As 'American Idol' Comes to a Close, Past Contestants Prepare for Series Finale

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Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini on the "American Idol" finale on Sept. 4, 2002 at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, Calif.

Tonight, there will be more Idols under one roof than at any point in history, as American Idol’s run on Fox comes to an end after 15 years. For a week now, almost 60 past contestants have been gathered in Hollywood to rehearse the numbers they will perform this evening in a two-hour series finale.

Billboard hung out with these returning Idols over the past few days to find out how they felt about reuniting at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, and what emotions they’ve been experiencing.

The one Idol who was there at the beginning and will be there for the closing moment is Justin Guarini, season 1 runner-up. “There was such a camaraderie and innocence that first season,” he says. “We all loved each other very much and still do. Seeing Tamyra Gray again was so great. I’m so proud to have been a part of that inaugural season that laid the foundation for everything that’s happening right now. I never would have guessed if you told me when I was 22 that at age 37, the last 15 years would feel like a compete whirlwind.” Guarini, who has performed all over the world and starred in Broadway musicals like Wicked and Women on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown, said his mind boggles when he thinks about “how some great creative folks came up with a show with such a little budget that ballooned to massive worldwide success.”

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There is another Idol who was at the season one finale. Season seven runner-up David Archuleta was an 11-year-old boy when his father surprised him with tickets for the two-night event. Pointing out to Billboard where he sat in the Dolby Theater both of those nights, Archuleta said, “I was just talking to Tamyra Gray. One of the performances I watched over and over from that first season was her singing ‘And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.’ I had never seen people perform before I watched American Idol. That was my first time watching people sing. I sucked it all in like a sponge. Until I saw Kelly Clarkson, Justin Guarini and Tamyra, I sang like a little choir boy. I learned to sing with my soul from those contestants.”

Archuleta isn’t the only Idol at the Dolby this week meeting Idols from seasons prior to their own runs on the show. “It’s wild seeing all the people that I grew up idolizing,” says season 14 runner-up Clark Beckham. “I was talking with Elliott Yamin and I just met Katharine McPhee. I’m trying to hold in my teenage fan girl deep inside and I’m doing OK so far. There are so many people I always wanted to meet. George Huff may be the sweetest guy I ever met in my whole life. I got to sing with Fantasia. I’ve been trading riffs and runs with Joshua Ledet and Candice Glover. I wish this could last for a month.”

One of Beckham’s favorite Idols, an emotional Elliott Yamin from season five told Billboard, “American Idol changed the course of my life and I’m forever grateful. I’m so flattered to be one of the ones they called back to the stage.” Yamin’s year is well represented, with seven alumni. “It’s been a hell of a reunion. Last night we had a hang at the hotel bar, sharing a lot of laughs.”

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Another one of Beckham’s favorites, season 11’s Joshua Ledet, said, “This is a moment in history. We see each other one-on-one but being in the room with everybody is a once-in-a-lifetime event. We’ll never get that again. It’s humbling and fun and sad and bittersweet. You don’t want it to end.”

Season 3 runner-up Diana DeGarmo, back at the Dolby with her husband, season five’s Ace Young, told Billboard, “It’s like a family reunion and a high school reunion where you’re meeting kids from other classes. You’re seeing the people you went through the experience with, your family members. It’s also like a wake, because the inevitable ending is coming.” DeGarmo described one of the first rehearsals: “The first time we sang the opening number together, you could feel the energy change in the room. And when we started the ending number, which will be the last time this group of people is going to be together, you could feel the emotions start to bubble up to the top. It’s going to be an emotional show on Thursday.”

One Idol who hasn’t been recognized by his fellow alumni very much is season four runner-up Bo Bice. “It’s the haircut and glasses, and I’m older,” he laughs. “It’s fun for me to come back. Every time I return, I want to see the crew, I want to see Nigel [Lythgoe], everybody from wardrobe to the camera crew to the stage managers. You know them and they’re still here. They nurtured me and they’ve done it for so many others. Nigel, Ken Warwick and Simon Fuller made this show great. They’ve changed people’s lives. If I said thank you a million times, I would be a million shy.”

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Season 12 runner-up Kree Harrison had an especially touching moment a couple of days ago. “The first time I ever voted was during Ruben Studdard’s year. We were taking the shuttle back to the hotel together and it was super-sentimental for me because my mom and I watched it that year and we voted Ruben all the way.”

Also running into people he voted for was season 10’s James Durbin. “Every time you turn around you see someone else you voted for, people I looked up to as a kid. Now they’re my peers. I’ve been hanging out with Chris Daughtry and Justin Guarini, Ace Young and Bo Bice. It’s been so cool to close it all out and end it on a real grateful note.”

“It’s bringing back such warm memories. My heart is full at this moment,” says season eight’s Danny Gokey, who was especially pleased to reunite with his season’s Allison Iraheta. “She’s one of the people I was really looking forward to seeing.” Gokey added, “This is where I started, this is the platform that launched me into having a music career. What an honor and privilege to walk this road.”

Tonight, Idols from all 15 seasons will walk that road one more time. Based on reactions during rehearsals, there won’t be many dry eyes in the venue, or all across America and the world.