No one can really tell you what it feels like to audition for American Idol except the folks who have been there before. Luckily for the contestants shooting their shot on the 19th season of the reality singing juggernaut, some of the legends from the past came through to entertain and chat up this year’s hopefuls, give them advice, and ease their minds while they were waiting to sing for producers.
Among the icons who visited the audition rooms was season 2 champ Ruben Studdard, who in an email interview tells Billboard that while it’s always an awesome experience to come back into the Idol fold, doing it during the pandemic was a very different experience. “Because I didn’t get to see the very people in person that had helped me reach my goals and dream,” says Studdard of the beloved Idol producers, as well as the music and stage staff.
“My inspiration is always the same when it comes to aspiring professional singers,” Studdard says about why he came back to help this year. “It’s that I was once in their shoes and I know the road that lies ahead for them. Like many before me I had been trying to be a professional artist many years before my time on Idol. So understand how difficult it can be to continue pushing towards a goal that can sometimes seem unreachable.”
After season 18 was forced into remote filming last season, Idol producers refashioned the audition process to allow contestants from every corner of the country to try out from home before they were invited into the socially distanced, COVID-19-protocol-heavy in-person auditions for the judges. Studdard says the best advice he got during his run came from vocal coach Deborah Byrd, who told him, “Ruben, always try to sing something you know.”
Studdard joined the audition waiting room several times over the audition process to discuss his experience with Patrick Lynn, a senior supervising producer who has been with the show since day one, to play a few clips from Ruben’s run in 2003, and do a short Q&A with the waiting singers.
That ended up being the best words of wisdom possible because trying to learn new songs in the pressure cooker Idol environment can be super stressful, so Studdard made sure to share that pearl of wisdom and encourage this year’s contestants to “sing the songs you know!!” Also, if any of this year’s crew are still up for listening, the Velvet Teddybear says take lots of pictures and save as many memories as you can from your time on the show. “Those times when we were with famous artists and songwriters,” he says. “The times when we clowned around at the studio or just having one-on-one time with judges Randy [Jackson], Paula [Abdul] or Simon [Cowell].”
As for what’s next for him, Studdard is hoping to return to his “Ruben Sings Luther” tour when the lockdown is over and possibly get back onto a Broadway stage with season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken to revive their Christmas Carol Family Fun Pageant holiday variety show.
This season’s debut episode included a moving on-camera moment between another Idol vet and an aspiring singer with an emotional story when season 10 fourth-place finisher James Durbin popped onscreen to talk about his special bond with Anilee List. Like Durbin, as a child, List was diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome, which manifests via vocal and facial tics. She recalled watching Durbin tearfully discuss his challenges during his 2011 audition, which, of course, ended with a golden ticket.
Calling his appearance on the show a “shining light” for her, List — who originally met Durbin years ago through her work with Tourette Association of America — nailed her audition on the show. But she had no idea that it would be followed by a special video drop-in from Durbin, who marveled at how far Anilee has come since they first met. Like Studdard, Durbin says returning during this pandemic season was “surreal,” though he too is always happy to pay it forward.
For him, of course, it was also personal. “I was told there was a female contestant, that lives with Tourette’s Syndrome that I’ve met on several occasions and asked them if it was Anilee!” he says. “I hadn’t seen or heard from her in maybe five years and was blown away when my wife Heidi and I listened to a video on Anilee’s Instagram. She’s an undeniable talent.” Because they kind of knew each other already, Durbin says he was excited to say hello and surprise List after she got her golden ticket.
“I believe I shared a few tricks to help ease the nerves and the ‘tics,’ essential oils, homeopathic supplements, meditation, that sort of thing,” he says, adding that he told List not to worry about what everyone else was doing and to just stay in her lane and be a supportive friend to fellow contestants because some of them will end up being part of her new family. Durbin’s chat with List was one of the first moments in the show that was captured on the massive 180-degree screen that helped the singers connect with their far-away friends and family remotely during the audition process.
For Durbin — who has released three solo albums and toured with and recorded two studio albums with 1980s metal band Quiet Riot — seeing List on the show was inspiring. “I think anytime someone that’s been diagnosed with a disability or has been given a set of circumstances or limitations goes on national TV and proves society’s expectations of them wrong, it’s a win for all people with varying disabilities and setbacks,” he says. “It shows the world that our differences don’t make us different in a negative way and shouldn’t be looked at as a negative… It’s our abilities to shine beyond the darkness that’s been dealt to us, that sets us apart.”
Durbin also had some other sage advice for this year’s singers, including to never, EVER, read social media comments after your performances and to remember that the Idol experience will not necessarily be your new normal. “Have fun with it, but don’t forget who you are & where you came from,” he says. “We were given designer clothes, $1k leather jackets every week, custom suits, $5k platinum watches, Gibson, Epiphone & PRS guitars, you name it. I wish I’d have understood gratitude at that time. To be honest, it really went to my head & it took me a while to get back to my ‘old self.’ I learned that you don’t have to completely change yourself in order to show that you’ve grown.”
Durbin’s eponymous band released their hard rocking debut album, The Beast Awakens, earlier this month, which the singer wrote and demoed on his own during quarantine. “It’s the kind of album I’ve always wanted to make, that I just happened to be inspired to do so in the midst of a pandemic,” he says. “With the world in such disarray, I completely checked out & created my own world to write about and set the music to… I just focused on making a killer classic heavy metal album that might stand beside some of my favorite albums in the genre.”
American Idol airs on ABC at 8 p.m. on Sundays.
Watch Durbin surprising List below.