The producers of American Idol promised that the final chapter of the long-running series would honor the show’s history. While it’s still early in the current season, they are already keeping that pledge, bringing back 12 Idols from years past to duet with contestants from season 15. On Thursday night (Feb. 19), Idols from seasons 4 (Constantine Maroulis), 5 (Chris Daughtry, Kellie Pickler), 6 (Jordin Sparks), 7 (David Cook) and 10 (Haley Reinhart) will mentor and sing with 12 of the finalists from the top 24.
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These six former competitors weren’t just lending their support to this year’s group; they were also returning to a familiar place and experiencing déjà vu by interacting with production staff they knew from their time on the Fox series. Billboard spent a couple of days with the previous Idols to ask about their experience of coming home.
“We had mentors come through on my season and I asked a lot of the same questions this year’s contestants are asking,” says Cook. “I remember Fantasia and Kellie Pickler coming back during our season. It was great getting to pick their brains. We had Annie Lennox come through and Neil Diamond. Then we got more into questions about performing and interpreting songs.”
Cook will duet with Olivia Rox and CJ Johnson on Thursday’s episode. “The advice I’ve given them is that you can’t control how people are going to perceive you or how they’re going to vote. But you can control how good a performance you put on. You can communicate and connect with the people at home. Make sure you’re interpreting the song in an authentic way. It’s easy to get in ‘concert mode’ where you connect with the people in the room. So when you go through camera blocking, make sure that you find those moments in the song where you can connect with the people at home. Olivia and CJ are really receptive, so hopefully I’m steering them in the right direction. I’m really looking forward to giving them a chance to shine so they can [remain on the show]. From the interaction I’ve had with them, it seems they’re worthy of sticking around.”
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“It’s an honor to be back,” Pickler tells Billboard. “I’ve been able to work with two brilliant girls, Amelia [Eisenhauer] and Tristan [McIntosh]. Amelia is 16 and Tristan is 15. I could not imagine doing something like this at their ages. But they’re so wonderful, they’re pros and they’ve got this. They are a pleasure and a joy to work with.”
Because Eisenhauer and McIntosh are minors, they must have a parent or guardian with them, so Pickler also got to know their mothers. “One of the most incredible things I was able to witness while I was here working with Amelia and Tristan is the love they have in their families. To have that sanctuary, foundation and support is so beautiful. I know what it’s like to be up there on that stage. It’s scary! It’s hard. But they were born for this.”
“Coming back 10 years later, in the last season, to the show that is responsible for people knowing who I am — it’s an honor that they would ask me to pass along any advice I have for the contestants,” says Daughtry, who is enjoying working with his two contestants. “Lee [Jean] and Dalton [Rapattoni] are pretty seasoned. They seem like they’ve been on a stage before.” Daughtry confided to Billboard that he’s happy to be mentoring at this point in his career as opposed to five years ago. “I’ve been learning this whole time how to perform and trying to figure it out myself. I don’t think I would have had the confidence or the knowledge that I have now. I feel like I have a lot more to offer them.”
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For Sparks, mentoring wasn’t about critiquing the voices of Manny Torres and Trent Harmon. “They sing amazingly well,” she professes. “But we can tweak how they are conveying emotion or how long they hold a note or if they are holding back.”
Sparks experienced a “full-circle moment” because Torres and Harmon are both performing songs she is associated with: her hit single “No Air” for the former and the Bee Gees’ song “To Love Somebody” that she performed on top four week with the latter.
“It’s crazy to be dissecting things that I did,” adds Sparks. “Now I have to tell somebody else how I looked at it and ask them what it means to them. That’s why music is so amazing, because the experience is so different. You’re listening to the same song but the person sitting next to you is having a completely different experience than you are.”
There was another reason that returning to Idol meant something very special to Sparks. The winner of season six was turned away when she first auditioned at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. Undaunted, she won a local Idol competition sponsored by the Fox affiliate in her hometown of Phoenix, which entitled her to skip the line at the next scheduled audition.
She was flown to Seattle and early in the morning was among the very first hopefuls to stand in front of a producer. Norm Betts asked her to sing four different songs and then told her, “I don’t normally do this and it’s really early, but you’re in.” Sparks was the first to advance that day and with Betts back at Idol this season, she was able to express her thanks in person once again. “Every time I see Norm I tell him, ‘I thank God for you every day.'”