Watching American Idol at home, you can only see what the cameras show you. But when you’re inside Stage 36 at CBS Television City in Los Angeles, you get a much bigger picture of what’s happening in front of and behind the cameras. Billboard continues to be your eyes and ears inside the studio but on Thursday night (Feb. 25), it wasn’t so much what you didn’t see as who you didn’t see.
It was the first live show of season 15 and the first stop for special guests is the credentials desk just outside the studio. That’s where Billboard was hanging out when we spotted a familiar face. It didn’t seem possible, as Clark Beckham lives in Nashville. But it was indeed the runner-up of season 14, who was surprised himself to be returning to Idol. “I’m in town to play a couple of gigs at the Upper Room in Orange County on Saturday and Sunday night,” he explained. “I wanted to visit. I didn’t know there was a live show tonight. I was just going to come by and say hi to people at rehearsal but it worked out.”
Beckham already has a couple of favorites this season. “I love La’Porsha [Renae]. She’s so soulful, one of the best vocal runners I’ve ever heard on Idol. I’d love to be able to sing like her. I like Trent Harmon. He’s got a cool style. He’s finding out who he is more and more. I like who he’s becoming.”
Beckham admitted to being nervous to be in the Idol dome, and so did another returning alum. Shortly after bumping into Beckham at the outdoor credentials desk, Billboard was walking inside the building near the crafts services area when another season 14 finalist came into view — Rayvon Owen. Our first question was, did you know Clark was here? And the answer was no (Once they were inside the studio, they discovered they had been assigned seats right next to each other).
Owen revealed his reason for returning: “I wanted to visit everybody and experience Idol from a different point of view. It was weird sitting in the audience watching it. I was still nervous, just being in that room. It brought back so many amazing yet nerve-racking memories.”
And what does Owen think of this year’s contestants? “They are an incredibly talented bunch. They’re under so much pressure right now. I’m sympathetic — I know all the elements that go into the show that people don’t see.” Owen has his favorites, too. “La’Porsha killed it. She’s been consistently amazing since the first time I heard her sing. Avalon [Young] is one of my favorites. Sonika [Vaid] killed it tonight. Olivia [Rox] was amazing, too. But if I had to pick one favorite, it’s La’Porsha.”
Beckham and Owen weren’t the only Idol alums in the studio. There was the first American Idol, Kelly Clarkson. But there was also a season 10 contestant who only made the top 40 that year but still left an indelible impression on one of this year’s finalists.
In the video package that preceded Lee Jean’s performance, he revealed his connection to Chris Medina, whose fiancé suffered brain damage in a horrific automobile crash before he auditioned for the show. Jean explained that while watching Idol five years ago, he related to Chris’ story because of his brother’s passing, and that he loved Medina’s performance of the Script’s “Breakeven.”
After Jean’s performance, Ryan Seacrest surprised the 16-year-old by pointing out Medina in the audience. Jean nearly fell to the floor in shock.
“I had no idea Lee was a fan,” Medina told Billboard on a commercial break. “I’ve been touring and keeping up with the show.” Idol producers sent a message to Medina, who has been spending a lot of time in Scandinavia after topping the singles charts there. They asked him to write a letter to Jean, but when they found out he was in Los Angeles this week, they invited him to be in the audience and surprise the teenager in person. “It was touching to see that five years after I was on the show, I inspired somebody. His story is very emotional and I can see why he would take strength from my story.”
On another commercial break, Medina left his seat and Jean noticed. He assumed Medina was leaving. Meanwhile, the producers asked Jean to come backstage for an on-camera interview. “They tricked me,” Jean told Billboard. “They started a fake interview and then they brought Chris up. We talked. I said, ‘You’re such a cool artist! You’re Chris Medina!’