For the 21st time, the long-running talent competition series American Idol has revealed the season’s top 10. Ranging in age from 17 to 25 and representing different genres, the top 10 finalists of season 21 sat down with Billboard for the first in-depth interviews of their Idol run.
One by one, the hopefuls filed into an office at Red Studios in Hollywood 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 alumni as their favorite Idols of all time.
Season 1 winner Kelly Clarkson – who currently hosts a hit daytime TV series on NBC — received the most mentions, with Carrie Underwood (season 4 winner) and Laine Hardy (season 17 winner) right behind her.
“If you come on the show, you’re part of the American Idol alumni. You are part of our history. This show has changed lives in so many different ways,” executive producer and showrunner Megan Michaels Wolflick recently told Billboard. “I think American Idol is now like the NFL, where people train their [whole] lives to come on the show. It’s now bigger than a TV show. It’s something you can aspire to be a part of — young singers are born every day.”
With the revelation of who made the current top 10 announced on the air on Sunday (April 30) on ABC, here are the Billboard interviews with the top 10 finalists of season 21.
Born: Jan. 23, 1999 – Harlem, New York City, N.Y.
Favorite Alums: Jordin Sparks, Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson, Kelly Clarkson
Musical Influences: Beyoncé, Michael Jackson, Freddie Mercury, Whitney Houston, Etta James, Ella Fitzgerald, Amy Winehouse, Bruno Mars, Yebba, Drake, Childish Gambino.
First Idol Experience: “I don’t remember an age when I didn’t know American Idol. You’d watch how [the contestants] went from somebody who was just auditioning to somebody who is performing on a huge stage and having all of America love them. I thought, ‘I want that to be me one day.’”
Growing up in Harlem and also in New Jersey, Wé Ani’s earliest memory of music is listening to the soundtrack to the 1939 film The Wizard Of Oz and then watching the movie. “We had it on VHS. I’d put it in and then I’d hit rewind as soon as I figured out how to hit the rewind button and then I got introduced to The Wiz and I thought, ‘I didn’t know they could do other versions,’ and it blew my mind. So I started diving into a lot of different artists and I knew that music made me feel amazing.”
Later, she became aware of her own vocal talent. “I knew I could carry a tune, but I didn’t think anything of it. I was a little naïve because I thought everybody could sing. I thought in order to be a superstar, you had to do everything, because Whitney [Houston] acted and she sang and she cut a rug on stage. Beyoncé did the same thing. Michael [Jackson] did the same thing. So I thought I’ve got to dance, I’ve got to play an instrument, I’ve got to act. When I was 11, people were telling me, ‘You sound like a grown-up when you sing.’ And I said, ‘Doesn’t everybody?’ My singing voice was really deep and my speaking voice was even higher [than it is now].”
When she was 12 and in middle school, “I was going through a really tough time and I didn’t have anybody. I didn’t have any friends or anything. Luckily I had my family with me, but I had music and that’s when I stumbled upon Queen and I listened to their albums so much. I started singing from a place of desperation, thinking, ‘I have to get this out. If their music can make me feel like that, maybe I can write something that can make somebody else feel a little bit better too.’” That’s when she wrote her first song, “Isolation.” “You wouldn’t think it was written by a 12-year-old. I was listening to a lot of emo stuff, a lot of grungy, strong, aggressive music. I was mentally in a dark place but I was trying to be encouraging for other people.”
In high school, she performed in musicals, including Man of La Mancha, 42nd Street and Celebration. At the same time, the teenage singer was doing homework and also going into New York City to sing in bars. “My goal was to get these adults who were in a bar on a weekday, trying to drink and watch some game, to turn around and watch me.”
Did that happen? “Yes. I’m really hard-headed and stubborn. I wanted to give people a good time.” She wasn’t paid for singing in the bars, but when she was 16, she performed at the Harlem jazz club Minton’s Playhouse through an afterschool prep program and was handed a check for $50. That led to performances at Carnegie Hall, Jazz at Lincoln Center, the Library of Congress and the Apollo, competing four times at that famed venue, winning first place in the adults category twice, even though she was still only 16.
Born: April 12, 2001 – Jonesboro, Ark.
Favorite Alum: Maddie Poppe
Musical Influences: Adele, Chris Stapleton, Morgan Wallen, Zach Bryan, Ellie Goulding
First Idol Experience: “My mom always watched and I would be in and out of the living room. I’d see her watching it and she was over the moon when Carrie Underwood won.”
As a child in Jonesboro, Byrd was surrounded by music. “I’ve always had a musical family,” she tells Billboard. “My mom sang to me when I was a baby. My grandpa used to sing around town, at funerals and in church. When I was little, I had a really bad stutter and the only thing that helped was music therapy. I went to all kinds of speech pathologists and nothing helped but music.”
Byrd’s family helped her discover her own musical talent. “I was always on stage at the [American Cancer Society’s] Relay for Life or at a festival and I sang in church. As a little kid, I hung out with my grandparents all the time and I used to have this teddy bear that sang ‘Amazing Grace’ when I would press the button.” Byrd’s grandmother walked into her room and heard the three-year-old singing “Amazing Grace” to her teddy bear. “She told my parents that I could sing and took a video of me and showed it to my parents and so that’s where the encouragement started.”
Byrd never took any kind of music lessons. “I’m a very emotional singer. I just do it because I want to connect with someone else who’s listening and that’s what my grandpa always taught me and my mom.” She played a lot of gigs and although they weren’t for money, she still came home richer than she was before she performed.
“My grandpa used to take me everywhere and he would tell people, ‘If you stick a quarter in her, she’ll sing like a jukebox.’ So I would come home with piles of change.” When her parents questioned where the money came from, her grandfather would say, “She sang all day at the restaurant.” “I was living my best life as a kid and it was all because of that encouragement and that foundation from my family.”
That encouragement has always been there, says Byrd. They told me, ‘I will drive you wherever. We will drop whatever. We’ll go into debt for this. We’ll do everything we can to make your dream come true,’ and I’m just very blessed and fortunate to have a great family.”
For her performance on the April 30 episode, Byrd chose a song that she first heard while watching a movie with her mother. “My mom and I have a really special relationship and growing up, you do all kinds of things with your mom and we would watch the movie Mamma Mia! So the soundtrack was always in the car. My mom’s very hard-working and she would take me everywhere with her as a kid. I would be in my car seat and I vividly remember her playing those songs from the movie over and over and ‘Dancing Queen’ is one of my favorites.”
When Byrd started singing ABBA’s Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 hit in talent shows, the arrangement was like the original. But tonight was different. “I added my own artistry to it, a little bit of country twang with the pop element, that pop falsetto.”
Born: Feb. 10, 2002 – Cobb County, Ga.
Favorite Alums: Kelly Clarkson, Laci Kaye Booth, Gabby Barrett, Carrie Underwood
Musical Influences: Miranda Lambert, Adele, Chris Stapleton, Zach Williams, Lauren Daigle, We the Kingdom
First Idol Experience: Watching with her grandparents when she was seven years old. “I thought the whole concept was cool. I wanted to do it and I’m here now.”
Young Danielle was fascinated by a piece of equipment in her family’s home. “My grandma had a karaoke machine and I was always super curious because she’d never touch it. It would just be sitting there. So one day I said, ‘Nana, I really want to see what this is,’ and she had a bunch of CDs and songs and that’s how I started, singing along to the music.”
Danielle was doubtful about having a career in music and found it difficult to believe in her own talent. When she was 15, she met a guitar player at a music store and she asked him if he could play for her. When he said yes, she enjoyed the collaboration. That same year, she sang in public for the first time. “We did a two-hour show at the Irish Bred Pub in Douglasville, Ga. I sang a bunch of country and rock songs. It was a good start and it made me realize I love doing this in front of people.”
Danielle wrote her first song, “Don’t Agree,” when she was 17 but admits it isn’t finished yet. “I was young and I had a crush and I thought about [writing] a basic love song. I never really took that song anywhere. It was just a funny experience.”
Reflecting on her Idol journey so far, Danielle says, “It’s awesome, because every single person is super talented. Everybody is so sweet. I’ve made really good friends with Marybeth [Byrd] and Lucy [Love]. Everybody’s special, but these two in particular, we get along so well because we have a really deep connection with God. We talk about everything and it’s special to be able to share your life with all these people.”
Though she’s far from home, Danielle continues to have the support of her close relatives. “My family is awesome. My stepdad, uncle, boyfriend and mom were all here yesterday. They flew out to see me and my aunt’s coming next week. I’m just grateful for them because it doesn’t matter where I’m at. They always make a way to support me and see me.”
Born: March 3, 2006 – Clarksville, Tenn.
Favorite Alums: Carrie Underwood, HunterGirl, Emyrson Flora
Musical Influences: Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift, Harry Styles, Lizzo, Lizzy McAlpine, Brandon Lake
First Idol Experience: “Watching with my grandma. I was obsessed with Jordin Sparks.”
Madison is so young, she arrived in the world during the fifth season of American Idol, when contestants like Taylor Hicks, Katharine McPhee, Elliott Yamin and Chris Daughtry were competing. Madison is the first finalist to be born as late as 2006.
“I swear I came out of the womb singing,” she declares. “I think music came into my life at the same time as walking and talking. I was homeschooled, growing up on a tour bus with my dad’s band. He’s the lead singer of Building 429, a Christian band, and was doing a hundred shows a year. We didn’t want to split our family apart so my mom, my brother and I got on the bus with him. We traveled all through the United States and spread the word of Jesus. I didn’t realize how extraordinary it was until I stopped touring and went to public school. But getting to be so close with my family, my brother and I were inseparable. We had these Razor scooters that we would ride around the venues and we were taught everything about music, like how to sing harmony. The drummer taught my brother how to play drums.”
When she was five, Madison asked her mother how many songs she had to write to be on a TV show. “She’s so patient and kind. She said, ‘We’ll go with three’ and I cranked out three songs about Santa Claus.” Madison can’t define her songwriting method. “My songs come out of the emotion I feel. I write my best songs when it’s personal. So if somebody hurts my feelings or something gets said or I feel a certain way I process how I feel by sitting down with a guitar or the piano and it just comes about. I really couldn’t tell you how. It comes fast too. The words come like a word vomit.”
Madison’s first appearance on a stage happened when she was eight. “I sang ‘Silent Night’ with my dad at church. When I was in middle school, I started singing for the youth group at my church, so a lot of my experience comes from church, just getting used to being in front of people. And then at the end of my sophomore year, we put together a little show and a bunch of people from my hometown came.
“My first paying gig was at a Christian festival in New Hampshire. It’s called Hillfest and that was only last summer. My brother played guitar for me. We opened the whole thing. There was an RV with my name on it and I just thought it was the coolest thing ever.”
Madison impressed the Idol judges early in the season when she auditioned with her original song, “15,” a song she wrote – not surprisingly – when she was 15. “I was in public school, which was already a change for me. I was thinking what the heck was I going to do after high school – am I going to make it out of here? I was frustrated because everyone was telling me, ‘Be a kid. Enjoy your time. You don’t want all that music stuff yet. Just be normal.’ And I thought, ‘No, what if I want it now? Just let me go. I think you’re all full of crap telling me that it’s not worth it.’ The most beautiful part of getting to do my originals on the show is that other people are relating to the songs, which makes me feel less alone.” It’s a mutually beneficial relationship, because 15-year-old Haven did not think that the six million people watching would relate to something she thought she was the only one feeling.
Born: Nov. 20, 1998 – Bamberg, S.C.
Favorite Alums: Scotty McCreery, Laine Hardy
Musical Influences: Zach Williams, David Crowder, Mac Powell, Third Day, Zac Brown Band, Luke Bryan, The Allman Brothers
First Idol Experience: Not an avid viewer, he does remember watching Scotty McCreery on season 10.
“I was fortunate enough to grow up listening to everything from country to rock n’ roll, from Hal Ketchum to Metallica,” Peay tells Billboard. “When you’re young, you listen to what your parents listen to and in dad’s truck, it was the country station. My mom had this big box of cassettes, so we’d pop in different cassettes riding down the road, which is how I got an appreciation for a lot of different music at a really young age.”
As a youngster, Peay decided he wanted to play guitar. “I begged for a guitar. My mom had this really old one from Sears. It was a little tiny thing that she had had in her childhood and I learned how to play on that. We ended up going to a pawn shop and got a sizable guitar and I remember [my parents] saying, ‘If you don’t stick with it, we’re going to take it back.’ So I stuck with it and we did not take it back. I still have it. And then I started to play country music, because that was primarily what I listened to at the time. I wanted to be a country singer and started playing at 15 years old. I was playing little bars that would let me in just to come play a little bit. They wouldn’t let me stay until closing time. I couldn’t order drinks. I was pretty sure nobody in there was going to serve me anything. I looked like a child. Playing little parties and get-togethers solidified my love for music. I tried to write my own songs. A bunch of them that were probably terrible.”
Peay attended Colston Branch Baptist church in Bamberg County, where the pastor was a musician and a singer with a wife who sang as well. “A few guys who were going there had picked up instruments and started playing. It took maybe a year or so and we were playing a praise and worship every week and then eventually we started kind of writing our own stuff and we thought, ‘Let’s start a band. It’ll be fun.’ We played town festivals and revivals and had a great time. Eventually we went to Nashville and recorded an album. The band was called Colston Branch.
“I thought that things were about to take off. Then COVID came in and shut everything down. My girlfriend Sarah, who is my fiancée now, kept trying to convince me to get on TikTok.” Peay declined. “The only reason she wanted me to do it was so she could send me videos. Finally I got [an account] and I thought it was the biggest mistake I could’ve made because I got addicted to it so quick. I’d be on it for hours scrolling and then I started to notice the more you like certain videos, they start to target more videos to you and I started seeing so many of these artists that were making names for themselves on TikTok. Finally I put out a few videos. A couple of them got a fair amount of views. Eventually I had a video that got me noticed by American Idol and they asked if I would come and audition.”
Peay’s first reaction was that the invitation was a scam. “There’s no way somebody is reaching out to me. I almost didn’t respond and then I thought, ‘Maybe it’s not so crazy. Maybe it’s not a scam. What the heck, I’ll send them a message back.’ I ended up auditioning in Nashville and here we are. To think that I almost didn’t even respond — I’d still be fixing appliances or I could still have been at my old job, making industrial power cables.”
Born: March 31, 2003 – Ft. Wayne, Ind.
Favorite Alums: James Durbin, Carrie Underwood, Clay Aiken, Fantasia, Maddie Poppe, Jay
Musical Influences: Michael Jackson, George Strait, Foreigner, Toto, Journey
First Idol Experience: Watching James Durbin, Lauren Alaina and Scotty McCreery on season 10.
When he was five years old, Smith was watching the 1980 movie Coal Miner’s Daughter with his mother when he burst out singing Loretta Lynn’s title song. My mom said, ‘Where did this come from? My boy can sing!’” She called everyone in her family to tell them, and after that, Smith started singing in church. He says that it took him some time before he realized he had musical talent. At age eight, he entered a Christian Idol-type competition and finished in third place. “After that, I thought I might be able to have a career in this business.”
During his school years, he participated in the County Honor Choir and All-State Honor Choir. “If there was a solo, I always auditioned for it. And I did a little theater in middle school. When I was in high school, Foreigner sang in my hometown of Wabash [Ind.] and I was fortunate enough to sing in the choir with them on ‘I Want to Know What Love Is.’”
When Smith watched Idol at age eight, he knew he wanted to be on the show. “The American Idol producers came to Wabash when I was 14 and they were doing first-round tryouts. You had to be 15 at the time. I was so heartbroken that I was not able to audition. But it inspired me to do an audition the next year at 15. I went to open auditions in Columbus, Ohio. Of course, I was so young, I didn’t make it. I didn’t have enough experience and I’m really thankful that I didn’t make it. It took about five more years before I thought about auditioning again. Over time I learned so much as to who I was as an artist and what I wanted to do and who I wanted to be and so that really molded me into the artist that I am now. But I’m in the top  now, so dreams are coming true every day.”
Season 21 viewers have seen Smith’s back story, including his job flipping burgers at Bill’s Hamburgers in Amory, Miss. “I was working there for some time and it was a really good gig. But then Idol was on the air and families would bring their kids in and buy t-shirts and I would sign them. It got to the point where I couldn’t work at the grill anymore because everyone wanted pictures or autographs or wanted to talk about music. Finally, I looked at my wife and said, ‘This isn’t for me.’ While Bill’s was paying my bills, this isn’t what I’m meant to do. I’m born to be an entertainer and I don’t care how long it takes me to get there. So I left my job.”
As important as music is to Smith, he has another important role in life. “I love being a father. It is one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me, aside from music. What’s really great is hearing my kids sing the songs that I’m singing. I’m driving down the road and I’m hearing them sing ‘Little Lies’ by Fleetwood Mac. They would’ve never known that song if I hadn’t introduced them to that. Or my eight-year-old daughter comes up to me and says, ‘Look daddy, I can do this Michael Jackson move.’ They all love music and I will always support my kids no matter what they want to do and I will always be there for them when they need it and they know that. If music didn’t exist anymore and the world stopped turning, as long as I have my kids, that’s all that matters.”
Born: July 8, 1997 – Howell, Mich.
Favorite Alums: Maddie Poppe, Walker Burroughs, Phillip Phillips, Alejandro Aranda, Kelly Clarkson, Chris Daughtry
Musical Influences: Jack Johnson, John Mayer, Ed Sheeran, Allen Stone, Chris Stapleton, Daniel Caesar
First Idol Experience: Watching Kelly Clarkson when he was five years old. “It’s still vivid. Everybody in the house was talking about the show and we gathered around to watch the episodes.”
Steele’s family moved from Howell, Mich. to Mount Juliet, Tenn., when he was three, but his earliest memory of music dates back to his early years in Michigan. “I remember this side room in the house that we lived in. It was very messy and unorganized and there were instruments all over the place and songbooks that had clearly been typed with an old computer or a typewriter years ago. Just pages and pages of lyrics in a big, massive book. I can remember the dusty smell of old instruments and old wood all over the room, because my dad had many guitars.”
And why was there a room filled with instruments? “My dad was a professional musician. He played with many, many people, a lot of whom are legends. I grew up surrounded by that. He was mentored by Leon Rhodes of the Texas Troubadours, who taught him guitar. He went to high school with Charlie Daniels’ son and played with Charlie on a few occasions. He opened for B.B. King at one point and got a guitar signed by him. He worked with Percy Sledge, Bill Monroe and Gregg Allman. One time we were driving to a gig and a song by the Goo Goo Dolls came on. My pops said, ‘Oh, I opened for them once.’ And I asked him, ‘Why did you wait to tell me that story? Tell me everything.’ But he’s very humble about it all. ‘People are people’ is what he always says.”
In that environment, it’s not surprising that Steele had music in his DNA. “When I was a child, I wanted nothing more than to play the violin and so my father put me in piano. I later found out he didn’t want to listen to me practice the violin in the house, which is totally fair. He could handle me plinking on a piano, I guess. I took some piano lessons as a kid. I wish I would have stuck with it. It’s funny. My dad always tried to get me to learn guitar, but I had to find that on my own.”
Also in his youth, Steele sang to himself until an incident when he was 13. “I was walking to class with my friend who heard me sing. She got upset and asked, ‘Why did you not tell me that you could sing?’ And I replied, ‘I don’t sing.’ And she said, ‘No, but you do.’” That was the first time Steele realized he did have some vocal ability.
Before he wrote his first song, he was proficient at poetry. “I entered a contest in middle school and I was one of two students who had poems published in a book. So when I got into music it was a natural transition to write songs.”
It wasn’t necessarily a strong start, however. “I absolutely remember the first song I wrote, and it will never see the light of day,” he says. “It was so bad. Don’t ask. I won’t tell you. You’re going to write some bad songs and then every now and then you strike gold. But you’re going to write some stinkers.”
Steele wouldn’t even share the title of the tune. “That secret stays with me. I’ll tell you that it’s two words and I won’t tell you what the two words are.” Steele also participated in a couple of school musicals, but choir was where he experienced the most growth as a singer. “I remember choir so vividly because it was the highlight of my day. I had the most amazing teacher, Sandra Elliott, and she is one of the greatest teachers that has ever existed. She was so good at seeing the talent in her students and nurturing it and helping it grow and pushing us to go past our limits. She provided us with a safe haven for those of us who felt lost or felt like we didn’t have a place where we belonged. I was a very shy, modest kid, but she helped me to come into my own. I visited my high school not long after my audition aired and talked to the kids and said hello to Mrs. Elliott, to show my appreciation and my gratitude. She’s retiring soon and they’re having a party for her but I’m out in [Hollywood] and can’t make it. I’ll be there in spirit.”
Born: July 28, 2004 – Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Favorite Alums: Dexter Roberts, Caleb Johnson, Laine Hardy, Cade Foehner, Trent Harmon, Willie Spence
Musical Influences: Waylon Jennings; Hank Williams; Hank Williams, Jr.; Lynyrd Skynyrd; Stevie Ray Vaughan; Jimi Hendrix
First Idol Experience: “A guy we know from Fayette, Alabama, was on the show some years back named Dexter Roberts. So that’s when we all started tuning into the show. We just watched it and watched it and watched it.”
When he was five, Stough told his mother, “I want a guitar.” She said it would be a waste of money and time but on his sixth birthday, she gifted him with the instrument. “I beat around on that thing and learned some stuff. That’s really where my music journey started.” Stough didn’t take any lessons. He locked himself in his room and watched YouTube videos and listened to music. “My mom also gave me this book with generic chords in it, like C, D and G. I used that book to expand my knowledge. I kept climbing up the ladder.”
Stough was a junior in high school when he performed in front of an audience for the first time, playing three songs at a wedding. He does play gigs when he’s back in his hometown but tells Billboard, “I’m still new to performing in front of people.”
Stough was nine when he first watched American Idol. The winner of that season was Caleb Johnson. “We have the same style so when he won, I thought maybe I’ll go on the show one day — but I never really thought I would.” Once again, it was Stough’s mom to the rescue. She surprised him by signing him up to audition. “She told me, ‘I found this thing online.’ I thought she had been scammed. And then she told me, ‘Get your guitar and do this virtual audition.” I still thought it was a scam but I played along and they said, ‘You’re going to get the chance to sing in front of the judges.’ They gave me three cities that I could go to and I thought, ‘Damn!’”
Stough is perfecting his songwriting by working at it every day. At a gig in Cleveland, he played his new song, “Bad Day,” and a friend recorded it on video. “I put it on social media and now it has 850,000 views. I released it about a week later.” Asked what inspired the lyrics, Stough says, “Man, did you ever have a bad day? I’ve had my run of bad days. Bad days, bad nights and afternoons. It’s an upbeat song, which I like if you’re having a bad day. I even play it when I’m having a bad day. It puts a smile on my face.” Like most contestants, Stough has already learned a lot during his Idol journey. “What I’ve learned the most is one, go with your instinct and two, cherish your friends or what we call our family here, all the other finalists. I mean literally, we wake up this week and there are two more people going home. You really never know when it’s the last time you’ll sit down in a room with these people.”
Born: Sept. 1, 2004 – Kahuku, Oahu, Hawaii
Favorite Alums: Clay Aiken, David Archuleta, Arthur Gunn
Musical Influences: Dr. Hook, Boyz II Men, Babyface, the Manhattans, Fiji, Kolohe Kai
First Idol Experience: “My dad used to watch it all the time. He would say, ‘It’s on,’ and we would all rush to the TV and start watching as a family.”
The youngest of five children, Tongi was five years old when his father attempted to turn his brood into a band. “None of us could get it, except for me. I was the only one. My dad would say to my two brothers and two sisters, ‘Why can’t you be like Iam?’ So I’m the only one in my family who can sing.”
The Hawaii-born Tongi started learning ukulele in fifth grade. “It was one of the requirements. My teacher from Kahuku Elementary taught the whole class how to play ukulele. I hated it. My fingers blistered up. I whined about it, ‘Do we have to learn today? I don’t want to.’ But at the end of the day, it worked out.”
Tongi also learned to play piano, though he claims he does not play the instrument “well.” Still, that’s where he does his songwriting, composing his first tune at the age of 14. As for guitar, his father spent his holiday paycheck on a guitar that he gifted his son when Iam was 13. Idol viewers saw how much that guitar means to Tongi when it needed to be repaired during the early weeks of this season and he had to go without it one week.
This is not the first season that Tongi auditioned for Idol. “I tried out last year, and I didn’t make it. I didn’t want to do it again. Then my mom signed me up out of nowhere and didn’t tell me until the day of the online audition. She said, ‘Iam, the thing’s going on.’ ‘What are you talking about?’ She said, ‘I signed you up.’ I did it but I had a bad attitude. I thought, ‘This is a waste of time. I don’t think I’m going to make it. I’m not good enough.’ And then I got a call on Zoom. ‘Iam, we want to let you know you’re going to be singing for Luke, Lionel and Katy.” I was so excited to get to audition for the judges and now I’m top 10. It’s crazy.”
One of the performances that helped Tongi get into the top 10 was his version of ABBA’s “The Winner Takes It All,” a selection inspired by his late father. “Two years ago my dad asked me to learn that song. Me being me, I said, ‘I don’t know. It doesn’t match me.’ And my dad said, ‘Just try learning it.’ Everything I do, I try to make my dad proud. He was a tough guy who tried to never show emotion. When I played it for him, he teared up and my mom asked him why he was crying. He said, ‘I’m not crying, I’m just tired.’”
Born: Aug. 31, 2005 – Vancouver, B.C., Canada
Favorite Alums: Jennifer Hudson, Adam Lambert, Kelly Clarkson, Laine Hardy
Musical Influences: Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, the Beatles, Sarah McLachlan, Adele, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5
First Idol Experience: Watching with his family when he was five years old.
Seventeen-year-old Venegas has been listening to music longer than 17 years. “Before I was born, my parents used to put headphones on my mom’s stomach, so I listened to different kinds of music. That’s why music was always there for me.”
Music continued to be a big part of his life after he entered the world. “When I was younger, I had a speech delay. So my parents started showing me different kinds of music and different songs to give me confidence to have more words and create better sentences. Before that I didn’t really know how to communicate with my teacher or how to create new friendships, so it was really hard trying to express those kinds of feelings to other people. I knew that I loved music because whenever I got mad or was confused, I fell back to music and that always helped me stay calm.”
Venegas’ first audiences were his grandparents and then the rest of his family. But as early as age five, he started singing for strangers. “Every week I’d learn three or four songs and perform them with musicians at a local bistro. I’d sing lots of jazz songs like ‘Route 66’ and ‘Take The ‘A’ Train.’ When I sing, a different side of me opens up and I that’s why I love music. I have a lot more confidence onstage than off stage.”
That confidence has only grown during his Idol journey. “In my audition and during Hollywood Week I was really nervous. When Lionel and Katy told me to relax and let things go and just be myself, that really helped me relieve some of that stress. I feel a lot more confident now and I’m so grateful to be here.”
The Vancouver native is also learning about the music business in public school, where he is in 12th grade. “Last year I did a concert by myself from the ground up. I did the marketing and I tried to learn more about the business and that was very challenging. This semester, I took lots of music classes, including songwriting. I’m studying guitar and vocal tech, learning about my voice and learning how to take care of it. All of those things are helping me now, especially on American Idol.”