When we first saw Just Sam auditioning for American Idol, the 20-year-old subway singer from Harlem seemed both shy and incredibly confident at the same time. Singing “You Say” by Lauren Daigle, she stumbled out of the gate and started over, the look of intense concentration on her face giving way to a flood of embarrassed tears as Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie enveloped her in a group hug and promised her she’d be OK.
She then destroyed Andra Day’s “Rise Up,” and promptly broke down in tears again when Richie asked her if she ever felt safe, assuring her that she’d already won just by showing her true self. Flash forward to Sunday night’s (May 17) season 18 Idol finale, when past became prologue and Sam (born Samantha Diaz), sang a duet with Daigle on “You Say,” crushed a cover of O.G. Idol Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” and, yes, was crowned after another stirring run through “Rise Up,” her debut single as the new American Idol champ.
Her coronation came during the first-ever socially distanced Idol finale, where she performed from the apartment she’s been staying in alone in Los Angeles, 3,000 miles from the one in the Frederick Douglass projects in New York that she shares with her beloved grandmother.
When host Ryan Seacrest read the results, Sam was as far from home as she could imagine. The distance between that nervous audition and her days of busking on subways with a ratty shoebox and her new status as an Idol champ suddenly collapsed as her dreams came true for all to see. Hollywood Records/Industrial Media’s 19 Recordings announced on Monday that Just Sam had signed an exclusive record deal following her win.
Billboard caught up with Just Sam on Monday morning as she was still absorbing her new reality.
Was it hard for you to be home alone in your L.A. apartment when your name was read?
Every other time in the competition, making it from the top 20 to top 10, top 7, top 5 … up until then … I felt really good yesterday because my grandmother was on the iPad. That was enough for me because I didn’t have that every other time. To be able to have her there, even though she wasn’t there physically, that was more than enough for me.
Was there any particular comment from one of the judges along the way that gave you hope and made you think this was a possibility?
All of them have said things to me that I am going to hold on to for the rest of my life and probably give the same advice to my children someday. When Katy told me to remember where I came from and sing to where I want to go, that stuck with me throughout this entire competition. It’s something I had to say to myself before I walked on stage in Hawaii. I had to tell that to myself before performing in front of an iPhone. That has really has stuck with me and I think about it every day: Sing to where you want to go, Sam.
Whose idea was it for you to cover the OG Idol Kelly Clarkson for your first performance last night?
That was my idea. Everyone got to choose their own song. When they asked us all to think about a celebration song that could bring light during this time, that was the point. It was not just “we won American Idol, but “you could win American Idol and you have this opportunity, this platform to spread light right now when people need it most.” So for me that song was perfect. The words for now … “what doesn’t kill us will make us stronger.” We’re all going through this right now and we’re gonna make it through it, and I felt like that was the perfect song.
What was the conversation like with your grandma after you won?
She could not stop crying; literally, she almost gave herself an asthma attack. She was just really excited. She was thanking God and Jesus, it was a whole bunch of that. But, yeah, she could not stop crying, “I don’t even know what to say.” And she just kept thanking the Lord. That’s how that went, pretty much. Honestly? It was perfect.
Everyone had such a different setup and some had their families to help them. Normally Idol would take care of making these elaborate stages for you guys. You were obviously alone. What was the hardest part about making your apartment seem fresh?
The hardest part was trying to make this set look different from all the others and that was for each and every one. All right, this time we have to do something different, but also familiar. We don’t want them to think all of a sudden Sam is in a new place because we’re changing artwork, putting up light, taking lights down, adding lavender flowers, all the things we got from Lowes. We have to make it different, but also we want people to feel at home in our home and keep it familiar.
Describe the day leading up to last night’s show. What were you feeling?
I was kind of setting myself up to just congratulate my fiends, because I feel like nobody’s more deserving than the other, but they all have worked so hard. We all have from top 40 … anyone who made it to Hollywood week, we all worked so hard. Coming up to yesterday, I’m like, “OK, you’re not gonna win, but it’s all right. Your friends are gonna win and you’re gonna be happy for them.” Because that’s genuinely how I felt. My brothers could win, my sister could win, Julia [Gargano], fellow New Yorker. I was ready to congratulate them. I didn’t expect to even make it this far, so I definitely didn’t expect to win.
You mentioned Julia. Was it weird to be the only woman left in the top five when the results came in at the beginning of the show?
Oh yeah, very heartbreaking because I was like, “yeah, girl power!” And then it was only me and four guys. I’m like, “Oh … Julia!” I was really rooting for her. I wanted a female to win.
So you got your wish anyway?
Yeah, but if it was her that would have been so great.
What did you do after you won? What was your night like since there was no going out on the town to celebrate?
Of course I had to call my grandmother. But I was able to speak with my church family. We did a Zoom call and prayed and we thanked God and celebrated via Zoom together. That was pretty much it, that was all I could really do from here.
Take me back to when you auditioned for Idol. Was there ever any expectation that this might be the result?
Like did I expect to win from the beginning? Oh no. From Washington when I walked into that room, it was about praying with those judges, getting them to say Jesus Christ is my Lord and savior … that was really it for me. I expected, “Maybe I’ll get a golden ticket, but I’m not going past Hollywood.” I really didn’t even expect a golden ticket, but when I did it was like, “OK, I guess that’s it, when I get to Hollywood week. “And then when I made it past there … I definitely did not expect it from the beginning. Not at all, at all.
At what point did you think you might have a chance to make it to the finale?
I started to feel like I would get to the finale only in Hawaii, that was because I took a big risk singing in Spanish and coming out of my comfort zone by wearing things I’m not used to, like makeup and a skirt. I’m not used to be really being girly. In that moment I was like, “This is a huge step for you, Sam. People might like this version of you and it might just take you to the top.” It might not, but either way I was super proud of myself for getting those words out.
When we first met you, you were definitely not very girly, but the show definitely glammed you up.
Yeah. I am not into skirts and dresses at all. And then the makeup thing? I don’t want to see another bottle of foundation for a while [laughs].
Let’s flash forward a year. Where do you want to be when the next Idol is crowned?
I definitely see myself doing more musically, vocally. “Rise Up” was released today, streaming everywhere now. But I plan on having my own music out before then and hopefully I will have inspired more than the amount of people I already have by then. I just want to be a better Just Sam. Now I am this role model to people, to children, and I need to step it up.
Andra Day seemed like the best lane for you on last night’s show — and from the beginning — but do you have a sense of what you vibe will be?
Definitely R&B/soul. I love Andra Day, Arlissa, even Lauren Daigle; I would love to put out music like theirs. They have incredible songs with powerful messages and their music speaks to me. I hope to be able to put out music that gives off that same vibe. OK, I’ve been through this but now I’m here and I’m made it through this, I’ve made it to this. I want to be able to encourage people through my music the way these artists did for me.
Usually there’s an original Idol coronation song, but not this time. Have you been in the studio working on anything?
Oh, we have some stuff; we’re working on some things. We’ll see what we come up with. I’m confident this new team that I’m on will help me to go very far. I’m confident in my abilities and you guys will love the song that I will put out. You guys are gonna love it, I mean, I hope.
Have you heard from any famous fans during your run on the show?
Arlissa! I sang her song on the show and she reposted me that day and kept in contact ever since. She hits me up almost every single day, we’re liking each other’s things, we’re watching each other stories and commenting and she’s been super supportive during this process. She’s so sweet and super humble. I’ve had a few, like [season 17 winner] Laine Hardy reach out to me, that was super cool. He told me what to expect.
He wrote me a whole paragraph and I was surprised because I didn’t expect for him to reach out to me and he did. That was sweet. I’ve had a few alums from previous Idol seasons have reached out to me.
I’ve heard from other contestants this year that you guys have stayed connected and all hop on chats after every show. Did that happen last night?
Yes, as soon as I won, the other contents were blowing up my phone in the group chat we all have. We have a top 20 group chat, a top 10 group chat, we have an every number group chat and in every one they said, “Congratulation, Sam! We love you so much! You deserve this!” It was so sweet and like a family, just like they’ve been through this whole thing. We’ve all been loving on each other and trying to keep each other sane. They definitely all reached out to me and all said congratulations through text. They tried calling me back-to-back all of them. They’re amazing.