During Season 21 of “American Idol,” celebrity judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry, and Luke Bryan have repeatedly said it’s been the best overall group of talent they’ve seen in their six years on the judges’ panel. That’s why it’s been particularly difficult for them and millions of viewers to see talented contestants like Wé Ani and Zachariah Smith get cut from the competition, as they were on May 14, 2023, when neither singer get enough votes to advance to the Top 5.
During the “American Idol: Journey to the Finale” special that aired the following night, Richie said he gets invested and emotional about the contestants’ stories and results because it feels personal to him.
“I’m emotional because they don’t just become contestants with me,” he said. “They become my kids.”
Richie’s been particularly vocal about Ani’s talent during the season. After her performances on Sunday night’s Disney-themed episode, he told her that as a writer and producer, “I’m in love with you” and added, “You look like a star, you sound like a star, you act like a star.”
Richie looked momentarily stunned when Ani didn’t make the Top 3, taking a deep breath as he stood motionless behind the judges’ table. But after the show, he told Entertainment Tonight that he believes she and multiple top contestants have the potential to be huge success stories, despite not winning the competition, and that he talked to them about that after the latest episode.
“So, let me tell you what I told them. The Top 5, they have careers,” he said, revealing that after the show, he advised all five finalists to smartly leverage the momentum of being on “American Idol.” Here’s what you need to know:
Lionel Richie Says ‘American Idol’ Gives Artists Advantage He Didn’t Have
Ani and Smith are still in Hollywood, preparing with other Top 12 contestants to perform on the May 21 season finale, during which Megan Danielle, Colin Stough, and Iam Tongi will compete for the title of “American Idol” winner.
But Richie told Entertainment Tonight that all five are capable of having huge careers in the music industry — and he advised them on this after the latest live episode.
“I mean, you could just see it. Each one of them, they tick off a box,” Richie said. “(They) have the identity, they’ve got the voice, they’ve got the entertainment factor. It’s just a matter now of what you do with it.”
Recalling his rise to fame in the 70s, and the years he spent in various R&B groups before becoming the frontman of the Commodores, Richie said the “American Idol” finalists have a platform he didn’t have as a young singer.
He said, “That is the most amazing thing! We had to (travel) from New York to LA to New York to LA, (play) every club, before we got recognized. They just (sang for) 20 million people, 30 million people, and (made) a billion impressions. Give me a break!”
The key for the contestants moving forward, he said, will be leveraging that exposure and momentum.
“The Top 5, the Top 10, they can make their careers happen,” he continued. “The platform of ‘American Idol’ is just to get you exposed, ladies and gentlemen! Because, right now, the follow-up is the most important thing.”
Richie also said it’s critical that as they move forward, the “Idol” contestants are clear about who they want to be as an artist and stay true to that.
He explained, “What’s that record gonna sound like? What’s that image going to be like? I mean, (look at) the Jennifer Hudsons of the world, you know? I mean, where do we go with this?”
Top ‘Idol’ Contestants Are Already Leveraging Newfound Fame
As Richie advised, some of the contestants who’ve gained exposure from appearing on “American Idol” this year are wasting no time jumping on opportunities to forward their careers.
After being eliminated from the Top 5, Smith posted an Instagram video thanking fans for supporting him and addressing those who were upset that he didn’t advance. He reminded them that “this is just a TV show” and that “it helped me grow my platform, I’ve got to meet a lot of new people, and I’ve gained a lot of new fans I didn’t have before this.” He added that it’s the beginning of a “new chapter” for him and that there are lots of opportunities ahead.
Ani also shared a gratitude post after being cut, writing, “Y’all I am blessed and in high spirits! Thank you to everyone who supported, voted, and cheered me on! I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world because I’ve learned so much about myself and met some of my best friends!”
She added, “Although I didn’t win the competition, I in no way feel like I’ve lost! Who’s ready to keep on this ride with me?”
All of the contestants who were in the Top 5 will release new singles on May 19 via “Idol” record label partner 19 Recordings. According to social media posts they’ve shared about their upcoming releases, Smith’s tune is called “American Grace,” Ani’s is titled “175 Lbs,” Danielle is releasing “Dream Girl,” Tongi will release “I’ll Be Seeing You,” and Stough’s single is called “I Still Talk to Jesus.” All are available for pre-save on music streaming platforms including Apple and Spotify.
Meanwhile, other performers who were in the Top 10 are making strides at jumpstarting their careers, too. On May 3, after being cut from the competition, Arkansas country artist MaryBeth Byrd posted on Instagram that she’ll soon head to Nashville to work with producers and may be releasing an album.
On May 10, 17-year-old Haven Madison wrote in her Instagram Stories, “I’m talking to a few talent agencies, labels, and management companies to try and figure out where I’m headed.”