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‘American Idol’ judges sob through contestant’s Willie Spence tribute


“American Idol” is back — and boy are you going to need tissues for this premiere.

The Season 6 premiere of ABC’s incarnation of the reality singing competition saw the return of judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan as well as another slew of contestants with inspiring stories hoping to earn a golden ticket to the Hollywood Week phase of the competition.

One of Sunday’s contestants may look familiar.

Kya Monee’ competed on Season 4, earning three yes’s from the judges and clinching a coveted golden ticket. She ultimately got cut during Hollywood Week, but not before she delivered a chilling duet of Rihanna’s “Stay” with contestant Willie Spence that earned a standing ovation from all three judges and brought Perry to tears. Spence went on to finish in second place and died in a car crash in October 2022 at the age of 23.

“That song, it meant so much to me,” Monee’ said of the duet. “From there on, we grew a very, very close friendship.”

It was Spence, she says, who encouraged her to come back and give “Idol” another try.

“Three days before he passed, Willie was telling me, ‘You have to go back. You have to chase your dreams,’ ” she said, adding that Spence was supposed to accompany her to her audition that day. “It’s just very hard to not have that support anymore.”

Lionel Richie calls Kya Monee’ tribute to Willie Spence ‘divinely guided’

Monee’ launched into a performance of “I’m Here” from “The Color Purple” musical. She sobbed through the performance to a standing ovation from the teary-eyed judges.

“What you have given us was everything that we have been trying to tell all of these kids,” Richie said. “That performance was so emotional, so heartfelt, so divinely guided in the glorious name of our dear brother, Willie.”

Bryan agreed: “Way to tribute him and way to tribute what you guys were planning to do together… You just sing like Willie’s still here.”

‘American Idol’ runner-up Willie Spence dies after a car crash at 23: ‘I’m in shock’

Perry added her performance “was on another level.”

“It was so connected to the pain,” she said, “but we also feel connected together, because you were authentic, just like he was.”

Suffice it to say, it was a resounding yes vote.

The episode ended with a montage tribute to Spence and some words from Richie: “He was a wonderful angel that God brought to the world, and he was that beacon of what ‘American Idol’ is all about.”

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The teenager stepped up with a performance of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man,” and won rave reviews from the judges, earning three yes votes.

“What ‘American Idol’ is about, right there,” Brian exclaimed.

‘Idol’ alum Lauren Daigle gives contestant Megan Danielle surprise of a lifetime: ‘Full-circle’

Monee’ wasn’t the only “Idol” returnee.

Christian singer Lauren Daigle, who auditioned multiple times for “Idol” and made it to Hollywood Week, came back to surprise contestant Megan Danielle who was auditioning with Daigle’s song “You Say” and who has looked up to Daigle as an inspiration. Daigle said it felt like a “full-circle” moment to come back.

“Your story reminds me so much of my own,” Daigle told the contestant, who’s also a Christian music singer.

Danielle is also following in Daigle’s footsteps by going to Hollywood after earning three yes’s from the judges.

“You’ve got that grit in your voice,” Perry told the waitress. “It’s so authentic.”

Luke Bryan brought to tears by contestant’s tribute to late dad

Another successful contestant was Iam Tongi, who dedicated his audition to his father, who died months prior.

He sang James Blunt’s “Monsters,” about a son saying goodbye to his dad, and had all three judges in tears.

“You’re making these grown men cry,” Perry said. “Your voice is just so magnificent.”

Bryan said the audition reminded him about loss in his own life.

“I cannot handle your heart breaking about your dad,” he said. “I love you, and I just want to see you have fun in this whole thing.”

Richie called Tongi’s delivery “phenomenal.”

“You take this into the world, and you’re gonna fracture some souls,” he added

Who scored the platinum ticket? Teen wunderkind Tyson Venegas stuns Lionel Richie

Tyson Venegas, a 17-year-old who became inspired to pursue music after seeing a Richie concert with his mom at a young age, had a full circle moment when the judges awarded him the platinum ticket. Venegas showed off impressive vocal runs to Billy Joel and Tony Bennett’s “New York State of Mind” while accompanying himself on the piano.

The platinum ticket doesn’t just send a singer to Hollywood — it also allows them to coast through the first round of Hollywood Week without elimination.

“I inspired him back then,” Richie said. “He just inspired us today.”

“American Idol” returns with another batch of auditions next Sunday at 8 pm ET.

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