37 Memorable 'American Idol' Contestants: Then & Now

Gone is the negativity and mocking of awful contestants, replaced with love and support from Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie ... even if you happen to suck.

Can you believe it's back already? It feels like only a couple of years ago that we said goodbye to the biggest television phenomenon of the 2000s when Fox finally pulled the plug on "American Idol." What's that? It was?! No wonder it seems like only yesterday. But hey, it's back and your Fifth Judge is coming along for the ride.

For this first episode, there's a whole lot more than just the singers to critique. Since we've been away, "Idol" recruited a whole new panel of judges (Lionel Richie, Katy Perry, and Luke Bryan) and even a new network. But it's the same old Ryan Seacrest, holding it all together.

We've danced with the stars and seen America's talent; hell we uncovered a whole world of dance. We even peeked in on a drag race. But now we're taking it all the way back to the granddaddy of the modern reality talent show. THIS is "American Idol!" And we're gonna get into everything, from what is and isn't working with this new format to who is and isn't the "new hotness," as our beloved Dawg (Randy Jackson) would have said. With only three judges, you get to stand in as the fourth judge, as your votes will certainly have a lot to say about who wins, and I'll proudly stand beside you.

'Who do I think I am?' you ask. Well, I spent nearly a decade of my life sweating and bleeding to the music as a dancer. From a young boy learning a shuffle-ball-change to performing with the St. Louis Ballet Company, I experienced the ups and downs of one of the most difficult physically demanding sports on the planet. During this time, I was also a member of the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra, as well as a gymnast, writer and cartoonist. I had a lot more energy in my younger years. And I've spent the last sixteen years analyzing and critiquing reality competition shows for various media publications. I've got this.

Fair warning, since I'm safe at home, I'm probably going to be a little harsher than my colleagues Lionel RIchie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan. But I might be nicer, too. Maybe. For these early rounds, I'll just keep ranking them from worst to first, as I do, and we'll see who emerges at the top. But first, some general thoughts on the revival.


Right away, "American Idol" wanted to make sure we knew that they are in the business of making stars and have been for nearly two decades. What better way to do that than by having Carrie Underwood -- the show's biggest-ever star winner -- provide the narration to set up this story of "dreamers and lullaby singers." She was joined in the opening minutes by the familiar face of Seacrest, while former winners Kris Allen, Jordin Sparks and Ruben Studdard appeared later for a Disney World audition segment.

The next big challenge, though, is one the show has faced many times before, and struggled with more often than not. They need us to fall in love with these new judges. We need to believe in and love them as much as we believed in Randy, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell in the beginning. Very few subsequent judges managed to capture the love of America, with the exceptions of maybe Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez, with Harry Connick Jr. a distant third because nobody was watching by the time he joined the show.

"It's not about what me and Lionel and Katy are doing," Luke said in a pretty clear jab at "The Voice." "It's about watching the star be born right there in front of your eyes." That's the mission of the show, sure, but the judges are key to the show finding an audience before it can find a star. Thankfully, these three have a magical chemistry already in their first audition city. More importantly, they are taking this seriously and I absolutely believe they are doing this for these contestants and to find the next American Idol. Add to that some fun banter and general silliness, and this could be another winning formula, if America gives it a chance.

If they tune in just for a few moments at the top, "American Idol" might hook 'em as it proved it's still a crack whip at doing one thing. With the very first "yes" audition, I found myself tearing up right alongside the contestant. And it wasn't because of a pre-packaged sad story, it was because there was a heart just poured out onto the floor through music and that spot in Hollywood was deserved and so beautifully appreciated.


Nico Bones

Nico Bones (22) was confusing for me, because I thought they weren't going to put in those godawful auditions. His interviews were so bad those looked fake, and then he came out and sang a tone-deaf, plugged-in, acoustic version of the children's song about eating worms. Like, what was that supposed to be? Why was he there? Judges: 3 No

Sardor Maldano

Sardor Moldano (26) won "The X Factor" in Russia in 2015, but is now taking his dream to America. After checking his pitch, he went straight into a falsetto. There were elements of a good voice in there, but he did so many odd vocal affections throughout the performance, his actual talent was muddled throughout the audition. Perhaps it's a cultural difference in how music is expressed or appreciated, or perhaps he overshot the ball a bit here by trying to show too much, but it was all a bit of a mess. Judges: 3 No


Koby (26) comes from the world of musical theater, which is a little scary on a show like this as stage performers often come on way too big and broad for an intimate environment. She certainly had the confidence, as well as the moniker "the best musical theater performer in Colorado 2017." Right away it was an absolutely huge voice that she threw out there, and it was almost all what we have dubbed "Idol Power Notes." That's not a good thing. All those show is that you have a voice and can hit big notes. They don't prove you have a musical identity or can present a song in a compelling way. She performed an original song, and yet it sounded more like vocal warmups. Even worse, she was so arrogant and rude about getting rejected, so if her voice wasn't a turnoff, I was done as soon as she wouldn't even let Katy talk. Judges: 3 No

Benjamin Glaze

Benjamin Glaze (19) writes songs about girls, but is too shy to even talk to them, much less sing to them. In fact, he's never even kissed a girl, but Katy adorably put an end to that streak. She brought him in for a cheek kiss and then turned to give him full lips. I'm still laughing at her arms up in triumph, as he hit the floor in shock. Did Katy kill his chances? Maybe her pheromones were all mixed up in his head, but his vocals were timid and weak even when he was trying to push them out. It sounded like a subpar karaoke performance. Judges: 3 No


Ron Bultongez

Ron Bultongez (22) was our first schmaltzy backstory, having emigrated from The Congo as a refugee with his family. He had the requisite family struggles and is now a committed father, but did we need any of that to judge his emotionally passionate take on James Bay's "Let It Go"? His voice cracked on the low end at the beginning, which sounded like nerves, but he grew into the song. Katy and Lionel were right in that he hadn't quite found who he was as an artist yet, but Luke wanted to fight for him now and have the show help him find it. In a rare move, his regrets convinced Lionel to find Ron and bring him back so he can change his vote. Judges: 2 Yes, 1 No (Katy)

Zach D'Onofiro

Zach D'Onofiro (17) was made fun of for having a higher speaking voice and has only been singing for a year. And yet, he decided to tackle Frank Sinatra in his first major audition. Oddly enough, his voice dropped an octave or so and he almost perfectly matched Sinatra's pitch and intonation on "The Way You Look Tonight." His vocal control was on point, but I'm not sure it told me what I needed to know about who he was as a performer. That said, I'm sure he has no idea just yet, and the unique nature of his approach was reminiscent of Season 3's John Stevens, who did pretty well for himself. Zach could be someone fun to groom and watch grow into himself as an artist with a throwback approach. Judges: 3 Yes

Layla Spring

Layla Spring (16) brought her 7-year-old sister Dyxie into the audition with her. Their relationship is absolutely adorable, but I don't know which one is more adorable and spunky. The more they talked, the more I desperately hoped for Layla to be great. She's so much fun to watch. There was an unexpected tenderness and edge mixed beautifully on The Jackson 5's "Who's Loving You." She's lacking polish, but looks hungry and willing to fully absorb the experience and take it all in. She doesn't have the strongest voice we've seen even on just this first day, but she has an amazing personality and a ton of heart. Judges: 3 Yes


Maddie Poppe

Maddie Poppe (20) put a singer-songwriter spin on "The Rainbow Connection," which was a very unexpected and bold song choice. There was something so charming and warm about her performance, I found myself smiling right alongside Luke with no idea why. Maddie clearly found the message of the song and internalized it. Judges: 3 Yes

Noah Davis

Noah Davis (18) got the judges' attention with his passion for the alpaca and his "wig" bonding with Katy Perry. The two became fast friends even before he took to the piano. My question is where was this unassuming young man hiding that depth and passion in his voice. This kid doesn't just sing a song, he feels it and makes us feel it. His intonation was beautiful, his piano playing flawless and the boy just took on Rihanna and now I want him to "Stay." I mean, come on! Judges: 3 Yes

Catie Turner

Catie Turner (18) is a self-described weirdo who skipped school to be the first-ever contestant to audition on the new season of "American Idol." Even more ambitious, she offered an original song about the influence of media on impressionable youths, "21st Century Machine." Not only was it a catchy little song, but Catie has an effortless control and indie vibe to her voice that stands out from typical pop starlets. Plus, she sings with conviction, and that's always a plus when America's voting. Judges: 3 Yes

Dennis Lorenzo

Dennis Lorenzo (26) grew up in West Philly, losing his father to murder at a young age. Heading down the wrong path, it was music and the guitar that righted his way. Again, I have to put aside these stories to judge the artist presented on the stage. He took his smooth, soulful pipes to Allen Stone's "Unaware." He's effortless like butter on that vocal and I look forward to what else he has to offer. Judges: 3 Yes

Harper Grace

Harper Grace (16) found fame for all the wrong reasons at 11 years old with a stadium performance of the national anthem dubbed by some in the media as the worst ever. But did "Idol" need to show so much of that awful performance before introducing us to her now? She went with an original country song for her audition, and she absolutely nailed the dynamics of a country hit. If she doesn't pull this out as a singer, she's definitely got a shot as a songwriter in Nashville. To show some versatility, she then offered Khalid's "Young, Dumb & Broke," putting her spin and unique energy on it. With just two songs, she presented something really special, and she's not even fully developed vocally just yet. Judges: 3 Yes

Alyssa Raghu

Alyssa Raghu (16) has the most polished pipes I've heard in years from someone so young. She took Ariana Grande's "Almost Is Never Enough." It's a big old song, but Alyssa had no fear, and needn't have any. We talk a lot about teen singers growing into their voices and being something amazing, but then there are those rare few like Whitney and Mariah who already have it. Alyssa didn't just sing that song, she sang it, and damn! Just ... damn! Judges: 3 Yes


It's hard to recreate the wheel when it was rolling along so perfectly for so long, and ABC has left "American Idol" mostly intact. What they took out of it was some of the mean-spirited mocking of terrible contestants -- orchestrated intentionally for a harder era -- and replaced it with even more heart and sentiment. There is no judge like Simon looking for the most clever way to tell someone they're just awful so the audience will laugh. Instead, there's support and affirmation.

That said, there is still something for those who enjoy watching terrible contestants, because they are still managing to get through. And this time, their fall is even rougher because they do have that kernel of talent; they've either just totally botched this opportunity, or their attitude is an absolute nightmare ... oftentimes both.

And yet, even in a montage of rejected contestants toward the end of the show, ABC's take on "American Idol" has a spirit of hope. It's positivity and lifting one another up, and I think that's a perfect recipe for success in this divisive era where we're tearing one another apart on a daily basis from the White House on down to social media bullying. We need someplace that's a bastion of support and love, even when it's rejecting us. It's okay to be rejected. It's what you do with that experience that shapes the successes of your future, and "Idol" has reshaped itself to send that message into the world. Will the world receive it?

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