When we last left American Idol, in the middle of a dystopian 2020, Season 18’s production had been derailed by the coronavirus pandemic — forcing the finalists to remotely perform in their living rooms, converted garages, and backyards, with eventual champion Just Sam celebrating her victory alone in a corporate apartment via Zoom. Nearly a year later, on Sunday’s Season 19 premiere, the show was mostly back to normal (“Dreams are not canceled!” declared judge Katy Perry), although Ryan Seacrest was sporting a lush quarantine beard and many of the auditioners were virtually accompanied by their family and friends, who loomed large on an “immersive” digital wall.
And there on that billboard-sized Big Brother wall, in a viral moment totally on-brand for a dystopian 2021, was Kellyanne Conway, former White House senior counselor to Donald Trump, telling her 16-year-old social media star daughter Claudia, “This is your time to shine, but remember: Winners are people who are willing to lose.”
The timing and wording of this (sur)reality TV scene was certainly interesting, considering that Sunday's Idol premiere, featuring Claudia Conway’s much-hyped audition, aired just one day after Trump’s acquittal in his second impeachment trial. The ex-president had been accused by House impeachment managers of inciting an insurrection by claiming that the 2020 presidential election had been stolen from him — i.e., Trump was someone who was not willing to lose. Claudia, returning to Twitter after a nearly six-month hiatus on Saturday to promote her Idol appearance, had actually tweeted, “Side note but how in the world could Trump have been acquitted.”
Claudia had been active on other social media platforms, namely TikTok, since her August 2020 Twitter break, and a video she posted from the set of her Idol audition back in November had instantly made TMZ headlines, with many skeptics decrying what appeared to be Idol’s gimmick casting for ratings or a tone-deaf attempt to humanize and normalize Claudia's problematic mother. Claudia preemptively responded to those doubters and haters via Twitter on Saturday, saying, “A lot of people think that my being on American Idol is a publicity stunt but I can promise you it is not. I have been vocally trained and in music for most of my life and did this on my own merit.” (Sunday's Idol episode featured some home bedroom footage of Claudia singing at age 12, so she had the receipts.) “This was a really amazing opportunity and I took it! It’s starting the next chapter of my life: coming into my own and creating a name for MYSELF. I’m Claudia; I’m not someone’s daughter or that girl in family ‘drama.’ I’m just Claudia.”
The alarming and toxic Conway family drama, particularly between Claudia and Kellyanne, has played out in real time on Claudia’s social media over the past couple years, so when Claudia appeared on Idol Sunday, Katy immediately asked her, “Are you OK?” Claudia responded with a nervous chuckle, “No! But yes.” Katy even asked if Kellyanne still hugs Claudia, to which Claudia answered affirmatively, although she elaborated, “She loves me, I love her, but our relationship, I feel like it’s a little iffy.” Claudia went on to explain that being on Idol was a way for her to share her true voice and establish her own identity, a way to prove that she’s more than just “emancipation girl” or “that blond woman from Fox News' daughter.”
“Most of my life, my feelings had been suppressed, so then I got social media and was like, ‘Well, yeah. Now my voice is being heard,’” a surprisingly poised Claudia explained to Katy and judges Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan. “When your mom is working for the president of the United States, who you very much disagree with, it's hard. …The internet can be a very, very dark place. But when life is all going downhill, I have my music. Now, I want to get out of the controversy, get out of the drama, and let people know that I am a singer and this is what I want to do.” Meanwhile, Claudia’s attorney father George (a known “never Trump” Republican who endorsed Joe Biden for president) accompanied her in person and stood outside the audition room in tears, saying, “I couldn’t imagine anything that would make her happier than to do this.”
So, the obvious question on the judges’ and viewers’ minds was… can Claudia Conway actually sing? The short answer is yes. She has some raw talent. But she will need to work hard to graduate from TikTok star to pop star. Her first attempt, Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain,” showed potential, but her youth, inexperience, and nervousness also showed, resulting in an unfocused and inauthentic performance. Katy was clearly rooting for Claudia, however, so Katy stopped the audition, advised Claudia to take off her teetering heels, and try another song. Claudia went with Adele’s “When We Were Young,” a seemingly even more ambitious big ballad, but Katy coached her: “When you sing this song, think about when you were young. And there’s a sadness there. It’s like you lost your youth, because you weren’t able to experience it on your own without all of this noise.”
Claudia’s second performance was more heartfelt, so Katy then voted an enthusiastic yes. Luke voted no, saying Claudia wasn’t quite ready for prime time, and I saw his point; I doubt Katy would have been so hands-on, or that Claudia would have gotten so much screentime. if her parents weren't “high-profile political figures.” But Lionel gave Claudia “giant props” for her ability to take direction. “I think what you’re doing right now is stepping forward and announcing who you are. You chose music. I’m going to give you a shot at music. It’s a yes from me,” said Lionel, thus casting the deciding vote and sending Claudia (and presumably chaperone George) not back to D.C., but through to Hollywood.
— American Idol (@AmericanIdol) February 15, 2021
Claudia gave the most viral — and probably most polarizing — audition Sunday, but definitely not the best audition. So, it will be a challenge for her to survive during a fiercely competitive Hollywood Week. Katy warned her, “There’s a lot of noise in your life. You have to calm the storm around you — meaning, before you sing, you need to get off your phone, you need to stop reading your comments. Push it aside. Because if not, you may not ever rise above your dad or your mom.” Katy later said, “This is wild. She’s coming in here with so much heat on her. But I think if she can keep that heat off, quiet all the noise, and remember the innocence and the love in her voice, I think there’s something there.”
Scroll down for Sunday’s other successful auditions, but first, a special shoutout to two soon-to-go-viral rejects who surely will accrue some new followers on TikTok: keytar-wielding Elton fanboy Ryan Romano, who failed to get a Golden Ticket but left the show with $400 in his Venmo account when he sold his snazzy sequined dinner jacket to Katy, and too-sexy Speedo model Mario Adrion, who bravely engaged in a “catwalk battle” with Katy soundtracked by Right Said Fred. (“It’s a no for Idol, but it’s a yes for life,” Katy told Mario.) Those guys are both winners in my book!
Benson Boone, 18: “Punchline”
Benson is also a TikTok star, with 1.2 million followers (that’s only 500,000 fewer than Claudia!), although up until recently, the self-described goofy dude seemed to be more internet-famous for his backflipping antics. He confessed that he only started singing a year ago, and even claimed to not know how to use a microphone when he sat down at the piano to croon Aidan Martin’s ballad. His indie-stylized enunciation was a bit affected and garbled, but he showcased “natural talent” and a “true gift,” as Lionel and Luke respectively noted. Katy actually told Benson, “I see you winning American Idol — if you want to.” But I'm not so sure of Benson's chances; like Claudia, Benson will really need to put in the work. (Side note: I bet Benson and Claudia won't be the only TikTok personalities we see try out for Idol this year.)
Alex Miller, 17: “I’m Over You So Get Over Me”
This small-town Kentucky cattle farmer and charmer lit up the audition room the moment he arrived, with Lionel exclaiming, “I hope you sing like you talk!” Alex’s perfect anti-Valentine’s Day original (which he wrote for his ex!), oddball humor, and old-school Opry/Live at Folsom vibes were instantly smile-inducing. “I love it, I love it, I love it! I am thrilled! Your personality is just infectious,” raved Lionel. Luke was so thrilled that he even hopped up from behind the desk (still staying six feet away, of course) for an impromptu duet on “Big City,” a Merle Haggard standard with which Alex was totally familiar. Alex was giving me old-soul Scotty McCreery vibes too. How is this kid only 17?
Jason Warrior, 25: “What’s Going On”
Regular singing show viewers will surely recognize Jason — if not from The Voice Season 11 (on which he made it all the way to the Live Playoffs), then from his infamous run on Fox’s short-lived The Four, when his obnoxious behavior (which frankly might’ve been egged on by producers) made him the token viral villain of that series. Jason didn’t speak about The Voice Sunday, as it is very rare for reality contestants to acknowledge their previous TV appearances. But surprisingly, he did do damage control by directly addressing that Four controversy (which had climaxed with him angrily confronting judge Meghan Trainor after his elimination and being escorted off the stage by security). Jason said, “I thought I knew it all. I thought I was a bag of chips, dip, and hot sauce. But I wasn’t even close to being there yet.” Jason even admitted that his “moment of immaturity” on The Four almost destroyed his career. (“Doors started to close… opportunities started to walk away.”) But when the newly humbled singer belted his Marvin Gaye protest song on Idol, he sounded genuinely lovely, better than he ever had before, and all was forgiven. “It took a lot of guts to crawl back into that saddle,” noted Lionel, who said this was “one of the smoothest vocals” he’d ever heard on Idol. “It sounds like you were on the wrong show,” Katy joked. I predict doors are going to reopen for Mr. Warrior this year.
Anilee List, 20: “Blue”
Anilee has Tourette syndrome, and she was inspired to start singing by Season 10 top four Idol rocker James Durbin, who was very open about his own Tourette’s experience when he competed on the show a decade ago. Anilee reminded me of a young Joss Stone or James’s Season 10 castmate Haley Reinhart, with her sunny style and unforced soulfulness somehow coupled with masterful vocal control. She simply exuded joy. Luke broke out in “six waves of chillbumps” and called this performance “just completely flawless,” while Katy even called it “one of the most technically perfect vocals I think we’ve even gotten to hear on American Idol.” In a full-circle Idol moment, Anilee exited the audition room with her Golden Ticket to see James’s beaming face on that immersive digital wall, as he congratulated her and told her, “Now is your chance to show the next generation what you’ve been diagnosed with is not something that defines you, but it’s something that you can defy.”
DJ Johnson, 18: “Scars”
DJ and her nine siblings were abandoned by their emotionally abusive mother last year, and it was devastating to see DJ pour all of her subsequent anguish and anger into her original piano ballad. As she broke down repeatedly, the supportive judges kept urging her to power through; Lionel clearly wanted to hug poor DJ, but due to COVID safety protocols, all he could do was offer her some tissues from a distance instead. It almost felt invasive and intrusive to air this audition on national TV, but I was getting flashbacks to original Idol Kelly Clarkson’s brave “Piece by Piece” performance during Fox’s farewell season — and I think viewers will similarly connect with DJ, if she can keep it together when it’s her time to perform on the big Idol stage. “The message in that song is a hit record. Your delivery was completely honest, to the point that you got us crying,” said Lionel. “Some of the greatest artists have become artists because they have had the most pain in their life. It’s about if you can take that pain and turn it into a purpose,” advised Katy.
Nia Renée 17: “Chain of Fools”
Another 17-year-old going on 70, this babydiva floored the judges with this fierce, fiery, and fun tour de force. Katy pretty much crowned Nia the new “queen of soul,” and Luke borrowed a favorite catchphrase from Lionel and described Nia’s audition as “barbecue sauce.” Luke also told Nia she was “born to do it” and even later raved, “She may be our best soul singer ever.” She is definitely finale material.
Grace Kinstler, 20: “Midnight Train to Georgia”/“Natural Woman”
And Sunday saved the best for last with this Clarkson-esque powerhouse, who dedicated a pair of soul classics to her recently deceased father and did Dad proud. Grace belted like she was trying to reach the back rows of the stadiums she was clearly born to headline, but true to her name, she made it all seem so effortless. “I think my milk just came in!” quipped new mom Katy (who was wearing a cow-print outfit at the time, natch). “This is the first time in four years that just someone singing made me cry,” marveled Luke, who said Grace was “right up there with some of the biggest voices in the history of Idol” like Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson. I agree: This master-class audition was one of the best in Idol history.
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