In May 2020, during the Season 18 “American Idol” finale, judge Katy Perry assured finalist Samantha Diaz — who went by the stage name Just Sam — that her life was about to change for good. But three years later, the singer is back to performing in the New York subway system to make ends meet and thinks “people are feeling that I let them down.”
Throughout the 2020 season, Diaz was considered a frontrunner — beloved by “Idol” viewers for her soulful voice and story of resilience. The year before auditioning for “Idol,” Diaz was featured in a 2018 short documentary called Sam, Underground, which chronicled her life of performing for spare change in subway stations and on the trains. Stunned by her story and her voice, Perry and fellow celebrity judges Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie fell in love with Diaz as soon as she auditioned with the song “Rise Up” — and viewers did, too.
“Look, Sam, you’re never gonna go back to singing on the subway unless you want to go and just, like, do it for fun,” Perry told Diaz after she sang Kelly Clarkson’s hit song “Stronger” on the season finale.
“Your life has changed and that’s because of you,” she continued, as seen in a video of the episode captured by TalentRecap. “Just keep on working it.”
Samantha Diaz Says She Was ‘Super Embarrassed’ to Reveal Return to Subway Singing
Diaz has returned to singing in the New York subway system since leaving the record deal she signed as part of her “American Idol” win — and it’s definitely not just for fun. It’s not clear what caused her rift with Hollywood Records, but in January 2022, Diaz wrote that she “ended up broke” in a series of Instagram Stories obtained by Just Jared, adding that though she was continuing to make music, it was often too expensive to master and release songs on her own.
“I’m not even going to tell you guys the amount of money that I had to pay after leaving the label to claim songs that I had already recorded,” she wrote. “I’m recording all the time or making music all the time, writing every day, doing what I have to do to survive.”
A video that Diaz posted on April 1, featuring her singing Adele’s “Easy On Me” in a subway station with a collection box in front of her, has racked up 1.2 million views on Instagram.
A month later, on May 1, she shared another Instagram video and opened up about her journey since “Idol.”
“Back in 2021, I was super embarrassed to be going back to the trains,” she wrote. “I didn’t want people to know that I legit needed the money & I didn’t want people to know that it wasn’t optional.”
She continued, “I was disappointed in myself for allowing myself to fall so low after winning idol, but then I had to take it easy on me and remember that I started my journey with idol at 20 years old. Not even knowing anything about Hollywood or the music industry.”
“Since then, I have learned so much & I’ve been able to take my experiences and share them with other artist in hopes that they don’t experience the same things that I did when It comes to making it in This life,” she wrote.
Samantha Diaz Says She Knows ‘People Are Feeling Like I Let Them Down’
For much of the 2020 season that Diaz won, “Idol” was produced virtually due to the COVID pandemic, with the judges and most contestants all participating remotely from their homes. Raised by her grandma, according to Good Housekeeping, Diaz chose not to return to the apartment they shared in Harlem, New York, for fear of exposing her grandma to the virus. Then 20 years old, Diaz chose to quarantine in a Los Angeles hotel room, where she performed weekly on “Idol” with a makeshift backdrop of sheets and twinkle lights. When she was named the winner, there was little fanfare and she could only celebrate with her grandma virtually via an iPad.
In Diaz’s May 1 Instagram post, she reminded fans how uncertain things were at that time for everyone and its impact on her success, saying that no other “Idol” contestant has had to face the challenges she did during the competition.
“For my season , there was COVID 19 which literally had the world shut down and had many people in hiding unsure of what was going to happen next,” she wrote. “I was very much unsure of what was going to come. For a few months after winning I was unsure of what was next, but I was ready and waiting for whatever it was.”
She continued, “Everyone wants to know what happened and why this or why that & I will answer those questions someday, but In the meantime I’ll say this.. I never expected to win, but I did , I was so grateful and I know that people are feeling like I let them down. I used to feel like I let myself & everyone down too, but I am a child of God and I keep the lord involved in all that I do so I know that there’s more coming for me , I know that everything happens for a reason & I know that this too shall pass no matter what things may look like right now.”
“Im not like any other contestant that has ever had a chance to be apart of the americanidol production,” she reminded fans. “My year was unlike any other , my grandmother is who I have & who I have always had & she knows absolutely nothing about the music industry all she knows is how to listen and call out a good singer when she hears one.we didn’t know what to do with the win especially being that we had absolutely no help.
“There are people who have had more success than me and good for them I’m happy for them, but I am not them,” she added. “The cards in my hands don’t look like anyone else’s which is fine because I have GOD.I don’t like my situation, but it won’t be this forever.This is only part of the story not the end.”
Fans have implored “American Idol” producers and the judges to intervene, tagging them on her social media posts, but none have commented publicly about Diaz’s situation. In her 2022 post about being broke, she wrote that she did not expect “American Idol” or the judges to bail her out.
“It’s just hard because I’m coming out of pocket and I have bills to pay,” she wrote. “And American Idol is not going to pay my bills. Lionel Richie’s not going to pay my bills. Katy Perry’s not going to pay my bills. Luke Bryan is not going to pay my bills. I have to pay my rent. I have to make sure that I’m eating every day, which is hard to do.”
Diaz last released a song in November 2022 called “Question,” which is available to download on iTunes.