American Idol’s 18th winner, Just Sam, celebrated alone on Sunday after taking part in the finale under lockdown in Los Angeles.
Samantha Diaz, 21, from Harlem, New York, was told she’d won the public vote by host Ryan Seacrest, who was broadcasting from his garage.
She heard the news while clutching an iPad that was connected to a call with her grandmother, who brought her up.
“Can I thank America now?” asked the singer. “My dreams have come true.”
American Idol has soldiered on through the coronavirus pandemic, with the flashy neon sets and pyrotechnics replaced by gardens, garages and bedrooms.
Just Sam relocated from New York to LA for the live stages of the singing contest. When the show started filming remotely due to the pandemic, she faced a tough choice – either return to Harlem or remain alone in quarantine in LA.
In the end, she chose the latter for her grandmother’s safety.
“I get to stay in California so that my grandmother could be OK and so I don’t risk getting her sick,” she said on the show. “I don’t have much, just my two suitcases that I had packed about two months ago.”
From the subway to stardom
Over the weeks, Just Sam captured viewers’ hearts with her emotional back story, vivacious personality and soul-stirring vocals.
Formerly a subway singer in New York, she broke down in tears while auditioning for the show in Washington DC last year, before stunning the judges with a stirring performance of Andra Day’s Rise Up.
The singer had a tough upbringing. With her mother in jail, she spent time in foster care before being adopted at the age of six by her Liberian grandmother, Elizabeth.
“She made sure we were fed, she made sure we had a roof over our head, she made sure we had clothes on our backs,” she told American Idol.
She took on her stage name at high school after being bullied over her appearance.
“In high school, they didn’t know which category to put me in,” she said in one episode. “I wasn’t a girl, not a boy, but both. And I’m like, ‘Just Sam – it sounds perfect. I think I’m going to use that as my stage name forever.'”
In the final, she faced stiff competition from Arthur Gunn, a Nepalese-American singer whose gritty rock vocals made him one of the favourites to win.
But Sam’s powerful rendition of Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You), by the first ever Idol winner Kelly Clarkson, and an emotional reprise of Day’s Rise Up earned her the public vote.
Rise Up will be released as her first single on Monday.
“My grandmother has been saying that she doesn’t believe that people like us can have their dreams come true,” she said during the show. “This is proof to her!”
The contestants and judges (Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie) were each sent a makeshift rig consisting of three iPhones, a tripod and a ring light to film their segments.
The production team, also in their own homes, advised on camera angles and backdrops, and the resulting footage was edited remotely.
For the finale, contestants were also provided with a confetti cannon, with each of the final five pre-recording one song and performing the other live.
“We put the show together earlier in the week because there are so many factors to it,” Seacrest told People magazine. “It’s technically not possible to do it all live obviously.
“Every once in a while we have to be careful not to step on each other while we’re talking because there’s that delay that we’ve all experienced talking to our families at home on different Zooms and things like that.”
Elsewhere in Sunday’s show, Perry performed her new single Daisies, while Oscar nominee Cynthia Erivo delivered a medley of Aretha Franklin hits.
The finale ended with a performance of the 1985 charity anthem We Are The World, led by co-writer Lionel Richie and his fellow judges.
Just Sam also joined the chorus, alongside an all-star group of Idol alumni – including Jordin Sparks, Fantasia, Katharine McPhee, Ruben Studdard and Scotty McCreery – whose faces were virtually projected onto some of America’s most famous landmarks.
Speaking to Billboard, executive producer Trish Kinane, said some of the changes forced upon the team this season would influence next year’s show.
“We’re starting to think about auditions in a serious way now,” Kinane said. “All our big, open calls where you have thousands of people, I guess we’re not going to be able to do that.”
Filming contestants at home could become a more regular feature.
“When we’ve been announcing the results to contestants these past few weeks, they’re at home in a familiar environment with their family and the emotion… has been extraordinary and you don’t get that in the big studio,” she said.
“We’re certainly going to be looking at the emotion that these moments have produced, and how do we capture that again?
“We’ve been forced into it, but I think it’s revealed something rather stripped-back and back to the origins of what Idol was.”