The pressure was on for the three remaining Season 21 contestants of “American Idol,” as they competed on the May 21, 2023, live finale. ABC packed the three-hour songfest with celebrity performances, including songs by all three judges — Katy Perry, Luke Bryan, and Lionel Richie — and a long list of famous artists, from country star Lainey Wilson to rapper Pitbull.
Country superstar and former “Idol” judge Keith Urban returned to the show, too, to not only perform but to serve as a mentor to the final three contestants — 18-year-old Iam Tongi from Hawaii, 21-year-old Megan Danielle of Arkansas, and 18-year-old Mississippian Colin Stough, all of whom got to return to their hometowns last week for parades and concerts, with footage from those visits airing on tonight’s finale.
Voting began as the live show kicked off and after each finalist sang two songs, the early votes from viewers — online, via apps and via text — determined who would come in third place. The final votes between the last two contestants were tabulated during the last commercial break of the night, with the winner announced live by host Ryan Seacrest minutes before the show’s close.
Spoiler Alert: Throughout the night Heavy provided live updates and voting results, so do not read further if you do not want to know what happens. Here’s how the night unfolded; the winner is revealed at the end of our recap.
‘American Idol’ Season 21 Finale: FIRST HOUR
The grand finale kicked off with the return of Season 21’s entire Top 12 — the three finalists plus Wé Ani, Marybeth Byrd, Warren Peay, Haven Madison, Tyson Venegas, Oliver Steele, Zachariah Smith, Lucy Love, and Nutsa Buzaladze — standing with tuxedo-clad host Ryan Seacrest outside the new “American Idol” studios. He then sent viewers inside for a live performance by Pitbull featuring a surprise appearance by Lil’ Jon.
The contestants eventually joined Pitbull, singing “Tonight,” which they’ve all been practicing throughout the week, sharing snippets of their rehearsals on social media.
Seacrest then introduced the judges, dressed up for the occasion, and they made the walk from the stage to their seats behind the judges’ table. Next, the Top 3 — Stough, Danielle, and Tongi walked out to center stage, shared that they felt ready to have some fun and the competition began.
KEITH URBAN MENTORSHIP SESSIONS
MEGAN DANIELLE: “Idol” then showed Danielle in her mentorship session with Urban, getting teary-eyed as she talked about how hard it’s been learning to believe in herself throughout the competition after “listening to all the negativity,” which she alluded to in a social media video earlier in the week. After a touching pep talk from Urban, the show returned to the studio, where she performed his song “God Whispered Your Name.”
Richie told her the “little cry” in her voice is “so moving,” and said “as far as I’m concerned, we have three number ones on at that stage.” Perry told Danielle that she has found herself through this competition, and Bryan told her he’s never heard her miss a note or make a bad vocal choice during the entire season, but that he wants to make sure she also just has fun as she moves forward in her career.
IAM TONGI: Next up, Tongi met with Urban and revealed that his dad, who died in December 2021, was a huge fan. In fact, Tongi remembers how his parents used to dance all the time to the song he chose to sing, “Making Memories of Us.” Tongi’s mom, Lillie, told Urban how grateful they are for his music because it reminds them of his dad.
As has happened many times before, the crowd went wild cheering for Tongi after his performance — so much so that the judges could barely get a word in edgewise. Perry eventually was able to tell Tongi that she needed to grab a tissue because “the vibration that comes out of your mouth, it goes through the weeds of people’s hearts.” Bryan told Tongi he has “a natural gift from God” and that it was one of his favorite performances of the year from him. Meanwhile, Richie, too, said Tongi’s delivery is why they find themselves tearing up “on a song I already know.”
After the judges’ feedback, Tongi laughed as he told Seacrest that it was gross seeing his parents kiss to that song, but will always remember them dancing to it.
COLIN STOUGH: Stough said Urban was his favorite celebrity mentor of the season since he grew up listening to and playing his music, but admitted to the musician that he was nervous playing his songs in front of him. Urban said, “I get it, I don’t know if I could do it!” Urban agreed that “Stupid Boy” was great song for him, and that the audience would be able to see different layers of his voice in it.
Bryan told him, “You being you, baby!” and added that he’s loved seeing Stough develop into an artist who’s able to deliver tender moments and grittier songs. Richie said he’s noticed that he’s gained some attitude and confidence as he sings love songs and that the girls are screaming for him now. Perry played up the fact Stough used to be an HVAC repairman, telling him that he hasn’t even reached his peak in his abilities and that when he does, he’ll be so hot he’ll need his own air conditioner.
Afterwards, he told Seacrest the whole experience of being on the show “has been a blessing, getting to wake up every day to these great people.”
As “Idol” does every season, producers jetted the three finalists off in private planes to their hometowns on Tuesday for daylong visits — complete with parades, pep rallies, and concerts put on by the communities they came from. During the finale, they aired footage from each visit and then the contestants sang a song chosen because it represents where they came from.
MEGAN DANIELLE — Douglasville, Georgia: Danielle flew to Atlanta, about a half hour from her hometown, and then took a Hummer limousine to Douglasville, where she made a stop at the Landmark Market Restaurant, where she and her mom worked waiting tables before “Idol.” She then visited her elementary school, where kids did a balloon release to celebrate her, and got to hang out at the Senoia Raceway.
The town lined the streets for a parade in her honor, and then she visited the cemetery where her PawPaw is buried — and she tearfully told him, standing at his grave, that she thinks he’s had a hand in all the good things that have happened to her. That evening, in the rain, Danielle performed a concert for a packed high school football stadium.
Danielle chose to sing Journey’s “Faithfully” in honor of her home and cameras panned to Perry dabbing her eyes as she sang, and then Bryan needed a tissue, too. Danielle then teared up when Richie said, “Isn’t it wonderful when you start out in your life with your plan and you end of on ‘American Idol’s stage with God’s plan?” Perry said she is right where she’s supposed to be, and Bryan joked that this show is the only place where he cries because he’s so moved by the contestants’ stories and growth.
IAM TONGI — Kahuku, Hawaii: Called “the pride of Hawaii” by many, Tongi was thrilled to visit the high school where he would have graduated from had his family not had to move to Washington state, where life was more affordable. Tongi received an honorary degree from the school where he still has friends, and then he gathered with family on the shore. At a concert attended by 14,000 screaming fans, they held a moment of silence in honor of Tongi’s dad, Rodney, and he got to perform with many artists from Hawaii including Jack Johnson.
According to TODAY, Tongi is the first Hawaiian to have made the Top 26 on “American Idol,” let alone the Top 3. In honor of his Hawaiian upbringing and Polynesian culture, Tongi sang “Cool Down” by Kolohe Kai.
The crowd and judges loved the island vibe. Perry told him, “You are the culture; you bring the culture to ‘American Idol.'” Bryan said he and Perry have decided they can’t look at each other during performances because then they both start crying. Richie said “watching the village that raised you celebrated you was amazing.”
COLIN STOUGH — Amory, Mississippi: Stough was welcomed to his small town on what he called “the best day of my life” by handmade signs posted along the road and a big family waiting for him at home. He went for a motorcycle ride with his grandpa, and then sat in the same porch chair he sat in during his first interview for the show, admitting he’s “a completely different person now.”
One year after graduating from high school, he returned to his alma mater and was amazed by the number of people who gathered for a pep rally, parade, and a concert where he was surprised by Rickey Medlocke from his favorite band, Lynyrd Skynyrd, to sing “Simple Man.”
Stough sang Chris Stapleton’s ballad “Either Way” in honor of Amory. Bryan told him that what he loves about him is that he’s “so much better than I originally thought you were” and that he has loved seeing him grow vocally and with his guitar. Richie congratulated Stough on a great job and Perry said he hit his “sweet spot” because it was so intimate and gritty.
‘American Idol’ Finale: SECOND HOUR, FIRST ELIMINATION
While the first hour of votes were tabulated, Top 12 contestant Lucy Love got to perform a medley of hits with 90s group TLC including “No Scrubs,” “Creep,” and “Waterfalls.” Then, after an amusing montage of the Top 12 contestants making fun of how hard it is to understand Stough with his heavy Mississippi accent, Top 5 contestant Zachariah Smith took the stage to duet with Kevin Cronin of REO Speedwagon on the band’s 80s hit “Take It on the Run.”
Seacrest returned to the stage with an envelope in which the results of the early votes were held. He then announced that with 13 million votes in, the first person to advance to the Top 2 is Iam Tongi. The second person to advance is Megan Danielle, which means Colin Stough landed in third place.
After a commercial break, country artists Jelly Roll and Lainey Wilson performed part of their hit duet, “Save Me.” He then sang “Need A Favor,” and was joined by Top 8 contestant Oliver Steele, receiving a standing ovation from the judges.
Next, the Top 12 roasted Danielle in funny videos about character traits they’ve picked up from, including how “southern” she is and how she always sticks her tongue out in photos. Then, Kylie Minogue took center stage to perform her new song, “Padam Padam,” and was joined by Top 12 contestant Nutsa for her hit “Can’t Get You Out of My Head.”
After a commercial break, the show returned with Richie singing on stage at a grand piano and singing the Commodores’ hit “Sail On” with highlights from the season playing behind him. He then got the crowd on their feet and was joined by the Top 12 on stage, singing along with him.
That was followed by another set of commercials, after which Keith Urban returned to perform his new single, “Wild Hearts” as the pumped-up crowd of 700 waved lights above their heads and the Top 12 contestants cheered.
Following that performance, the most emotional moment of the evening took place. Tongi took the stage with singer-songwriter James Blunt, whose song — “Monsters” — is the tune Tongi first auditioned with, in memory of his dad, who always dreamed of his son making it big in music. The video of his audition, which brought the judges to tears last fall, quickly went viral and made Tongi an instant frontrunner throughout the competition. During the finale performance, Tongi struggled to get through all of the song through his tears, as images of him and his dad were shown behind him and Blunt. The cameras showed Perry sobbing, his mom dabbing her eyes, and even Jelly Roll with tears in his eyes.
“American Idol” took a break, and then returned with Ellie Goulding at center stage, singing “Miracle,” her new dance song with Calvin Harris. The music then transitioned and Top 10 contestant Tyler Venegas appeared, singing her song “Burn,” which they then dueted on surrounded by flames on stage.
‘American Idol’ Finale: THIRD HOUR, WINNER REVEALED
At the top of the third hour, Seacrest spoke briefly with the moms of the Top 2 — Tongi’s mom, Lillie, and Danielle’s mom, Monica, who was stunned to get a kiss on the cheek from Luke Bryan, one of her favorite artists. Meanwhile, Lillie said that all she could think about during her son’s emotional performance of “Monsters” was that “this is what Rodney dreamt about, he wanted everyone to hear what Iam had.”
Christian pop artist Lauren Daigle then took the stage with her song, “These Are The Days,” and invited Danielle onto the stage to sing her new single, “Thank God I Do.” Daigle surprised Danielle during her initial audition when she sang the singer-songwriter’s hit “You Say.” Video of that surprise duet has since been viewed by over 1.3 million on YouTube.
After a commercial break, Bryan took the stage to sing part of his new song, “But I Got A Beer in My Hand” as he was elevated above the crowd, full of fans waving glow sticks. “Idol” then shared a video of Luke’s special moments with third-place contestant Stough, whom he considered one of his “country kids” throughout the competition. Stough then joined Bryan on the stage to sing Conway Twitty’s “Slow Hand.”
“Idol” producers also put together a montage of videos making fun of Tongi’s frequent expressions like “yessah” and “heyyyy,” and how the “American Idol fly” landed on his forehead during the season’s first live performance in April. Next, R&B singer Jazmine Sullivan then appeared on stage to sing her hit, “Bust Your Windows,” and was joined by fan-favorite Wé Ani, who landed in the Top 5.
After a break, Lainey Wilson returned to sing her hit, “Heart Like a Truck,” and was joined by Top 8 contestant Marybeth Byrd. Cameras showed Bryan, who’s been a big fan of Byrd throughout the season, smiling as she sang. Then Top 10 contestant Warren Peay joined them on stage, and Richie was shown pumping his fists with delight.
Following that performance, Seacrest announced that Perry was partnering with Top 8 contestant Haven Madison, who’s just 17, to sing their original tunes about self-love. Barefoot and dressed in jeans and white shirts as they sat on pianos surrounded by candles, they sang Perry’s “By the Grace of God” and Madison’s “Still Need You.”
Another special moment occurred when Season 2 winner Ruben Studdard and runner-up Clay Aiken performed 20 years to the day of their “American Idol” finale, dueting on “The Impossible Dream.” The pair has remained friends all these years and have been on a reunion concert tour together. Tongi and Danielle joined them at the end of the song, too, and Seacrest then revealed that for making it to the Top 2, both of them will get to take three guests on a Disney cruise.
Following a break, producers showed how the top contestants got to record with award-winning producers at the famous Sound Factory to record their first singles, which were released on Friday. Danielle and Tongi then sang their singles in one last attempt to earn votes for themselves.
Danielle’s song is called “Dream Girl,” and she took to the stage to perform it live for the first time. Then, Tongi took the stage to sing his single, “I’ll Be Seeing You.” Seacrest then announced that voting will close in the next commercial break — and the winner would be revealed.
With five minutes left, Seacrest welcomed everyone back and was joined by Danielle and Tongi on stage. When he checked in with the judges, Richie said they feel like “the parents” and that they’re incredibly proud. Perry said she could envision Tongi’s dad and Danielle’s grandpa looking in on them, so proud of them too, which got Tongi tearful again.
Embracing each other on stage, they listened to Seacrest say “After the nationwide vote, the winner of ‘American Idol’ 2023 is…Iam Tongi!”
The two hugged again, and Danielle told him repeatedly she loved him. Tongi looked stunned, and Bryan jumped up and down for him. As he tried to sing “Don’t Let Go” by Spawnbreezie, he tried to keep his composure — and then fellow contestants ran up on stage as confetti poured from the ceiling. He also had his “Idol” bestie Steele sing a few words, and Stough, too. The cast hugged and shouted for him as Seacrest told viewers, “We’ll see you next year!”