy Rough Boys and a Girl once Becnel joined) and I knew I was meant for the stage. I never really understood that before that moment."
Growing up in Destrehan, about 17 miles from New Orleans, Becnel says her environment had a profound effect on her music. "Louisiana made me everything I am. There's music everywhere you go. If you're going to dinner, there's music. Being a musician there, you have so many opportunities. If you work hard, those opportunities fall into your lap. Everyone is so friendly and they want to teach you everything they know. And it's a party state. Everybody likes to have a great time. So you learn how to make people have fun when you're on stage. I think that influenced me a lot and got my performance skills to a nice level."
The newest weapon in Becnel's arsenal is songwriting. "I just started writing music. After doing cover songs for 10 years, I feel like I'm ready to take the next step into becoming a full artist. Combining all the old soul and current influences shows who I am. I'm excited for it, and I've been working on that. I've been writing by myself. I'm new to it for sure, but I love it. I show my friends some of the things I've written and they're already dancing and having fun with it. I think that's a good sign." Will we hear a Faith Becnel original on Idol this season? "Probably not. I don't think I'm comfortable enough yet. It's new for me."
Franklin Boone Born: Feb. 20, 1992 – Durham, N.C. Favorite Alums: Clay Aiken, Ruben Studdard, Chris Daughtry, Adam Lambert, Alejandro Aranda, Carrie Underwood Musical Influences: John Mayer; Dave Matthews; Coldplay/Chris Martin; Crosby, Stills & Nash First Idol Experience: "I remember watching and thinking, 'This is a really cool concept for a show' and really vibing with Kelly Clarkson."
Boone's mother tells him that he started playing the piano in his house when he was two years old. "I'm not sure where the piano came from, but I remember climbing up on the bench and figuring out how it worked. We went through some pretty tumultuous times when I was a kid and that piano was always my escape. If I was upset or confused, I would play and figure out my emotions that way."
Boone continued to work on his music as he was growing up. "In high school I picked up new instruments and there was a lot of jamming with friends. We put a little band together and tried to get some gigs. My faith is really important to me and toward the end of my time in college, I was the worship leader for a campus church. When I came back to Durham, I accepted a position as the worship leader at a church there. So every Sunday, I play. When times have been tight, I've done a lot of busking, going out on the streets in the bigger cities in my area and playing for tips, which is a cool experience. It's humbling and I met a lot of really kind people who have been generous or had really kind things to say."
Boone doesn't just play music; he also writes it. "My mom tells me that when I was 3, I called her in the room and told her to sit down and then I played a song and I said, 'This is the song I wrote when I was two.' She's always telling that because she was really tickled by it. But the first one I remember writing was when I was four or five years old. It didn't have a title. The first song that I wrote with words was called 'Perfect Love' and it's on all the streaming services. That was a digital release back in 2012 and I had just been through a lot. I hit rock bottom in my college years and it was my faith and the community around me that helped me recover and pick up the pieces of my life and start something over that was moving in a positive direction. That's what that song was about."
Looking ahead to his first post-Idol album, Boone says he would like it to be self-written. "I like to write songs about what I'm going through. It usually ends up being the difficult stuff, but sometimes it's the happy stuff, like I wrote about my daughter when she was first born. I'd like to share that and hoping that it helps other people connect and navigate through similar things that they're going through, or at least to feel that they're not alone."
DeWayne Crocker, Jr. Born: Aug. 22, 1996 – Pensacola, Fla. FavoriteAlums: Ruben Studdard, Fantasia, Adam Lambert, Michael J. Woodard, Uché, Laine Hardy, Gabby Barrett, Alejandro Aranda Musical Influences: Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, James Brown, Smokie Norful, Donnie McClurkin First Idol Experience: "I remember Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard and Fantasia."
Crocker doesn't hesitate when asked when he was first aware of music. "As soon as I was able to go outside of my hospital and home, my mom had me in church in the baby seat. I sang in church. I grew up there. I started singing at 5 and did my first solo in church when I was 7. My mom placed me in a talent show at my high school when I was 13. I sang a gospel song by Smokie Norful, 'I Need You Now.' I won that talent show and that's when I knew I wanted to take music seriously and do this for the rest of my life. It was my first time in front of a big audience and I got a standing ovation. I was too young to understand what that was, but I knew I wanted to feel this forever – the feeling of being an artist onstage and inspiring other people with my voice."
While singing gospel music, Crocker was also enjoying secular music. "My stepdad would always listen to Frankie Beverly & Maze. He had an old school station in the car, so I would always be listening to James Brown, Sam Cooke and all the soulful amazing music."
Before he auditioned for American Idol, Crocker tried out for some other competitions. "I auditioned for X Factor in 2013 but I didn't make it in front of the judges. My mom drove me from Pensacola, Florida to Greensboro, North Carolina, because I begged her. It was a 13-hour drive and me and my sister both tried out. It was fun, but I wasn't ready then. I also tried out for The Voice, but I didn't make it very far either. That was years ago." In 2015, Crocker competed on BET's Sunday Best: Race to the Stage event and won with his performance of "Precious Lord."
So why try out now for American Idol? "I saw people auditioning for the show and they became artists and now they're touring, so I think that's pretty amazing. This is one of the only shows that exists that an artist can come on and you can actually see their success after. I can't think of another show that has that impact. Nothing against other shows, but this is an amazing show."
Cyniah Elise Born: Feb. 27, 2002 – Atlanta, Ga. Favorite Alums: David Archuleta, Maddie Poppe, Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson, Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Laine Hardy Musical Influences: Beyoncé, Todrick Hall First Idol Experience: Born three months before Idol debuted, she started watching at age 6.
When Elise was 2, her mother was the choir director at their church, and the youngster performed "Away in a Manger." She was too young to be aware that she had talent. "When you're a kid and you're at Sunday school, they make you sing and they give all the kids microphones. My song was recorded and my mom said, 'Okay, there's something there.' My whole family sings, so it would be kind of odd if I didn't."
Growing up, Elise sang a lot, usually with her family. "We sing everywhere," she explains. "Professionally, at gatherings, everything. A lot of performances are in church. My uncle's a preacher, so that's where we sing the most now."
Describing what it is like for her to sing in front of Luke Bryan, Katy Perry and Lionel Richie, Elise says, "It feels unreal. When I first walk on stage, I'm so nervous. But when I start singing, there is absolutely nothing running through my head. Maybe just excitement, but sometimes I forget that, because I love it. It's such a rush."
Just 18, Elise has envisioned what her career might look like. "I see myself being a big star. I want everyone to know me. I want a really big career. I want to spread love. I want to be a big inspiration. I realize my gift isn't just for me. It's for other people. What can I do for other people?"
Kimmy Gabriela Born: March 31, 2002 – Queens, N.Y. Favorite Alums: Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Jordin Sparks, Uché, Dimitrius Graham, Laci Kaye Booth, Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon Musical Influences: Ariana Grande, Jessie J, Adele, Celine Dion, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Gabino Amparo (Gabriela's father) First Idol Experience: Saw clips from the Fox era and started watching more seriously when series moved to ABC.
Gabriela was in kindergarten when her school's music teacher came to her classroom to lead the students in song. "He looked at me and said, 'You sing kind of nice' and I thought, 'Really? Me?' He had me sing with him while he played piano. I ran home and told my dad, 'I can sing. Can you believe that?' And he said, 'Of course I can' and whips out some old recordings of me singing when I was three. I had no idea."
Music was in Gabriela's DNA. Her father, Gabino Amparo, was a Latin star in the '70s and '80s. "He was famous in Latin American countries and the Caribbean," says his proud daughter. "He had records and music videos and he toured. My parents met on one of his tours."
Gabriela sang "This is Me" from Camp Rock and "Bleeding Love" by Leona Lewis at church and family gatherings. By the time she was 11 she was already thinking of competing on a TV talent singing show. "But it wasn't until recently that I chose American Idol because this is the show that makes stars. It's such an authentic and genuine show that I felt I would have a home here and I could come here and be safe."
Looking ahead, the 12th grader says, "Hopefully 10 years from now I can accomplish some of the things my dad got to accomplish. A couple of tours, my own music out there for people to enjoy, a fan base, people I can connect with. Everything the superstar life entails. Most importantly, I want to have quality music that makes people feel something, whether it's joy or sadness or anger. I want my first album to be something raw, with a lot of harmony – more on the pop side but with some R&B/jazzy elements. I've never liked the idea of confining myself to one genre. I definitely want to be a bilingual artist because of my Hispanic culture."
Gabriela turned 18 this week, so up until now she has been a minor and has been accompanied at the show by her father. "This is a blessing," she says. "He's getting to relive his golden years. He's literally watching me follow in his footsteps and I have someone with the knowledge to guide me in those moments I need a little guidance, someone that I trust. In order to have a family, he had to sacrifice his career. Now I'm trying to make something of myself and make him proud. It's a bonding experience for both of us."
Julia Gargano Born: March 9, 1998 – Staten Island, N.Y. Favorite Alums: Alejandro Aranda, Catie Turner Musical Influences: Joni Mitchell, Brandi Carlile, Carole King, Radiohead First Idol Experience: Started watching right from the beginning. "My cousin and I would play Justin and Kelly. I always got stuck playing Justin. Not that that's a bad thing, but I did want to be Kelly sometimes."
A college student in her final semester, Gargano is studying music composition. Music has been a part of her life since she was a child. Her cousins had a family band, Cap'n Crunch & the Cereal Killers. "I wanted to play drums but I was 5 and wasn't able to take lessons yet. So as soon as I turned 6, the age limit where you could start taking lessons at our local music store, I took drum lessons. For the first two years of my musical journey, I was a little drummer girl. Then I started to sing a cappella for my drum teacher and he said, 'This is not the right fit for you anymore.' So I took piano lessons and started songwriting."
Gargano was working as an intern at a Staten Island-based production company, doing everything from answering phones to cleaning toilets. One afternoon her boss was reading her a list of names of people she was sending to American Idol auditions at the producers' request. "And then she said, 'Oh, you're going, too.' I was so scared and never thought to do American Idol. Competition freaks me out. It's my passion but I don't even want to enter local battle of the bands contests no matter how big the prizes." Gargano told her boss that she couldn't do it. Her response: "You're on the list. I sent it to them. They want to hear you sing so we'll work on some stuff and you're going to go."
Gargano thought about her two favorite Idols, Catie Turner from season 16 and Alejandro Aranda from season 17. "They are why I thought Idol could be a fit for me. I've always put songwriting first in my life – it's such a passion of mine. So I saw these two sing their own songs on the show and they were so successful. They moved me and told stories and they were their own artists. They were 100 percent themselves. They are a huge reason I wanted to be on the show."
Gargano has already learned a lot from her time on Idol. "My whole life I lived in a box, always being afraid that I wasn't good enough, always being afraid that if you take a risk, you're automatically going to fail. I was very sheltered, not sure of what I was capable of. Every round is such an eye-opening experience about what I can actually do if I put my mind to it. I never realized until this show that you're not going to get anywhere being comfortable. Now I'm so much more confident. No matter what happens on Idol, this is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life. There is no backup plan."
Arthur Gunn Born: Oct. 24, 1997 – Kathmandu, Nepal Favorite Alums: Alejandro Aranda, Laine Hardy Musical Influences: Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin/Jimmy Page, Joe Cocker, Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt First Idol Experience: Watched online while growing up in Nepal.
Born Dibesh Pokharel in Kathmandu, Nepal, the American Idol finalist now known as Arthur Gunn moved to America when he was 16 to reunite with members of his family who had been living in Wichita, Kansas for five years. He had already learned to speak English in Nepal. He became interested in music as a child, singing with his family. "My mom gave me my first guitar. My brother and cousins listened to a lot of records and I saw them playing music and I wanted to do that too." A year before he arrived in the U.S., he became more serious about his music, playing pubs and bars in Kathmandu.
Once he was in Wichita, Gunn bought a new guitar and played local coffeehouses. "I hung around musicians in Wichita and made a lot of friends. I traveled and played on street corners." Gunn busked in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York and spent an entire summer playing music on the boardwalk in Ocean City, Md.
Gunn was aware of American Idol in Nepal, not from watching it on broadcast television but from online viewing. "I was aware of it," he says. "When I came to America, I had no plans [to be on it]. Then I got a lot of peer pressure from musical friends who said I should try it. I was not so sure. All I want to do is play music and that's all I know how to do. I'm willing to learn more and I thought this would be a great platform and so I thought I would give it a shot."
What is it like being in the competition as opposed to watching it online? "It is amazing," Gunn professes. "I'm still trying to grasp all of it. I've learned so many things about performing and being an artist and the music industry."
And how did Dibesh Pokharel become Arthur Gunn? "I was reading poetry by Arthur Rimbaud [a 19th century French poet who influenced modern literature]. His words were so modern and I thought his name Arthur would be a good stage name. A lot of people know me as Dibesh but Arthur is easier to use as a stage name. The Gunn came from me wanting to make fun of 'gun.' People use guns in battle but you don't need guns to do things." And does he respond when people call him Arthur? "It totally depends on who is calling me. But now I have to respond."
Dillon James Born: April 27, 1993 – Bakersfield, Calif. Favorite Alum: Alejandro Aranda Musical Influences: City and Colour (Dallas Green), Eddie Hazel (guitarist for Parliament-Funkadelic), Steely Dan First Idol Experience: At age 9, watching Kelly Clarkson during season 1 because his family let him stay up late to see the show.
Growing up in Bakersfield, James had a best friend, Timothy, who was given a guitar for his birthday. "He was getting better and better week by week. So my birthday came and I got a guitar, too." James was self-taught. "I watched a lot of YouTube. I didn't have a lot of musician friends growing up. I would've liked to but I'm a very introverted person. As I've gotten older, I've gotten out of that but there's still a part of me that holds back. But I found a balance for myself, so it's been a beautiful experience. The musical journey for me has been a lot deeper than just music. It's been a lifelong lesson for me."
Describing himself as "too nervous to sing," James accidentally revealed his vocal ability to his parents. "I got caught. My dad had a little voice recorder and he let me borrow it to hear what I was doing on the guitar. One time I sang a tune into it. My parents were out of town and when they came home I told them to check out the voice memos. My dad heard me singing and I didn't realize what I had just done to myself and the rest of my life. They liked what I had done. I was so nervous and vulnerable that I never put anything out, but I thought, 'They like it. My friend likes it. Maybe I could do this as a hobby and just have fun in my off time.'"
James never let go of his music, even during the years he struggled with an addiction to drugs. "I found myself sleeping on the streets of Santa Monica, and I realized that music never gave up on me, so I was always playing." During those troubled years, James was separated from his family. "I dreamed about them every night. As I watched the sun or the moon fall, I would just think, 'What are they doing?'" Now sober, James has been reunited with his parents and siblings. "My mom is my best friend. My dad and me never had a good relationship. We bumped heads. So now to be best friends with them both and to appreciate the little things, all of our lives are a lot better."
James is already thankful for the early part of his Idol journey. "I feel I've made some friends that I'll have for the rest of my life. Like I said, I didn't have a lot of musician friends, and so coming here to a show like this, I feel like I belong. There are so many different genres, so many different ages, so many different artists. But at the end of the day, we're all creating and we're all doing what we love to do. And to be part of that pie is beautiful."
Aliana Jester Born: Nov. 1, 2000 – Tampa, Fla. Favorite Alums: Adam Lambert, Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson, Carrie Underwood, Fantasia, Alejandro Aranda Musical Influence: Whitney Houston First Idol Experience: She watched "bits and pieces" as a kid, then watched season 17 because her high school friend Raquel Trinidad was in the competition. "She helped motivate me to audition."
Jester's earliest memory of music was singing a karaoke version of "Over the Rainbow" at a restaurant. "I never thought I had any singing ability but my mom and dad did. My mom would sing to me when I went to sleep. I was in the top bed of a bunk bed so she would look up and sing and then I would look up and sing too. When my dad was deployed, I sang to him on the phone. That's when I knew I could be a singer."
Jester became more serious about singing while competing in a high school talent show during her freshman year. "The director helped me break out of my shell because during rehearsals, I didn't want to move. I was too scared and I just wanted to stand there and sing and she told me that if I didn't move, I wouldn't be allowed in the show." Jester promised the director she would move during the actual show. She sang "I Will Always Love You" and walked off the stage into the audience. The students gave her a rousing ovation. "It was one of the best feelings in the world. Many people came up to me and said my singing made them happy and brought them joy. I wanted to keep doing that."
Jester was also scared when she auditioned for American Idol. "I have the least amount of experience compared to the others and I didn't think I would get far at all. I had also auditioned for The Voice twice. I spoke to Raquel [Trinidad] and she reminded me that it didn't matter how many no's I got or how much experience I had. I needed to keep going no matter what. That motivated me to audition for [Idol]."
Jester acknowledges that it was nerve-wracking to be performing in front of Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie. "It is a huge blessing and an honor for them to take time out of their day to hear me and give me the opportunity of a lifetime. I hope I keep on living up to the expectations they have for me."
Just Sam Born: Nov. 23, 1998 – New York City Favorite Alum: Fantasia Musical Influences: Alicia Keys, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Chrisette Michele, Whitney Houston, Etta James, Frank Sinatra First Idol Experience: "I've seen earlier seasons, but my grandmother, my sister and I sat down and watched every episode with Fantasia until the finale."
Raised in the Frederick Douglass Projects in Harlem, Just Sam still lives there. "But I'm hoping to move away once everything settles down from the competition." She was a two-year-old in daycare when she sang a song and the teacher stopped her and said, "Oh sweetie, your voice is so amazing." And Sam hasn't stopped singing since.
"When I was really young I put on shows with my older sister. We sound exactly alike. I always sang for cookouts with my Project family. In sixth grade, I was in math class and I signed up for a talent show. When I auditioned, the teacher stopped me and called everyone into the room and said, 'You've got to hear this voice.' He told me I gave him chills. I had never heard that before that day. When I was on that talent show stage, he made me feel more and more confident and he reassured me that I could sing and had nothing to be afraid of. And ever since then, I thought, 'I can sing. I'm a singer.'"
Sam has been singing at her performing arts church, the Rock Churches Worldwide, but more often than not, she can be heard singing underground, in the New York subway system, sometimes in stations, sometime on the trains. "It depends on my voice. I used to lose it every single day in the summertime, because it was too hot and dry. If I do lose my voice, I go into the cars where people can hear me and I don't have to scream all day. I'll go from 9 to 5 and I don't take breaks."
With a repertoire that includes "Grenade" by Bruno Mars and "We Won't Move" by Arlissa, Sam has her favorite spots on the trains. "You can always get a crowd in Times Square. Penn Station/34th Street is also a really good spot for me and Union Square. Sometimes I don't worry about how much money I have to make for the day. I know I have to pay bills but I go on the trains and try to evangelize, to get people out to church. I usually ride the 1 Train to sing car to car. It's really good for me because a lot of people are coming from Broadway shows and I sing for them."
The 21-year-old singer has been known as "Just Sam" for three years. "I wanted to be a man," she reveals. "I tried to shave my head. I was going to get on all the medications. I wanted to do all the surgeries. People asked, 'What should we call you now? Sam? Samantha? Sammy?' And I said, 'Just Sam. Just call me Sam.' I liked it so much, I used it on the trains. It had this ring to it. It flowed easily. It came right off the tongue nicely, and people dug it."
Sam made a recent decision not to transition. It started with a vision she believes came from God. "I had on a dress that was frilly and my hair was down and I was singing and I saw purple, pink and blue lights and I heard God tell me, 'This is how you're going to receive blessings.' For my Idol audition in Washington, D.C., I had on white jeans with a red shirt and I did my hair a little different. It was the closest thing to girly that I've been in a long time. I got my Golden Ticket. I thought, 'Okay, Lord, I trust you.' And then for my 21st birthday I got my makeup done and I wore a dress. I wore heels and looked like a woman. The dress was really uncomfortable, but the reactions that I got from everyone were good."
Louis Knight Born: July 10, 2000 – London, England Favorite Alum: Alejandro Aranda Musical Influences: Oasis, Queen, Keane, the Kooks, Amy Winehouse First Idol Experience: "I wouldn't tune in and watch it, but I would watch a lot of the audition videos on YouTube. I'd end up scrolling deep into Facebook through audition videos."
While Knight's family was living in Brighton, his father was working two weeks out of every month in Philadelphia. Seeing the toll that was taking on him, Knight's family decided to emigrate to the U.S. and settle in Philly. Knight was 9. "It was a very difficult transition," he tells Billboard. "That's when I started focusing more on music and realized the emotionality of how you can connect to music and how it can help with what you're going through at a time like that."
Even before relocating, Knight grew up in a musical household. His father was in a pub band, the Fabulous Conga Brothers. "I didn't know this until I watched some home videos recently, but my parents would put instruments in front of us, like a little drum kit and little guitars. I took guitar lessons when I was 7. I was a very ADHD kid and it was very hard for me to focus in lessons. I stopped my guitar lessons. I started singing but I wasn't accompanying myself. And then at 14, I asked my mom for a piano for Christmas, and I took two or three lessons. I couldn't appreciate learning the music theory at that time. It was hard for me to sit down and follow the notes out of a book, so I stopped and then I taught myself how to play my favorite songs, like 'I'm Yours' and 'Hey, Soul Sister.'" That same year, Knight wrote his first song, "Without You."
With the support of his family, Knight took a "gap year" to work on his music. He wrote and recorded an EP, Small Victories, with the idea of putting a band together and playing local gigs in Philadelphia. And then he auditioned for American Idol.
He has already learned some valuable lessons from his Idol journey. "There were a lot of times when I wanted to give up. During Hollywood Week, I literally locked myself in my hotel room. I thought, 'I can't do this anymore.' I was so sleep deprived. I packed my suitcase. But I got to the venue. I still didn't know if I would actually perform or not." Knight's favorite Idol, Alejandro Aranda, was present during Hollywood Week. "Talking with Alejandro really helped me get over those mental hurdles."
Now he has his eye on the future. "My goal is to write and perform for the rest of my life. I want to tour. I have American dreams and English dreams. I'm set on playing the pyramid stage at Glastonbury. Going back to England, that would be unreal. Madison Square Garden, Wembley Stadium, those are my dreams."
Grace Leer Born: Nov. 28, 1991 – San Francisco, Calif. Favorite Alums: Kelly Clarkson, Jordin Sparks, Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia, Carrie Underwood, Laci Kaye Booth, Gabby Barrett Musical Influences: Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Selena, Faith Hill, Martina McBride, Jo Dee Messina First Idol Experience: Sitting on the floor in her family room during season 1 watching Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini.
Leer was 10 years old when she watched the first season of American Idol. One year later, she was competing on the series' only spin-off show, American Juniors, produced by Idol executive producers Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick and hosted by Ryan Seacrest. "I learned a lot about singing and vocal health," says Leer, crediting Idol music staffers Debra Byrd and Michael Orland. "Way back then, I got a lot of advice about taking care of your instrument and singing with your heart. Also a little bit about the business side, presenting yourself and being professional. The judges were Gladys Knight, Debbie Gibson and Justin Guarini. I didn't make the top 10 and I remember crying my eyes out, because that was my dream. Justin came up to me backstage and gave me the biggest hug. He swung me around and said, 'You're amazing. You're going to do great things. You're so young.' He was so sweet. Without that experience I wouldn't have had the opportunities to keep singing and growing when I went home to Danville."
Leer had five years of singing experience by the time she made the top 20 on American Juniors. "I did talent shows during elementary school. The first song I performed was 'Dreaming of You' by Selena. I was obsessed with her. In third grade I sang 'Over the Rainbow' and that's when my love for being on stage clicked. It made my parents tear up and that's when they got me into voice lessons." After American Juniors, Leer was invited to sing the National Anthem for the San Francisco Giants, the Oakland A's and the San Jose Sharks. She also performed at film festivals, congressional events and for Radio Disney.
Leer played soccer while a student at the University of California at Berkeley, then coached a local team. She was 24 when she decided to leave the west coast for Nashville. "I wasn't using my full potential in the Bay [Area]. I knew Nashville had amazing talent, musicians and songwriters."
As anyone who saw her perform Patsy Cline's "Crazy" on Idol knows, Leer prefers traditional country over mainstream. "There are incredible songs in mainstream country," she says. "Maren Morris is one of my favorites. Kacey Musgraves is great. But there's something about how simple traditional country can be. I really like things that are a little stripped-down and get into the core of the song and what story you're telling."
When Leer walked into the studio at CBS Television City in Los Angeles the first day for this season, she immediately had déjà vu. "I looked at [senior producer] Patrick Lynn in our holding room and asked, "Is this the same space [as American Juniors]?" Lynn told her it was. "I could feel it," says Leer. "It's only good memories. It's exciting but I'm a completely different person than I was when I was last here, so it's fun to have a new chapter with it."
Francisco Martin Born: Jan. 10, 2001 – San Francisco, Calif. Favorite Alum: Alejandro Aranda Musical Influence: Maggie Rogers First Idol Experience: "I remember watching as a kid with my family when Simon, Paula and Randy were judges. I loved watching the auditions to see if the contestants made it or not."
Anyone who has watched Martin's journey on Idol knows that he has struggled with anxiety and confidence. "I was such a nervous kid coming into the competition," he confirms to Billboard. "I didn't believe in myself and I always put myself down. I lost a lot of my confidence and self-esteem in 2019." Things started to shift for Martin just before he traveled to Hawaii for Idol. "I took time to practice self-love and work on my self-confidence. To have that back again feels good. I still have anxiety but it's not as bad as when I first auditioned. I'm still learning and working on myself and I hope that the judges and the people see that."
Martin developed his love for music when he was six years old. "I listened to my dad's favorite bands – Eagles, Pink Floyd and Dire Straits – in his car while coming home at night from the East Bay." Martin first realized he had some musical ability when he was 9. "My dad bought me a cheap little drum set when he grew tired of me banging on the walls to songs. It was the first instrument I was introduced to. Martin took drum lessons from the age of 10 to 15. "I struggled to read notes and had trouble remembering patterns. I was always more of a 'feel' type of drummer rather than a technical one. I still love playing drums, though I mostly play guitar now."
Two years later, Martin surprised his family at his brother's 18th birthday party by singing. "They thought I was only a drummer who played for a band. No one knew that I could sing because they had never heard me before."
Martin made up his mind to have a career in music while he was still in high school. "Ever since I was a kid I wanted to have an audience that would listen (to me)." Not knowing if he would have a successful music career, Martin enrolled in pre-law studies at college. "It was Plan B. I thought if I had a degree and a steady job, music would always be on the side."
He decided to audition for Idol just one night before the try-outs were to take place. "I was so nervous and anxious I almost didn't audition. My parents encouraged me not to bail out and it was one of the best decisions of my life. I encourage others who are nervous and anxious about performing in a vocal competition to follow your heart and do what you love to do."
Appearing in front of Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan was still nerve-wracking for Martin. "With their help, my nerves died down a bit during the audition and I'm so thankful for that. They truly do care about the contestants and genuinely want us to succeed. To be able to say I performed in front of them is such a privilege."
Lauren Mascitti Born: Dec. 12, 1991 – Canton, Ohio Favorite Alums: Fantasia, Ruben Studdard, Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry Musical Influences: Linda Ronstadt, Emmylou Harris, Crystal Gayle, Patsy Cline, Dawn Sears First Idol Experience: Watching Justin Guarini and Kelly Clarkson on Season 1. "Which is why it's so surreal to be here right now."
Raised in Louisville, Ohio, Mascitti grew up singing in church. "I looked up to this woman in our choir and she gave me singing lessons when I was 7. I made up little jingles on my toy tape recorder. I always loved words and rhyming and so I always wanted to be a songwriter. It became real when this woman from the choir gave me lessons. Her husband was a sound engineer and when I was 8, they made a gospel recording of me."
Raised and adopted by her grandparents, Mascitti was driven to churches in her area so she could get up on stage and sing. When she was 12, she moved with her grandmother to Branson, Mo. and did six shows a week with a former member of the Oak Ridge Boys. After moving back to Ohio, Mascitti and her nana made many trips to Nashville. Lauren was 13 when she first told her grandparents she wanted to live in Music City. "They said they would move with me but I had to get a degree first. So I went to nursing school and got my degree as a registered nurse. After I graduated we moved to Nashville and I got my first nursing job there. It's a flexible schedule, very music friendly. So it was very wise on my nana's part."
In her first two years in Nashville, Mascitti met Shawn Camp, whose writing credits include "Two Piña Coladas" for Garth Brooks and "How Long Gone" for Brooks & Dunn, both number one hits on the Billboard country charts. Mascitti and Camp started co-writing and fell in love. Camp has already appeared on American Idol, accompanying Mascitti for her audition in front of the judges. "I love him so much and I'm so proud of him," Mascitti tells Billboard. "He's got his own solo records and he's my favorite singer in the world."
Mascitti has a strong vision about what kind of a career she wants. "My heart is in traditional country – not that I don't want to put a fresh spin on it, but I love the rootsiness and lyrically, I love to be able to tell a story and make an audience feel something."
Nick Merico Born: Dec. 29, 1995 – St. Louis, Mo. Favorite Alums: Katharine McPhee, Chris Daughtry, Alejandro Aranda Musical Influences: Frank Ocean, Elton John, Santana, the Beatles First Idol Experience: "I remember Bo (Bice) and Constantine (Maroulis). My favorite season was when Katharine McPhee was on, because I was in love with her."
Merico holds a unique place in Idol history. He auditioned for season 17 and was given a golden ticket to Hollywood. But he didn't show up. "It was a time in my life when I wasn't confident in who I was," he explains. In November 2018, Merico called the producers and informed them he was not going to participate in Hollywood Week. "I was stubborn," he reflects. "Nothing was going to get through to me." Still, Merico feels like he made the right decision. "Even though that would have been a great year for me, now I'm the person I want to be. I'm more in touch with who I am as a human."
When he got a call from the production company asking if he would like to come back and audition for season 18, Merico's initial reaction was to say no. "How do I make America not hate me," Merico asked. And when he auditioned for the judges, he elicited a rare admission from Lionel Richie, who told the returning contestant, "I don't like you."
"I had to sit there and take it," Merico tells Billboard. After a couple of days of reflection, Merico shifted his thinking about what he was doing with his life. "In Hawaii, I told Lionel I was hanging out with girls, going out to drink, just distraction after distraction. And when he said that to me, it all came crashing down. I realized I wasn't working as hard as I needed to. I wasn't taking this seriously. I was so scared of failure that I neglected working at all. I will be forever grateful to Lionel for saying that to me. I totally needed to hear that."
Merico lived in St. Louis, Mo. until he was 11. That's when his family moved to Miami. Two years later, when his music teacher asked who wanted to sing the National Anthem, Merico did not raise his hand. But the classmate sitting behind him, the most popular guy in school, volunteered Nick, who sang the anthem and followed it with "American Pie." Then his teacher asked him to be the soloist at the school's spring concert. That led Merico to do a YouTube video of him singing the title song from The Sound of Music. "After that the whole trajectory of my life changed. My parents got me a vocal coach."
More YouTube videos led to a record deal, but then Merico hit puberty. "When my voice changed, they dropped me." His mother suggested he try acting. After a year of auditions, he was cast in a Nickelodeon series, Every Witch Way, and put his music aside. After the series ended, his parents told him Miami was not the place for him. He moved to Los Angeles, got a job in a West L.A. restaurant and refocused on his music. "It was a chance to start over," Merico says. "I feel like this year is the first time in my adult life where my emotions are flowing naturally. I can cry when I want to and I can be happy when I want to."
Makayla Phillips Born: July 8, 2002 – Palm Desert, Calif. Favorite Alums: Jennifer Hudson, Laine Hardy, Kelly Clarkson Musical Influences: Christina Aguilera, Demi Lovato, Kehlani First Idol Experience: At age 2, watching Jennifer Hudson on season 3.
Growing up in Rancho Mirage, Calif., Phillips was 2 when she watched the film adaptation of the Broadway musical The Phantom of the Opera. "That movie is the reason I started singing. My parents heard me sing 'Think of Me' and realized I had a little voice. When I was 10, I started taking music more seriously. I went to open mics with my best friend. He's like my brother. We were these cute little kids who sang."
Phillips first tried out for Idol's premiere season on ABC, inspired by her passion for music. "I always wanted to show the world how much I love singing." She did a successful audition, but then the show realized she was too young to compete, by two weeks. They suggested she try out for another televised singing contest. "I said, 'No, I want to be on this show." Determined, the high school senior now living in Temecula, Calif., tried out again for the current season. She describes performing for the judges as "the craziest feeling in the world."
Phillips elaborates: "I grew up listening to Katy [Perry]. I ran around in diapers singing her songs. 'I Kissed a Girl' was my jam, even though I had no idea what she was talking about. I never thought in a million years I'd ever be in front of people like that."
While there is more to her Idol journey, the 17-year-old says she has already learned a valuable lesson. "When you're a teenager, you're constantly on Instagram thinking, 'I want to be like this girl. I want to have this girl's eyes. I want to have this girl' hair. It's really hard to love yourself and know who you are. So the main thing I've learned is to be comfortable with myself and love myself and don't try to be like another person."
As one of the minors in this season's top 21, Phillips must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. While talking to Billboard, she was sitting on a dressing room sofa with her dad next to her. "My dad is a captain of firefighters, so growing up, I never got to spend a lot of time with him. He has also missed many of my shows and important events, so I'm very thankful that he gets to experience this with me and see everything."
Lauren Spencer-Smith Born: Sept. 28, 2003 – Portsmouth, England Favorite Alums: Jennifer Hudson, Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Chris Daughtry, Fantasia, Laine Hardy, Alejandro Aranda Musical Influences: Adele, Billie Eilish First Idol Experience: "When I was eight, I bought myself an iPod Touch with the winnings of a singing competition and I watched literally all of the American Idol videos on YouTube."
Born after seasons 1 and 2 of American Idol aired, Spencer-Smith is the youngest top 20 finalist in the series' 18-year run. Her family lived in the U.K. until she was 3, then moved to Vancouver Island, off the west coast of Canada. "I've been back to England a few times," she says. "I remember little things like what my house and my bedroom looked like."
Spencer-Smith also recalls singing in the family car when she was three. "I knew all the words. My uncles would ask my parents, 'How does she know the whole song?' There's a video of me singing the ABCs in the kitchen. I had a British accent."
From the age of 6, she performed in contests and talent shows. By the time she was 10, her family told her she was getting good at it. "I think since I was 6 I knew this is what I want to do. I would tell everyone in school I was going to be a famous singer."
Spencer-Smith never thought about going on Idol when she was younger. "Canadians weren't allowed on the show. I knew I was a British citizen, so I thought I would go on The X Factor." Then Spencer-Smith found out that Canadians were allowed on Idol. "I thought, no way! I want to go on!"
She had a brush with Idol when she was 11, at the Sunfest Country Music Festival in Cowichan Valley, British Columbia. "There was a competition to sing Miranda Lambert's part on one of Keith Urban's songs. He was doing it at every place on his tour and he was coming to Sunfest."
Spencer-Smith sent her performance to the local radio station that was conducting the contest. "They picked five finalists and Keith and his team picked a winner." Another girl was selected to sing "We Were Us" with Urban. But then Spencer-Smith got a phone call from the country star and Idol judge, asking if she would sing Bob Dylan's "Make You Feel My Love" at Sunfest. "That's when I got a feel for what it was like to perform in front of a huge crowd. I came off stage and knew I'm not doing anything other than this for the rest of my life."
Sophia Wackerman Born: Sept. 1, 1999 – Sydney, Australia Favorite Alums: Jordin Sparks, Clark Beckham, Walker Burroughs, Laci Kaye Booth, Uché, Madison Vandenburg, Alejandro Aranda Musical Influences: Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Amy Winehouse, Hozier, Bishop Briggs, Lake Street Dive First Idol Experience: Started watching after moving to the U.S. "It was a family tradition to watch Idol and keep up with all the contestants. We would pick our favorites and root for them. That was back in the Carrie Underwood days."
Katy Perry thinks that Wackerman should change her name to Sophia Star, but the native-born Australian has a different idea. "Obviously I respect Katy Perry's opinion, but I knew the name Sophia Star didn't feel genuine to me, so I stuck with my gut on that one. I'll actually be changing my name to Sophia James," she tells Billboard. "James is my brother, my dearest friend and biggest fan."
Wackerman was four years old when her family moved from Sydney to Long Beach, Calif. She has some memories from her early years down under, especially of her father being a professional jazz drummer and her mother working as a studio session and backing singer. "I was in awe of her angelic voice and I wondered how I could do that." It didn't take her very long to find out. "My mother documented something from when I was 2 and a half years old. She wrote down that I had harmonized with her. Marked it as a big occasion in the baby book. I started training when I was five years old. I started doing theater in theater groups and that's when I started performing too. My mom was my first voice teacher because she was also a vocal coach, so unofficially she was my first voice teacher, and then I got some lessons from the people that were in the theater department that I was with and continued that for a while."
A self-described "hardcore theater kid," Wackerman made her stage debut playing a Lost Boy in Peter Pan. Her work in children's theater continued in productions of Alice in Wonderland, Beauty and the Beast, A Chorus Line and Seussical.
Wackerman composed her first piece of music on the piano when she was 8 years old. Five years later, she wrote her first song with lyrics. "It was very sad. I love writing sad songs. My songs are based on personal experiences, but sometimes a friend of mine will tell me a story and I'll try to get in their head about it and maybe write from their perspective or I'll write about current events or I'll write about whatever story I find compelling or anything that inspires me."
Wackerman acknowledges that she has grown as a songwriter. "I've learned a little more about structure and phrasing and using the so-called right words to describe something or be a little more honest maybe, because I think when I was 13, the songs I was writing were a little more artificial, like this is what a song is supposed to sound like, taking from the pop music that I was hearing on the radio. But now I write for what I want to say."
Her choice of names aside, Wackerman has great respect for the three judges. "It's been absolutely unreal. The fact that I am performing live for icons that I've looked up to for pretty much my entire life is so bewildering. And I feel really privileged to have that opportunity, because not a lot of people get that and I'm trying to learn as much as I possibly can from them, because they know the industry. They've been in it for quite some time, and I'm trying to take everything they say to heart. But also remember who I am and be true to myself as an artist."
Jovin Webb Born: Dec. 4, 1990 – Baton Rouge, La. Favorite Alums: Haley Reinhart, Chris Daughtry, Laine Hardy, Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson Musical Influences: Michael Jackson, Sam Cooke, Chris Stapleton, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan First Idol Experience: "Watching Kelly Clarkson. I liked music, so to see that first music competition was really cool."
Webb clearly recalls his earliest musical memory: "Just beating on my mom's pots and pans, like playing drums. I've been a drummer for most of my life, before I decided to start singing. I was around church music mostly and old soul music from my dad." He was 5 when he moved from kitchen utensils to the real thing. "I used to act up in church, so to make me chill out, they used to put me right by the drums and one day the drummer let me come up and play. I thought, 'This is what I want to be.'"
Webb learned to play the drum kit by ear, and later was in bands at middle school and high school. He made attempts at singing but didn't think much of his own vocal ability. He joined his high school choir and tried out for a talent show. It didn't go well. "The guy who went before me had the piano in a weird tone and I couldn't change it. I was playing this nice R&B song from the TV show Making the Band and it was horrible."
After playing drums in his church for 13 years, Webb started doing live gigs in his native Louisiana. Last year, he decided to audition for Idol. "I've been wanting to try and my friends and family told me I should. I was nervous to do it in person so I sent in a video audition. They sent me an email saying I should come to the next audition. But at that time, I wasn't checking my emails at all, so I missed it. This year I decided to show my face."
Standing in front of Lionel Richie, Luke Bryan and Katy Perry, Webb sang the Allman Brothers' "Whipping Post." "I went in there with some blues and tried to sing my heart out and they felt something. Performing for the judges was a dream come true. I never thought I'd be there and just to meet those people was a privilege. My mom definitely had all those Lionel Richie 45s, so it was really cool."
In the early rounds, the older contestants didn't spend much time with the under-18s, who had to take school lessons every day. That's changed now. "So I see these minors who are naturally singing. They're great. They're my competition, and then all of a sudden, these little 16-year-old kids pop out of nowhere and sing their hearts out and I think, 'Where did you come from?' I got worried about this. It's all nerve-racking, to be honest with you. Seeing those kids definitely made me wish I was more professional when I was younger."
Jonny West Born: Oct. 15, 1996 – Wildomar, Calif. Favorite Alum: David Cook Musical Influences: Tyler the Creator, Kanye West First Idol Experience: "Our TV made weird noises only on the channel that American Idol aired on, so I rode my bike to my friend's house and we watched the recorded episodes on TiVo."
West did not begin his Idol journey alone. He auditioned with his girlfriend, Margie Mays, who returned in season 18 after being cut the year before. West and Mays went through Hollywood Week together, until she was eliminated by the judges. "I was sad and angry at first," he admits. "She gave so much and worked so hard to come back. I know I'm biased but I think she could have easily stood with the competition. No relationship is easy but there's no better feeling than when a test comes along and you realize how easy it is to step aside and cheer for your person. I am so proud to be her boyfriend and you'll see me cheering from the sidelines in whatever arena she ventures into next."
West clearly remembers the point in his childhood when he was first aware of music. "I was always quick to memorize the music my dad played on the radio. The earliest memory I have of music affecting my life was when my mom made my dad stop listening to saucy country music in front of me because I would repeat the words and she didn't like her five-year-old son singing at the top of his lungs about girls with short skirts sitting on trucks. The first time I really felt something from music was when my older brother downloaded three Eminem songs and two Biggie songs and I heard hip-hop for the first time. I was 11 and a half and it hit me like a beautiful brick."
West moved a couple of times during his middle school years and to make new friends, he freestyled rap, joking about his teachers in rhyme. But he didn't take music seriously until high school. "I was horribly bad at sports," he confesses, "and would fail all classes. I wanted to have a thing so music it was. I wasn't a prodigy but I was passionate about it so that drew some respect, which made me want to sharpen any bit of potential I might have had."
West started playing piano at age 13 and began taking lessons a year later. In high school, he focused on making mixtapes and writing songs, which he performed in talent shows and at local coffee houses. "I had to force my older brother to learn all these songs because I only played piano and didn't have a keyboard I could take to coffee shops. My brother's second grade guitar skills were the next best thing."
After high school, West looked into becoming a truck driver. "As big a fan as I was of music, I figured I should get a real job. I had never seen the country and I thought what better way than driving a big rig." His parents thought he should stick with music and suggested he move to Los Angeles and concentrate on his songwriting. "That was encouraging to hear because I was raised by two very practical people. But their dreams were to become a teacher and a firefighter and they attained those dreams. Although my dream was different and harder to attain, they wanted me to go for it. I'm forever grateful for their love and encouragement."
Olivia Ximines Born: July 2, 2003 – Riverside, Calif. Favorite Alums: Fantasia, Jordin Sparks, Kelly Clarkson Musical Influences: Whitney Houston, Beyoncé First Idol Experience: Watched with her family and her sister, who loved Fantasia.
Don't be surprised if Ximines becomes the world's first singing pediatrician. "I want to sell out shows but I also still want to be a pediatrician," the 16-year-old tells Billboard. "That has been a dream of mine. I love working with kids and caring for them. I have a lot of little cousins and I'm always around little kids. They're the best and I'm always willing to help them."
When she was a little child, Ximines sang gospel songs in church. She became aware of secular music when she was 11. "My sister is eight years older than me so I listened to the music that she played." Within a year, Ximines became aware of her own musical talent. "When I was younger, people were always telling me I had something, that I was going to be something in life. I didn't see it. At 12 I went to a performing arts school and that boosted my confidence in terms of singing and I got a lot of musical experience."
Ximines was a part of her school choir and performed in several musicals, including The Crucible, an opera based on the Arthur Miller play. Then Ximines was cast as the lead singer in an original production, Neon Circus. "My whole school was invited to watch the performance, so I was singing in front of a lot of people and that was a first for me."
The 11th grader says she has already learned a lot from her time on Idol. "I feel like I have learned something new at each stage. I've learned so much just being around so many singers, when they do something and you think, 'I could try that.'"
As a minor, Ximines is accompanied at Idol by her mother. "Having her here is definitely a benefit because I don't know certain things and she's here to help me. Also, she calms my nerves down and gives me energy and confidence right before I sing."