American Idol will continue to honor the series’ long history by inviting seven past finalists to mentor season 21’s contestants during Hollywood Week, which begins airing on ABC on Sunday, April 2. The returning Idols are Justin Guarini (season 1), Clay Aiken (season 2), Jordin Sparks (season 6), David Archuleta (season 7), Phillip Phillips (season 11), Catie Turner (season 16) and Noah Thompson (season 20).
“Having a mentor in Hollywood Week is something we’ve always wanted to explore,” executive producer and showrunner Megan Michaels Wolflick tells Billboard. “We usually have over 150 people come to Hollywood Week, so it’s hard to have one mentor talk to everyone individually. I thought, ‘Who better to mentor on the Hollywood experience than people who have actually been through it.’ Jordin Sparks always speaks so well about this. She feels that Hollywood Week really was a perfect training ground for the music industry, all baked into that week. There’s no one better to mentor this week than people who have been there, and now that we can pull from 20 years of Idols, it was incredible. The people who came back this year were so excited to do it.”
Explaining how this year’s Hollywood Week will be revamped, Michaels Wolflick says, “In the past two years in the ABC era, we’ve done this genre challenge. We would say, ‘Okay, you’re rock. You’re pop. You’re soul/R&B,’ and it was becoming less relevant, because a lot of the finalists were telling us, ‘I’m pop-soul.’ ‘I’m country-rock.’ There was a blurred genre thing going on. So I thought we should explore something else.
“This year we gave all the contestants one of three areas that they wanted to work on: confidence, songwriting or stage presence. It was my challenge to pick two people who would be applicable for confidence. Clay Aiken and David Archuleta were total confidence. Both of them came in second place, and it was funny because when we were first talking to them about it, they said, ‘I still don’t have all the confidence.’ I told them, ‘Yes, but you have more than you came with.’ For the songwriting category, we had Catie Turner and Phillip Phillips, who are both songwriters in their own right. Both of them in their respective seasons brought an artistry to the show that maybe we hadn’t seen. And for stage presence, we have Jordin Sparks and Justin Guarini, two people who commanded the stage in their own way and still do.”
The seventh mentor is last season’s winner, Noah Thompson. “He gave some motivational speeches and was able to talk about his experience from last year. I can’t tell you how many people auditioned this year inspired by him. His friend Arthur signed Noah up [to audition], so we had a lot of people secretly signing people up, which was really cool.”
Addressing the legacy of 21 seasons of Idol, Michaels Wolflick says, “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.” As proof, the 15-year-old contestants on the current season were born during Idol’s seventh season, when Archuleta was competing on the show.
Michaels Wolflick, who joined the Idol production staff in season 2, says, “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. When David Archuleta makes news, it’s picked up everywhere. Even though he was on the show in 2008, people still have a passion for him. The investment is real. Carrie Underwood knows to this day when she’s playing to full arenas, there might be a good portion of these people who voted for her. There’s a special connection that all of the alum have to the show. They like to give back to these people who are coming in and the people who are coming in love to talk to them.”
Michaels Wolflick revealed to Billboard that more Idol alums will be returning during this 21st season, including the winner of season 2. “Clay and Ruben [Studdard]’s finale was on May 21, 2003. They’re going to come back and perform on this year’s finale, 20 years to the day.”