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Willie Spence's duet partner Kya Moneé tearfully returns to 'American Idol': 'He was actually supposed to be here with me today'

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'American Idol' Season 19/21 hopeful Kya Moneé  with her friend and mentor, Season 19 runner-up Willie Spence, who died in a tragic car accident on Oct. 12, 2022. (Photo: ABC)

In 2021, during American Idol Season 19’s Hollywood Week, two phenomenal power-singers, Willie Spence and Kya Moneé, were paired up by producers for a stupendous duet of Rihanna’s “Stay” that had all three judges on their feet and Katy Perry actually in tears. “That was divine, what an experience. … You fractured us,” Lionel Richie raved that fateful day, as both Willie and Kya sailed through to the next round with “flying colors.”

Willie made it all the way to second place that season, and quickly established himself as one of the greatest singers to ever compete on any season of Idol — even receiving an invitation to sing the U.K. national anthem for Queen Elizabeth II and earning the nickname “Willie Pavarotti.” But Kya, who otherwise received bafflingly little screentime in Season 19, was cut before the top 24 episode. Still, she and Willie maintained a “very, very close friendship” during and after the show, and when Idol Season 21 premiered Sunday, Kya returned with Willie’s encouragement.

“Willie, he always told me, ‘No matter what, you will always be a singer. … I’m going to go with you to American Idol,’” Kya, age 21, recalled Sunday. “He really made me want to do it, and I’d really love to make it further — but most of all, I want to make Willie proud.”

Willie even helped Kya pick out her new showstopping audition song, “I’m Here” from The Color Purple. But, tragically, Kya’s best friend was not able to accompany her to Idol this year as planned, because in October 2022, Willie shockingly died in a car crash, at age 23.

“Three days before he passed, Willie was telling me, ‘You have to go back. You have to chase your dream,’” Kya revealed Sunday. “Losing Willie was just very, very hard for me. I’m still trying to cope with that. … He was actually supposed to be here with me today. It’s just very hard to not have that support anymore, but I know that he would want me to be here.”

Kya could barely make it through her audition, pausing to choke back sobs more than once, but she ultimately powered through like a champion and indeed made her late friend and mentor very proud. The judges were nearly as wrecked as she was. “I was anticipating this, so I brought two,” Lionel murmured, handing Kya a spare handkerchief. “That was performance was so emotional, so heartfelt, so divinely guided, in the glorious name of our beast brother, Willie.”

“What a tribute to him, and what a tribute to what you guys were planning to do together,” sighed an equally moved Luke Bryan. “You just sing like Willie’s still here.”

“It was on another level. It was connected to the pain,” observed Katy. “You were authentic — just like he was.”

Back in Season 19, Kya’s audition wasn’t even shown in full, but this week, she made a lasting impression. “I felt like I was able to honor Willie tonight,” she said bittersweetly, her new Golden Ticket in hand. “I don’t think I would be here if it wasn’t for my best friend Willie, because he made me more confident in myself. Willie, thank you for not letting me give up. This is for you.”

'American Idol' Season 19/21 hopeful Kya Moneé  with her friend and mentor, Season 19 runner-up Willie Spence, who died in a tragic car accident on Oct. 12, 2022. (Photo: ABC)
'American Idol' Season 19/21 hopeful Kya Moneé with her friend and mentor, Season 19 runner-up Willie Spence, who died in a tragic car accident on Oct. 12, 2022. (Photo: ABC)

“He was a wonderful angel that God brought to the world, and he was that beacon of what American Idol was all about,” Lionel said solemnly, as Willie’s “In Loving Memory” graphic flashed across the screen.

Kya’s audition was definitely Sunday’s big double-handkerchief moment, but the Season 21 premiere brought plenty of tears — thankfully, mostly happy ones. These were the other standout auditions of the night:

Haven Madison, 16: “15”

Performing her original song while accompanied on acoustic guitar by her proud dad, Jason Roy of Grammy-nominated Christian band Building 429, this wunderkind may not have showcased the biggest set of pipes we’ll hear on Idol this year. But as Katy told her, “The vocal decisions you made, they were just so on another level, and they’re so you and authentic and coming from your heart.” And Haven’s tune sounded like a big, big hit. Katy was practically sobbing by the end, saying Haven’s poignant coming-of-age ballad “had a lot opportunities to be something.” That’s when Haven’s father started to tear up as well, to which Lionel said, “Dad, there’s reason to cry. Young lady, your songwriting ability is incredible. … Let’s go in the studio and cut that song right now!” It’s too bad Songland isn’t on the air anymore, because Haven would easily win that TV talent competition with “15.” We’ll see how she fares on American Idol when she inevitably has to cover other artists’ material, but if she does end up winning Idol, “15” should be her coronation single. I can’t imagine the show’s powers-that-be could come up with a better song for her.

Lucy Love, 28: “Heard It Through the Grapevine” / “A Song for You”

Miss Love strutted into the audition oozing confidence and attitude — but maybe oozing a bit too much. While Lucy’s raw vocal talent was evident, her “Grapevine” performance was so gimmicky and clownish, with her pantomiming to the lyrics like she was playing a game a Charades. But wise Lionel saw through Lucy’s charade. “There are a lot of folks who have to do a little comedy act to make it work, but I heard some notes that really were some notes. If I stripped all of that personality away, do you realize there’s artist in there?” That’s when the whole mood in the room changed. Lucy got serious, dropping the act and her guard as she opened up about her tough childhood when “music was my safe haven, my refuge. … I could be fat, I could be ugly, but one thing you cannot say is I cannot sing.” Lionel asked for another song, and this time Lucy was focused, and so was Lionel, as he coached her through it. He was clearly invested, and he brought out the best in Lucy — she was singing “A Song for You” for him, and their connection was a marvel to behold. “I knew you were in there. And guess what? You showed up,” he told her. “You’ve got so much joy in you, but you’ve got so much pain in you. And you can sing from both places,” advised Katy, even comparing Lucy to Mary J. Blige. And Luke even admitted to Lucy, “Thank you for making me respect my judges more, because I had written you off. This whole journey is about proving people wrong, and you just proved me wrong.” Lucy is definitely a diamond in the rough, and I worry about how she will fare in Hollywood without Lionel’s one-on-one coaching... but I think she could surprise other people besides Luke this season. For now, I’m glad that Lionel decided this was “a moment I could not let go by.” These are the sorts of moments that Idol is all about.

Colin Stough, 18: “Simple Man”

The son of an absentee addict father, hoping to get out of his tiny Mississippi town and make a better life for himself and his devoted mom (who signed him up for the show), Colin is, according to Luke, “what American Idol is all about” and “exactly what we hope and dream for.” He definitely needs to work on his stage presence — the nervous country kid barely made eye contact with the judges the entire time he was singing — but the true grit he exhibited during his Lynyrd Skynyrd cover reminded me of last year’s humble winner, Noah Thompson. “You’ve got the magic in you, 100%. You got the stardust,” Katy assured Colin, saying he was “born to be a star.”

Lyric Medeiros, 21: “Love Me Like You Mean It” / “Before He Cheats”

This was another “nepo baby” of sorts — a second-generation musician, that is — but Lyric’s audition was much less impressive than Haven Madison’s. The daughter of ‘80s adult contemporary crooner Glenn “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Love for You” Medeiros, Lyric journeyed all the way from her home in Hawaii to lei it all on the line for the Idol judges in Nashville. But her chirpy, chipper, cloying Kelsea Ballerini cover did not amaze. “Girl, you flew 10 hours to be cute and safe? We know you’ve got more than that! As for right now, you’re flying 10 hours back,” Katy barked. I’m not sure why the judges gave Lyric so many chances — unlike Lucy Love, she didn’t seem like a raw diamond that just needed some polishing — or why they put her through to Hollywood after her second song, a Carrie Underwood cover, was just as fluffy and flimsy. Not even Katy fake-wrestling Lyric in her Catwoman/Matrix semi-cosplay, or daring Lyric to “slap me across the face as hard as you can” in an effort to roughen up the Hawaiian sweetheart’s edges, made much difference. Luke teased Lyric about “never making an ugly face in your life” and being “too pretty for an ugly business,” but Katy and Lionel seemed to think that putting Lyric in a room full of “brawlers” in Hollywood Week might toughen her up. I think this girl is going to get clobbered in Hollywood — but hey, at least then it’ll only be a five-hour flight back to Hawaii.

Zachariah Smith, 19: “Hurts So Good”

This Mississippi grill cook was serving! And the judges were eating it up. I didn’t expect Zac to be a such a red-hot rock star, but this heartland showman was equal parts John Cougar and John Mellencamp, and he was even giving a bit of Elvis with that lip-curling, pelvis-swiveling, gospel-tinged delivery. Quite simply, he was a joy to watch. “You’re so fun, but you’re not a gimmick. You’re so good. … You have a rasp, you have a growl, and then on top of that, you’re having fun,” Lionel noted. I can’t wait to see Zachariah pull out all the stops in Hollywood. As Katy concurred, “He’s gonna be sooo fun.”

Iam Tongi, 18: “Monsters”

At first, it seemed like this soft-spoken Hawaii native wouldn’t be able to keep it together during his performance, James Blunt’s “Monsters” — which Blunt wrote for his dying father in 2019 — because Iam’s biggest fan and inspiration, his own dad, died just two months before Iam’s Idol audition. But he delivered a sweet, sincere performance, crooning, “I'm not your son, you're not my father/We're just two grown men saying goodbye… So Daddy, won't you just close your eyes?/Don't be afraid, it's my turn/To chase the monsters away.” By the end of the ballad, all three judges were misty-eyed, and Luke even hugged him. “I was not worried if you were going to make it through the song — I was worried if we were going to make it through that song. … Your delivery of the story was phenomenal. … Young man, you take this into the world and you're going to fracture some souls,” Lionel said. “I feel like you could have written that song. You’re making these grown men cry. You hit a nerve, and that is what great storytellers do,” said Katy. It remain to be seen if this gentle, sensitive man can handle the pressure in Hollywood, but whatever happens next, he’s no doubt already made his dad very proud.

Michael Williams, 21: “Talking to the Moon”

Season 21 heartthrob alert! Katy was all heart-eyes and heart-hands when this Andrew Shue/Gavin Rossdale lookalike entered the room. (She actually compared him to Shawn Mendes and Harry Styles, and called him “top 10 material.”) But as Lionel pointed out, Michael was “not just a pretty face. … We were looking for a package, and you walked in the door.” Michael showcased a pure, crystalline tone and near-perfect pitch during his Bruno Mars cover. While Katy noted that he needed to push his vocals just a bit more, she still described his voice as “amazing,” saying, “You can control the room with a whisper.”

Megan Danielle, 20: “You Say”

This Christian music singer from the South had some diction and confidence issues, but Idol’s producers clearly believe in her potential, because they summoned former Idol hopeful-turned-Grammy-winning CCM crossover star Lauren Daigle to surprise Megan and turn this tentative “You Say” audition into an impromptu duet. (Hey! How come Bruno Mars, James Blunt, or John Mellencamp couldn’t be convinced to bumrush any of the above-mentioned auditions?) “Your story reminds me of my own so much,” Lauren told Megan, in a bit of a torch-passing moment. Now, mind you, Lauren was cut just before the top 24 in Season 9, and she didn’t even make it to Hollywood in Season 11, so perhaps Megan won’t go very far either. But Luke appreciated the “honest, raw, unpolished-diamond stuff” in Megan’s voice and told her, “It’s gonna be fun to watch you grow,” and Lionel agreed, saying, “You have this thing in your voice that I am in love with — if we can get you out of your shyness.” Hopefully Lauren’s support gave Megan the confidence boost she’ll need to go far.

Tyson Venegas, 17: “New York State of Mind”

Tyson’s speech was delayed as a toddler, but when he discovered music, he blossomed. “The only way he can be himself is onstage,” his mom explained, recalling that when she took Tyson to a Lionel Richie concert when he was a young boy, he turned to her and told her, “This is what I want to do!” And this kid was certainly born to do it. His flawless, absolutely classic piano performance had the judges breaking out in goosies, as former judge Jennifer Lopez used to call them. “He claims to be 17 years old, but he’s performing like a 45-year-old,” Lionel joked, intending this as the ultimate compliment, before more seriously saying, “I have never, since we’ve been here, seen anything that gifted.” Luke called Tyson “exactly what we look for, what we pray for” and “maybe one of the most special [contestants] we’ve ever seen,” and Katy called Tyson “possessed” (again, this was a compliment) and told the prodigy, “You had notes and runs that I haven’t felt in my body in a long time.” After all of this fuss, it was no surprise that Tyson received the first Platinum Ticket of Season 21, which will automatically fast-track him past the first day/challenge of Hollywood Week. But with talent like this, Tyson probably won’t even need that advantage.

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