Admitting it was the most surreal moment of his life, newly-crowned American Idol winner Laine Hardy looked like he was having an out-of-body experience when he spoke to Billboard minutes after Ryan Seacrest announced that the Louisiana teen had taken the crown for the series 17th season. “To be honest, it feels so unreal. I feel God put me here for a reason. I know I was created for a purpose. I’m so grateful for all my fans who voted for me and I’m overwhelmed by all this emotion.”
It was a redeeming victory for the 18-year-old born in Baton Rouge and raised in nearby Livingston, population 1,769. He competed last year on season 16 and was cut by the judges after making it to the top 50. As they told him again on this year’s season finale, he wasn’t ready — then. Thinking back to the moment he was eliminated last year, Hardy told Billboard he could not have imagined being the winner one year later. “I did not want to try out again. I did not want to go through all this again, but I thought, ‘I’m going to do it. I can do that.’”
Hardy, who ended the three-hour live show with a performance of his new single, “Flame,” says he knows what his first priority is. “I’m going to put music out as soon as I can, get it out to my fans because I’ve been itching to do it.”
Alejandro Aranda, who was proclaimed to be a frontrunner during the auditions when Katy Perry told him he could win the whole thing, was smiling broadly right after the broadcast ended. Whose name did the 24-year-old musician from Pomona, Calif. expect to hear when Seacrest looked at the card with the winner’s name? “I didn’t really have any expectation. I think we both did the best we could. Laine killed it tonight. Everybody killed it tonight. There was absolutely an amazing amount of music, so I can’t complain. It was awesome. Being on the show where they allowed me to play my own songs, that’s absolutely crazy and I feel loved and supported. So if it’s first, second, third, fourth or 40th or 50th, it would’ve been the same mindset for me, just knowing that I’m still pursuing music and I have a love for it. It feels amazing to have support.”
Hardy is now signed to Hollywood Records. Has anyone offered Aranda a record deal? “Yeah,” he revealed. “Some people have approached me.”
The other contestant in the finale was Madison VanDenburg, who was a nine-month old baby when Kelly Clarkson won season one of Idol. She appeared to be composed, just a little over an hour after she was eliminated mid-show. “Honestly, I was devastated in that moment. I needed a few minutes to myself and I realized there’s nothing bad about being third on American Idol. Last year I was doing nothing with my music career and now people around the world know who I am, so I’m grateful and excited for what’s to come.”
The top three finalists weren’t the only ones expressing their thoughts about the results. Judges Perry and Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan also stopped to talk to Billboard. “We can’t argue with America’s decision,” said Bryan. “We’re sitting there and I’m sure people at home are thinking that we know the results, but we don’t know what Ryan is fixing to say.”
“Nothing is set up,” Perry added. “They let us navigate and steer so wholeheartedly, and people are asking, ‘Are you disappointed?’ or ‘What do you think?’ Well, we chose Laine twice actually, so of course we want him to win. And Lionel said it the best: The [contestants are in] are their own categories.”
“Right,” Richie acknowledged, pointing to each judge. “This is country. This is pop. This is R&B. We selected the [contestants] because they’re the best of their categories. So whether it was Laine or whether it was Alejandro, or Wade [Cota], there are no voices like them. So we were satisfied with the top seven.”
Thinking back to when they were in the same point in their careers as Hardy is now, what advice would they give him? “Get a therapist,” offered Perry. “Know who your friends are. Don’t drink. Don’t do drugs. Take pictures. Have it videoed the whole time. Take days off. Take days off. Take days off, and keep your family closer.”
“My thing is remember the love for music and be selfish about it,” said Bryan.
“It’s hard and you can’t be walking around being upset about your path in music. You can’t do it. It doesn’t work.”
“Be authentic,” Perry agreed.
“Here’s the thing,” Richie concluded. “What you don’t know when you first get in the business, do the best that you do. A lot of times, people fall into a trap where they think they’ve got to go into drugs or something that makes them higher and higher. No, no, no. Just be who you are.”