Meet 2022’s ‘American Idol’ Top 10

Just three days before the finalists on the current season of American Idol competed in a live broadcast to narrow the top 14 down to a top 11, they sat down with Billboard for their first in-depth interviews of their Idol run. One by one, over almost eight hours, they filed into dressing room 36G at CBS Television City in Los Angeles to be grilled about their lives, their hopes and dreams and their Idol journeys to date.

Although each contestant was interviewed privately, they named many of the same series alums as their favorite Idols. Alejandro Aranda received the most mentions, with Kelly Clarkson right behind him. Last year, it was a three-way tie for first place among Fantasia, Jennifer Hudson and Katharine McPhee.

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With the revelation of who made the current top 10 now announced on the air, here are the interviews with the top 10 finalists of season 20.

Emyrson Flora

Born: Aug. 7, 2005 – Cleveland, Ohio
Favorite Alums: Alejandro Aranda, Gabby Barrett
Musical Influences: Adele, Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo, Brandi Carlile, Maggie Rogers
First Idol Experience: “It was always in the background. There are videos of me singing for my parents and Idol is on in the background.”

Setting a new record in the annals of Idol history is 16-year-old Emyrson Flora from Cleveland, Ohio. Born Aug. 7, 2005, no other finalist in the series’ 20 years has been born later. Flora’s birth took place after the conclusion of Season 4 and so American Idol has been on the air for her entire lifetime.

Music has also been part of her whole lifetime. “My mom says when I was a baby lying on a mat, I was always dancing. My family’s always been musical. They don’t sing or have that ability, but I’ve always listened to good music in the back seat of the car. My mom says I would listen to a song once and I’d be singing it for the rest of the day. She brought a ukulele home from her trip to Hawaii and I pretended I knew how to play it and made up songs for my parents.” Since her parents knew she loved to sing, they bought a piano when Flora was eight. “I never watched YouTube videos on how to play piano. Somehow I was able to pick up the keys.”

Flora is aware that she is the youngest contestant this season. “At first I was a bit intimidated because it’s not normal for a 16-year-old to be around 28-year-olds all the time. These people have been doing this for a very long time and much longer than I have. But I am pretty mature for my age so I try to learn as much from these people as I can. I ask questions and take their advice. I feel that they always are looking out for me as much as I’m looking out for them.”

Even though she is spending time in Los Angeles, Flora is a junior in high school back home. “It’s a little weird being in this position because everyone at home is focused on college and what’s happening after high school. My teachers are emailing me work and I’m doing it when I have the free time. But I’m living the dream so I can’t complain. Not a lot of 16-year-olds get the opportunity to do this. I’m very lucky and I’m very grateful.”

Christian Guardino

Born: March 14, 2000 – Long Island, N.Y.
Favorite Alums: Willie Spence, Jordin Sparks
Musical Influences: Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles
First Idol Experience: “I was about two years old and my mom was watching. When I was growing up I got a Nintendo Wii, and I had to have the American Idol game. I’m obsessed with the show.”

Guardino was born on Long Island and has been to Italy to visit family but his favorite place in the world is Philadelphia. “That’s because it’s where I received my gene therapy to restore my vision when I was 13 years old,” he tells Billboard.

“If I didn’t get that gene therapy, I would have been completely blind between the age of 15 to 30. Because of the therapy, I have the confidence to do everything that I’m doing right now. If I was blind right now, I’d still be doing the same thing. Because I look at Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles, all these incredible blind people who made it in the industry.”

Guardino studied music in school but had a difficult time with his teachers. “The students loved me but I got a lot of BS from the teachers because of my visual impairment and I didn’t expect that. It put me in a really bad place going through school. It messed me up a little bit and I never wanted to talk about it. I’m grateful because Idol opened me up to talking about where my mental state was at that time.”

Guardino elaborates on how being on Idol has changed him. “Being here has given me this boost, this affirmation that I never thought I’d receive in my life. I can’t believe I get the opportunity to learn from so many incredible people, like my vocal coaches and the judges and everyone on the production team. I cherish every single opportunity that I get to learn and be a student of this and apply what I’ve learned. It means everything.”

Guardino can see his future beyond season 20 of Idol. “I want to tour. I want to travel. I want to make records. I want to sell records. I want to sing for crowds. I want to do this for the rest of my life until I can’t even sing anymore and I’m going to keep trying and keep singing until I physically can’t.”

Fritz Hager

Born: Nov. 3, 1999 – Dallas
Favorite Alums: Casey Abrams, Phillip Phillips, Alejandro Aranda, Hunter Metts, Francisco Martin
Musical Influences: Glen Hansard, Andrew Peterson, Ed Sheeran, Benj Pasek & Justin Paul
First Idol Experience: Watched Scotty McCreery on Season 10 and really got hooked with Season 11’s Phillip Phillips. “Some of the fondest memories I have with my family is watching on Sunday nights and stealing my mom’s phone to vote.”

To recall his earliest memory of music, Fritz Hager has to rely on evidence his parents showed him: “I saw a video of me singing to the Wiggles when I was a year old. So the bug was there early on. I think the moment where I realized that this is something I want to do was in the sixth grade when I got my first guitar. Seeing Phillip Phillips on Idol was a big thing for me. It got me interested in that genre and I started going to concerts and I thought guitars were super cool and I wanted to try my hand at it. My grandparents got me my first month of lessons. The first day, I wrote my first song, so it was pretty much instantaneous that this is what I wanted to do.”

Although he doesn’t remember the title of that first composition, he says that his earliest work consisted of worship songs. “I grew up in a church. My dad was a pastor. In high school I started writing sappy love songs and all of them were bad for a very long time.”

Hager was 13 when he had his first inkling about trying out for Idol, where the minimum age is 15. “I thought, ‘There’s all these young kids going on there. I can totally do it.’ And my parents said, ‘No, you’re not going.’ It was a dream I had for a really long time. I auditioned last year. I did the open call on Zoom and didn’t make it to the judges’ auditions. This year, I didn’t think I was going to do it again and then my aunt from Italy came to the States. We had a heart-to-heart talk and she said, ‘If this is what you want to do, you need to do it now, because you’re young. You don’t have any firm life commitments, so if you’re going to take a shot at something, now is the prime time to do that.’ And then that night, I saw an ad on Instagram for the American Idol Zoom auditions again and I was thought, ‘Might as well.’ I keep saying the worst that can happen for people who audition is that the judges say no and your life goes back to normal. Very minimal risk and only reward. So it worked out and I’m here now, which is amazing.”


Born: May 24, 1998 – Gruetli-Laager, Tenn.
Favorite Alums: Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Lauren Alaina, Chris Daughtry, Colton Dixon, Jennifer Hudson
Musical Influences: Dolly Parton, Reba McEntire, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings
First Idol Experience: “When Carrie Underwood was in the finale with Bo Bice. It was a big deal. I was thinking, ‘I hope she wins. I hope a female country artist wins.’ When she did, I thought, ‘Maybe I could do that someday.’”

“One of my earliest memories is singing with my grandfather in church,” says HunterGirl. “Every Sunday I had that little microphone in my hands. I was four years old singing ‘Amazing Grace’ on stage.” Growing up in a small town, she played county fairs and talent shows. “I started playing guitar when I was 14. My mom and daddy would take me places and wave through the window, (telling people), ‘That’s our little girl playing in there.’ I remember the first gig where I got paid. It was about five minutes from my house in Winchester, Tenn. I went up there and said, ‘Hey, I’d love to play some songs.’ And they said, ‘Okay, get a full piece band and we’ll pay you.’ So I went to my church band and said. ‘Hey, you guys want to be my band?’ I didn’t have anybody my age to play music and they were teaching me how to sing songs, how to be a performer. I started playing shows at that marina and getting paid a little bit of money. I thought I was rich. I learned a lot about music there.”

When she turned 18, she immediately went to Nashville.

For those wondering where the name HunterGirl comes from, she is ready with the explanation. “My last name is Wolkonowski. Eleven letters. It was hard spelling my name in kindergarten and nobody can really pronounce it. When I enrolled in elementary school, I was the only girl named Hunter in my town. Then I was in talent shows and there was a guy named Hunter. So people would say, ‘HunterGirl, come up here.’ and then my grandfather started calling me that. The nickname caught on. So I guess my name is HunterGirl.”

She has a clear idea of what she would like for her future. “I think my ideal career would be writing my own songs and hearing people sing them back to me. I think that would be an incredible moment. Getting to play the Grand Ole Opry. Going on a tour, writing songs. Maybe writing a song that could last forever or touch somebody’s life or singing a song that people need. I think the past few years have shown us how much music can help us through some really tough times. I definitely want to sing songs that mean something to people, and so if I do that, at the end of the day, I’ll be happy with my life.”


Born: Sept. 13, 1998 – Salisbury, Md.
Favorite Alums: Michael Woodard, Tori Kelly, Jessica Sanchez, Jennifer Hudson, Todrick Hall
Musical Influences: Bruno Mars, Beyoncé, Jazmine Sullivan, Michael Jackson, Prince.
First Idol Experience: “I remember when Kelly Clarkson won. I watched with my family. Laughing at the auditions was a highlight.”

First, Jay was given one of only three platinum tickets for the season, allowing him to skip the first round of Hollywood Week. Later, he found himself in the bottom 10 and in danger of leaving the show. How did he feel about that? “I was completely fine,” he tells Billboard. “I was okay. I thought, ‘If I go home, this is not the end of Jay.’ I didn’t want to go home, but in my life, I’ve experienced things way worse than being cut from a show.”

Asked to elaborate, Jay started with, “Sure, we can talk about it,” and proceeded to reveal some disturbing history. “In middle school, I was attacked by five kids. That was very traumatic. I was depressed – suicidal. When you’re a dark-skinned Black boy, you have a lot of struggles. You have a lot of things that you go through. It changed my whole character and so I changed schools. I had to go to therapy, but music really dug me out of the hole I was in and I built my confidence. So for me to be on this show and to express myself as a performer is one of the most amazing things. I haven’t really had a lot of time to talk about my struggles. The only story that American Idol showed was that I jumped out of grad school, so no one really knows about this. But being cut, I was completely fine because I’ve survived worse. I’m just happy that I got this opportunity. I can look back at middle school and think, ‘Wow, that little boy could never see that this day was coming.’”

As for grad school, Jay was studying acting at the University of Houston. “It was a pretty bad experience,” he says candidly. “I told the head of the department that I wanted to pursue [American Idol] and still go to grad school. It seemed like he was on board and when I got to the first week, he was not on board. I was told nine times out of ten, these things don’t work out. He said, ‘I don’t know where you come from, but you can’t have it all.’ He was trying to entice me to stay in grad school. He said, ‘American Idol will always be there.’ I said, ‘That’s not true. It was cancelled five years ago. American Idol will not always be there. Grad school will be, but if you work with me, it will be an amazing thing.’ But he didn’t.” And does Jay have any regrets about dropping out? “None at all,” he says.

When he first appeared on American Idol, he was identified as Jay Copeland. But now he just goes by Jay. “Growing up, my name was Jeremy and it morphed into Jay,” he explains. “My family started calling me Jay. My name was actually Jeremiah, but people call me Jay and I like it. So I thought, ‘Let’s just stick with Jay.’ There are a lot of Jays, like Jay-Z, but there’s not just a ‘Jay,’ so I can use my own name for myself. If I have to use Copeland I will, but I like just ‘Jay.’”

Lady K

Born: Aug. 10, 1996 – Montgomery, Ala.
Favorite Alums: Fantasia, Jordin Sparks, Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Grace Kinstler, Willie Spence
Musical Influences: SWV, Xscape, Monica, Brandy, Lauryn Hill, Faith Evans, Beyoncé, Alicia Keys, Mariah Carey, Erykah Badu, Tamia
First Idol Experience: “I remember when Kelly Clarkson won. And the biggest moment I remember is my family crowding around the TV when Fantasia won.”

Lady K remembers singing before she started school. “My mom says before I could talk, I would hum songs and music. I didn’t start pursuing it until I started school. One of my teachers heard me. I remember my music teacher pulling me into class and asking, ‘Can you follow this?’ and she was playing. I guess I followed pretty well. Then I was on stage and in recording studios.”

First came a play in kindergarten but Lady K doesn’t remember if she sounded any good. “In second grade there was a talent show for sixth graders only, but because I could sing so well, I was the only second-grader in the talent show. I won second place with Alicia Keys’ ‘If I Ain’t Got You’ because I couldn’t win first place since I wasn’t a sixth grader. And ever since then, every time I got a chance to be on stage, I was. One time in the recording studio, there was this local rap group from Montgomery, Dirty Boyz, who were signed to Universal Records and they were working on an album. I was at my aunt’s house because she was my babysitter at the time. She was also a babysitter for one of the rappers’ children and she told him, ‘My niece can sing. You should put her on a song.’” The next thing you know, he was pulling me in to record a hook for the song and the album has been out for years. It did really well. Once I started doing that, local artists and people were saying, ‘Let’s feature her. Let’s get her on this.’”

Even though her talent showed up early, Lady K has considered other professions.

“I love research and I’m very intuitive. I would have definitely done forensic science or computer science. When I was a kid, I thought I was going to be an astronaut because I love astronomy. I feel so connected to everything about the universe.”

Asked about the most important thing she has learned so far in her Idol journey, Lady K was brutally honest. “This is going to sound really harsh, but I realize that I’m not as good as I thought I was. At home, I’m like the big dog. It’s either people are not knowledgeable enough to tell me what I need to work on or not bold enough to tell me what I need to work on. But when I go through these rounds and I watch the other people, I think, ‘This girl doesn’t miss a note’ or ‘Look at the way they perform.’ I haven’t had stage development or artist development so I’m really improvising and trying to finesse my way through each song. It’s a humbling experience. It makes me realize that I have so much work to do. I’m just blessed that with the short amount of time between each round we have that I’m able to pick up something and work on it and can add a little bit more to each performance.”

Leah Marlene

Born: June 25, 2001 – Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Favorite Alums: Adam Lambert, Phillip Phillips, Maddie Poppe
Musical Influences: Allen Stone, Tori Kelly, Coldplay, Sara Bareilles, Madison Cunningham, Sheryl Crow, Journey
First Idol Experience: “I may have watched the David Cook season a little bit, but Kris Allen’s season is really what I remember.”

Leah Marlene had a musical mentor right in her own home. Her father, Derry Grehan, was lead guitarist and primary songwriter for the Canadian rock group Honeymoon Suite.

“There were always guitars around the house and a piano, plus musical equipment,” she tells Billboard. “From a very young age, I always had my hand on an instrument. I would overhear my dad playing or writing or doing something musical. I wanted to play guitar when I was younger, but his dad made him start with piano, so he thought that I should do the same, to get a lay of the land musically. So I took piano lessons for a pretty short time in early elementary school. I hated practicing. But I had a little bit more of an understanding and he started teaching me guitar when I was seven. No formal lessons. I would pick a song that I wanted to learn and ask ‘How do I play these chords?’ and he would show me.”

While her father was playing live shows with his band, Leah was also gigging, from the age of eight. “My very first performances were my elementary school talent shows and that was when I very first played piano and then by third grade, I played guitar and sang for the first time in front of people. The year after that was when I started gigging around town and doing more local talent shows. And every year, I did a little bit more.”

Leah started making up songs when she was a child. “Some people have been writing poetry since they were a kid. Every now and then I’d write something but not frequently and I never finished anything. I wrote my first full song in eighth grade. ‘Someday’ is so dramatic. It’s on Spotify but I need to take it down because it’s so bad.”

She says that like most children with musical talent, she fantasized about one day being on American Idol. “But once I got into high school, I knew it was not something that was right for me. I knew that I wanted to go to Nashville and work hard to get the lay of the land for the industry and lay a foundation to where if I did a show, I would be able to leverage the opportunity as much as possible because I would know how this all works.”

After two years of college, Leah says she was miserable and dropped out. “And then I was recovering from some really intense mental health stuff when the show reached out. I was going to go backpack southeast Asia or Europe and immerse myself in the world and be a free spirit and figure out my life.”

She thought about Idol for two days. “I was so freaked out by the fact that I was even considering this idea. It shifted every paradigm of what I saw for my life, and then I decided, ‘What the hell! Why not?’ I’m in this crazy transitionary season and I don’t know why this feels different but it does.” And now? “It’s been the best experience of my life. I followed my gut the whole time auditioning and throughout this process and it’s been amazing.”


Born: May 30, 2003 – Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada
Favorite Alum: Kelly Clarkson
Musical Influences: Adele, Celine Dion, Yebba
First Idol Experience: “It was around for two years before I was even an idea. My earliest memory would be watching audition after audition on YouTube with my sisters and thinking, ‘Oh my God, I want to do that one day. I want to be a singer.’”

Nicolina remembers exactly where her musical journey began. “My earliest memory of music is watching The Little Mermaid. She sang that song [“Part of Your World”] while she was in the treasure trove. I was so hooked on it and so excited about it, that I would sing it around the house. And then I just started singing more and more.”

Nicolina was six when she first recognized she had musical talent. “I was in first grade and I sang a song for my teachers about a rainbow my Nonna had taught me. The teachers started crying and they called in the principal and then they set up a whole assembly just for me to sing that song for the school because they found it so cute and so awesome. After I performed in front of about 700 kids, I was hooked on that feeling of performing and doing music.”

But Nicolina never took any musical lessons or played any instruments. “I sang around the house and banged on pots and pans. I did little talent shows at school and some open mic nights but it was nothing I was very serious about. So up until just a few years ago, I was inexperienced.”

The 18-year-old singer from Canada says that the most important lesson she has learned so far from competing on American Idol is that she is capable of more than she realized. “Through rehearsing and through choosing songs, I’ve figured out that I can do a lot more that I thought would be even possible for me.”

The judges have given Nicolina a lot of sage advice, but there is one thing that stands out for her. “In my first audition, Katy Perry told me that she felt my whole life story through my singing. I’ve always worked on being emotional through songs, so when I heard that from her, it was very validating because the hard work paid off. So that was the standout of what I’ve heard so far.”

As for the future, Nicolina says, “I would love to have a career similar to Adele, because I idolize her. Her career is inspiring to me because she’s had so many albums come out and each time people go crazy for her and she sells out when she does concerts and I really do want to have that be part of my future.”

Mike Parker

Born: Aug. 3, 1994 – Warrenton, Va.
Favorite Alum: Joshua Ledet
Musical Influences: John Legend, Darius Rucker, Eric Church, Florida Georgia Line, Morgan Wallen, Jimmie Allen
First Idol Experience: “My earliest memory is Ruben Studdard winning in Season 2. I was in fourth grade and when he won, I sang his ‘Flying Without Wings’ for my first talent show.”

Music was a huge part of Mike Parker’s life when he was growing up in Virginia’s Fauquier County. “My mom and dad were in a band together back in the ’70s and early ’80s. They were the talk of the town. They played at the Armory, right across from the school where I graduated. My mom also sang in church. When I was in elementary school I would run into her room while she was talking on the phone to her sisters. She would hum and it would put me to sleep. My dad played sax in church and when he got home, he would play sax around the house – it was his hobby. We didn’t have a huge home and the sound vibrated off the walls. So music has always been in my blood. I live and breathe music.”

Parker says he spent fall semesters in high school being a jock, and for the rest of the year he concentrated on singing in talent shows. “It threw my head coach off a little bit but to see him in the crowd at my talent shows meant a lot.”

Anyone who has been watching season 20 knows that Parker has defied expectations as a Black artist singing country. “My mom listened to a lot of gospel and my dad listens to a lot of Motown, but my next-door neighbor and best friend Austin listened to a lot of country. He took me to my first country concert, Eric Church and Jamey Johnson, and this was around 2007 and Eric Church was just starting out. He opened for Jamey Johnson. I didn’t consider myself a country artist. I didn’t even label myself as an artist. I was still playing football. It’s wild how life works out.

“I’m from the country, even though that doesn’t make you country. It has to be in your heart. Country is a part of me and I’m so glad. Luke [Bryan] validated that when he said, ‘I think you’re country.’ When he said, ‘I think,’ I wasn’t happy with that. And then he tweeted, ‘Welcome to the country music family.’”

Asked what he has learned about himself during his American Idol journey, Parker replies, “I’ve learned that there is space for me in country music. I’ve become in tune with the storyteller Mike Parker. Because I used to just sing. Now I feel like I approach it as there are so many great singers on this show and there are some that are more skillful than I am and that’s just natural. I can’t help that, but the one thing that can set us apart is me being authentic and telling the story how I perceive it. So that’s one thing I’ve learned, to be true to myself.”

Noah Thompson

Born: April 18, 2002 – Huntington, W. Va.
Favorite Alum: Alejandro Aranda
Musical Influences: Ryan Adams, Neil Young, Zakk Wylde, Chris Stapleton, Morgan Wallen, Eric Church
First Idol Experience: “I watched the auditions with my grandmother because I loved to see people audition. I didn’t know exactly how the show worked because I never watched it beyond the audition part, so this is all completely new to me.”

“My dad has always been a big influence on me,” says Noah Thompson. “He was always playing the guitar. I grew up around him being in a band so I was listening to a lot of different instruments at a really early age. My dad wrote songs. His band was trying to make it and that’s all he thought about. He brought me to his gigs and I would be out in the audience listening.”

And when did Thompson realize that he had musical talent? “I would sing in the shower but I would never sing in front of people. I’ve always been so shy. I started letting people hear me sing around the time I was in high school. I was getting good responses but I didn’t think I had a good enough voice to do things, but people were pushing me to sing more and more and now I’m here.”

Thompson sang in his high school choir and participated in talent shows. “I was forced into doing them. The class had to have somebody do the talent part so we could win against the other classes. But I appreciate the people that forced me to do it because they pulled me out of my shell a little bit.”

Thompson studied guitar in his sophomore year. “But I didn’t take it seriously. I never pictured myself actually being able to do something like this.” When he was younger, he played drums. “At 13, my dad got me a little drum set. The first thing he gave me as a kid was a bongo and I was learning to keep rhythm at a really young age.”

And is Noah’s Idol journey helping him to become less shy? “I’m such a private person. I think I’m always going to be shy. I’m the guy who stays in his room and does his own thing while everybody else goes out to eat. I keep telling people I’m so grateful for the process, because literally it’s opened me up to a lot of stuff. I didn’t even think about that until just the other day. It’s such a big learning process for me. And I’ve learned that I don’t sound as bad as I thought I did. It’s going a little better than I thought it would go, for sure. I truly didn’t believe I would get a golden ticket.”

Finally, Billboard asked the just-turned 20-year-old what it was like to be the father of a little boy. “It’s crazy. It wasn’t expected at the age that I am. It completely changed my life. He’s all I think about. He became my life, man. That’s what all this is for.”

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