With season 21 of “American Idol” in the rearview mirror, Top 8 finalist Oliver Steele is opening up not only about life after “Idol,” but also what life was life during the show.
In a wide-ranging interview on the “American Idol Unaired” podcast, posted on June 12, 2023, Steele talked about the tight bond formed among the contestants behind-the-scenes as they dealt with everything from fame to food choices, becoming a “family” in the process. Here’s what you need to know:
Oliver Steele Says Season 21 Contestants Became a ‘Family’
Judges Luke Bryan, Katy Perry and Lionel Richie repeatedly said on-air that they’d never seen a more talented group of contestants. Steele told “Unaired” host Bennett Scheer that producers also said they were the most deeply bonded group of contestants they’d ever seen. After the Top 26 who made it through Hollywood Week and the Showstopper Round in Hawaii waited at home to return to Los Angeles for the live shows, Steele said producers held a Zoom call with them.
He recalled, “They started off the Zoom call by saying, ‘Hey guys, we just want you all to know that in the history of the show, we have never had a group of contestants that has shown so much, like, love and support towards each other. Like, you are so kind and so loving with each other and we have never seen that.'”
“And we were just like, ‘Yeah, we know,'” Steele continued. “I mean, the thing about it is most of us understood that this is a shared experience that not very many people go through in life. First of all, it’s an opportunity in and of itself for one person alone, but for all of us to go through this thing together, there’s gotta be a bond. Like, we are a family. And that’s the word we used, was family.”
The group got so close and spent so much time together, in fact, that on June 9, after watching some of his castmates perform in Nashville, Steele shared on Instagram that he was having a hard time adjusting to life without them.
“Truth be told, I’ve been having a bit of a rough time since the end of the show,” he wrote, adding that he realized it wasn’t just having to deal with a death in his family, getting sick, and not being sure what steps to take next after the season finale, but that he was missing his “Idol” family.
“I haven’t felt the same,” he wrote. “There’s been a constant feeling of something missing. I thought maybe I felt stuck, like things weren’t happening fast enough for me, despite trying to remind myself to be patient. But after the incredible show at @thevalentinenashville last night, I realized something.”
Realizing life hadn’t felt the same without their “crazy little family,” Steele wrote, “I guess I didn’t account for making so many incredible friends and forging such strong bonds. We went from seeing each other every single day, to now hardly seeing one another at all!”
Steele isn’t the only one who’s been singing the praises of that newfound “family.” Fellow finalist MaryBeth Byrd posted on Instagram after the May 23 season finale about how grateful she was for them, including her newfound besties Colin Stough and runner-up Megan Danielle.
“I can’t even express how blessed I feel to have chased my dreams along side such an amazingly talented group of artist,” she wrote. “I’m so proud of my idol family!”
On May 14, Top 5 contestant Wé Ani told Heavy that in addition to leaning on support from family and friends back home, “the support we have for each other (on the show) is just like family too. It’s a wild ride.”
Season 21 Contestants — and Jelly Roll — Bonded Over Food & Fame
During his “American Idol Unaired” interview, Steele said behind-the-scenes of the show, life was not always glamorous and that basic needs — like what they were going to eat next — was always top-of-mind. After discussing Steele’s recent impromptu performance while eating at a Whataburger restaurant with “Idol” winner Iam Tongi, who became his closest friend on the show, Scheer said he assumed food was probably the last thing on their minds while filming the “Idol.”
Steele countered, “Oh no. It’s absolutely on the beginning of our priority list. Because we’re starving when we wake up. We’re hungry — like, ‘When’s breakfast?’ and then we’re like, ‘Alright, when’s lunch? What is for lunch?’ Someone like me, I’m like, ‘What are we having to eat today?'”
Steele said he and his castmates frequently went out to eat in Los Angeles or had food brought in. So often, in fact, that they started getting tired of eating food from the same quick-serve restaurants.
He said, “We ate at In-N-Out, we had WABA (Grill) a lot — that’s what they would feed us on set with WABA or California Pizza Kitchen. And we got tired of it all. Chipotle was a popular destination, it was like, right by our hotel. Starbucks. I think we had Shake Shack a couple of times, which is okay. I’ll be honest, there weren’t a lot of great options around where we were at.”
Steele recalled a funny moment at an In-N-Out Burger joint when a staffer there was excited to see Tongi but said nothing to Steele about being on “Idol.”
“Like, I’m standing next to him,” he laughed. “I’m like, ‘I was his duet partner.’ Like, I don’t actually care. It makes me so happy when so many people show their love to him. Like, it fills me up with so much pride. Everywhere we would go, he’d get recognized.”
In addition to forming a close bond with his fellow castmates, Steele has also felt grateful for the connections he’s made with stars who appeared on the show, from his own music idol Ed Sheeran to country star Jelly Roll, who recently invited Steele to join him onstage for a duet in Nashville, per Billboard.
“Man, Jelly’s cool as hell,” Steele said on the “Unaired” podcast. “He took me out to eat, like me and MaryBeth (Byrd) and him, like two nights in a row in L.A.”
Steele said one night, he was salivating over a steak on the menu, but it was the most expensive item. So he asked Jelly Roll if he’d mind if he ordered it.
“He goes, ‘I don’t give a damn if you order five of them, dude! It’s tax deductible!’ He’s like, ‘You get whatever you want’ … That dude is so cool and is experiencing a wave of success that is just like, I see that and I’m like, ‘I want to be that successful one day.’ And he keeps his people close around him, and he knows how to give back.”
Now that Steele is back home in Tennessee, he’s still adjusting to life after “Idol,” he said.
“It’s just hard not being able to see, like, my brothers and sisters I met on the show,” he said. “I don’t know what the future holds and I’m not supposed to. None of us are supposed to know, and that’s something that brings me peace when I think about it.”