The “American Idol” finale featured all-star performances, touching hometown visits – and a new winner crowned, after a country music showdown.
Before Season 20 came to a close Sunday night, the final three contestants – Leah Marlene, Huntergirl and Noah Thompson – each made their final plea for America’s vote during the three-hour broadcast, which aired live coast-to-coast. First, they sang songs from Bruce Springsteen, before each singing an original they recorded during their time on “Idol.”
As usual, judges Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie chimed in to offer critique – but at this last stage of the competition, it was clear all three contestants are ready to spread their wings.
Here’s what went down, including who won.
Leah Marlene brings Katy Perry to tears with original song ‘Flowers’
Leah Marlene kicked off the show with the Springsteen hit “Born in the USA.”
The 20-year-old college dropout from Normal, Illinois once again showed she can bring the edge, rocking out while accompanying herself on the guitar.
“What big boots you have stepped into,” Richie exclaimed.
Perry said Marlene is “the whole package.”
“You’ve won, period, end of story, to me,” she added.
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Marlene later took the stage again, singing her original song “Flowers,” which she recently released.
The inspiration for the song came from a challenging period for Marlene’s mental health, the contestant has said on social media. Though her mental health is in a much better place, Marlene said she hopes the song offers strength to those going through similar experiences
By the end of the haunting performance, Marlene and Perry were both in tears, as the crowd chanted “Leah.”
“The crowd will not lie to you,” Richie said. “Props to your songwriter side.”
Perry said she was “falling apart in a really good way.”
“I’m so blessed to be here, a part of this show that is truly making a difference and changing lives,” she added. “That song is so beautiful and is going to change other people’s lives.”
Bryan agreed that “Flowers” is “just tremendous.”
“What a ride you must be on,” he said. “I’m so happy for you, and you have every right to have these emotions right now.”
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Huntergirl graduates from star to ‘supernova’
Next up, Huntergirl, donning a sparkling silver blazer and skirt, performed “Dancing in the Dark.” As a country singer, Huntergirl predictably slayed the Springsteen classic.
“You’re comfortable. This is your stage,” Perry told her. “You did that and more. I don’t think you’re a star. I think you’re a supernova.”
Bryan complimented the contestant’s song choice, while Richie added Huntergirl certainly has the look. “You now own the stage,” Richie continued. “You are now responsible for your own career, and my dear, you have a career.”
Huntergirl then sang her original song “Redbird,” also available to stream. In the song, Huntergirl sings about searching for hope in a dark time.
Bryan held back tears while giving his feedback, complimenting the contestant on her songwriting talent.
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“Forget about the numbers right now,” Richie said, also praising Huntergirl’s volunteer work with veterans. “Your heart is in the right place. May you thrive as long as possible.”
Perry said Huntergirl is “doing something special.”
“Music is a lot of people’s therapy,” she added. “And sometimes it’s our own therapy.”
Noah Thompson takes artistry to the next level
Springsteen’s catalog was also right up Noah Thompson’s alley. The country crooner sang Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire.”
“It’s a long way from that first audition, buddy,” Bryan said.
Richie said that Thompson’s newly developed stage presence takes his singing to the next level.
“You have what is now your stage persona,” he said. “That is called an artist. You have now graduated to that wonderful stage of your life.”
Perry said Thompson sang her favorite Springsteen song.
“You just swooped in and grabbed every heart in America by singing that song,” she said. “You’re just a good guy from Kentucky that might win ‘American Idol.’ “
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Thompson then performed the song he recently recorded and released, called “One Day Tonight.”
Perry continued to tear up, reflecting on how far the Kentucky construction worker has come.
“I’m just gonna keep my tissue in the palm of my hand,” she said. “Don’t stop dreaming. There is a plan for you and your life.”
Richie said Thompson has made people “fall in love” with him on the show – and will continue to do so long after the season ends.
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Nicolina Belts with Sara Bareilles, Christian Guardino teams up with Michael Bublé
In typical “Idol” finale fashion, the episode was also chock full of filler performances, as viewers waited on the edge of their seats for the results of the live nationwide vote.
The Top 10 contestants performed various duets with other acclaimed singers. Fritz Hager, who was eliminated last week, took the stage with James Arthur for a soulful rendition of Arthur’s “Can I Be Him.”
Nicolina, who was also eliminated last week just before the finale, sang with Sara Bareilles on Bareilles’ “She Used to Be Mine.” (Nicolina sang the song for her initial audition, which has garnered 2.1 million views on Youtube.)
Christian Guardino gave a stunning performance of the Charlie Chaplin song “Smile” with one of his musical heroes, Michael Bublé.
Another standout duet came from Marlene and Perry. The two sang Perry’s hit “Firework,” after footage played of Marlene singing the song as a little kid, in a heartwarming full-circle moment.
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The final two give final country face-off
About an hour into the show, host Ryan Seacrest announced the singer who came in third place: Marlene. Meaning, Huntergirl and Thompson would each sing again in the Top 2 for the last round of America’s vote.
For his last song, Thompson revisited the Rhianna song “Stay,” which he sang during Hollywood Week. The pop ballad was a curveball for Thompson, but he gave the song a rugged spin and received a standing ovation from the judges.
“First and foremost, how dare you wear that suit,” Perry teased. “I’m so glad you picked that song.”
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In another full-circle moment, Huntergirl sang Rascal Flatts’ “Riot,” which she sang in her first audition.
“I’m gonna call you Hunterwoman, because I see a woman up there now,” Perry said.
Bryan said the contestant’s future “flashed right in front of my eyes” – and it looks bright.
“We are so proud as judges just to say that we actually mentored you on that way to that wonderful place in your career,” Richie said.
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And the winner is …
After 16 million votes, Seacrest announced Thompson won the show.
“My heart is beating out of my chest,” said the understated singer. “This is crazy.”
From working construction to winning “American Idol,” Thompson proved that, at least for some, dreams do come true.