Meet 2021’s ‘American Idol’ Top 10 (Including a Comeback Contestant)

The unprecedented twist adds an interesting footnote to Idol history. Every year, Billboard asks the top finalists to name their favorite Idols from previous seasons. This year, Gunn appears as a favorite alum and at the same time is a current contestant. Billboard asked Gunn if he knew that he was named as a past favorite by Cassandra Coleman, who mentioned him before she knew that he would be joining this season. “No, I hadn’t heard that yet. Wow! I just saw her in the hotel while I was coming in. That’s awesome.”

Before Gunn’s win was announced, the top nine contestants spoke to Billboard via Zoom from their Orlando, Fla. hotel, as they spent last week at Disney World for this Sunday night’s show, which was the annual Disney evening, complete with songs from the Disney repertoire.

Chayce Beckham

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Born: July 16, 1996 – Victorville, Calif.
Favorite Alums: Ruben Studdard, Chris Daughtry
Musical Influences: Van Halen, Green Day, Bob Marley & the Wailers, The Doors
First Idol Experience: Growing up in Apple Valley, Calif., he watched every episode of every season with his family for “a long time.”

Beckham’s earliest memory of music is looking at the guitar in his grandmother’s house when he was three years old. Later that same year, he was walking with her in South Gate, Calif., when he fell down and scraped his leg. “I was throwing a fit, but I fell right in front of a guitar shop and my grandmother said, ‘Let me make it feel better,’ and took me into the guitar store and bought me my first classical guitar. I still have it and I’ve been infatuated with the guitar ever since.”

Beckham never took guitar lessons and is self-taught. “I learned by listening to the radio and by watching CMT. I’d watch those country music videos from the 2000s and learned how to sing and play songs by matching tones. I was never good at sports. I can’t throw a ball for nothing, but I can play guitar.”

Describing his childhood as “crazy,” Beckham says he would spend separate time with his mom and his dad. “When I was 19 I went to live with some buddies up the hill in the Glendora/San Dimas area. They had a nice property on an acre. When I moved in, I had drums, bass guitars, electric guitars, acoustic guitars, microphones, you name it. One night we were all partying and all that stuff was in the living room. We played a couple songs and we said, ‘That was a lot of fun. Let’s do that again tomorrow.’ And then it turned into three times a week and the next thing you know, I’m writing songs for this group and we threw massive parties and had other bands play there and we were the main event.

“That’s when I fell in love with performing in front of people and writing and delivering a message to an audience and connecting with people, because it was always hard for me to connect with people growing up. Music opened up an avenue for me to connect with a lot of people at once. I’m not very social right off the bat and this gave me an avenue to instantly relate with everybody. I became obsessed with it.”

In his early twenties, Beckham and his band were playing gigs and earning up to $1,000 a night. “Then the pandemic happened and we never got to play again, which is a tragedy because we were having such a good time. But it led me to doing [Idol]. It landed me right where I’m supposed to be. The whole thing taught me to trust the process. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen, and ever since I’ve done that, it’s been cool.”

Casey Bishop

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Born: Feb. 9, 2005 – Fort Myers, Fla.
Favorite Alums: Alejandro Aranda, Haley Reinhart, Laine Hardy, Laci Kaye Booth
Musical Influences: Fleetwood Mac, Aerosmith
First Idol Experience: Started watching with Season 10 when she was six years old.

Bishop’s earliest memory of music is listening to some specific songs when she was three years old, including “December, 1963 (Oh, What A Night)” by the Four Seasons, “Kiss Me” by Sixpence None the Richer and “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies. Thanks to her parents, she became aware of the music of Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Presley.

Bishop started singing karaoke when she was in pre-school. “I loved singing and I did a pretty good job for a five-year-old. In middle school I became super-serious about it and knew this is what I want to do.” Although she wanted to do paying gigs, she never did in those early days. “In elementary school, I was in student plays and talent shows. Later, I auditioned for America’s Got Talent and The Voice and it was ‘No, no, no, no, no.’ And then in high school, I was in two talent shows during my freshman year, but I was just so nervous. I was nowhere near the confidence level I’m at now.”

Bishop attributes her growth to listening to the judges’ advice. “When Katy [Perry] said to make that stage mine and get really gritty, I thought I was. But I guess I did that in my next performance because she told me that was my best performance. So I improved.”

Bishop makes her own mark in American Idol history, as she was born at 3:12pm on Feb. 9, 2005. Less than five hours later, the seventh episode of season four aired, featuring Carrie Underwood, Bo Bice and the rest of the top 10 competing during Hollywood Week. No other finalist has been born as late as 2005, making Bishop the only top 10 contestant in the series’ two-decade history born as late as the middle of the first decade of this millennium.

Cassandra Coleman

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Born: May 15, 1996 – Kingsport, Tenn.
Favorite Alums: Phillip Phillips, David Archuleta, Arthur Gunn, Kelly Clarkson, Katharine McPhee
Musical Influences: The Chicks, Avril Lavigne, Enya, James Taylor, John Denver, Stevie Nicks, The Cars, Yes, Rush
First Idol Experience: Watching the Season 6 contestants win Golden Tickets to Hollywood and thinking she wanted a Golden Ticket of her own one day.

“I have a distinct memory of the first time I realized that music was something I felt within me,” Coleman tells Billboard. “My family had a little farm. We lived on a hill and there was this little valley at the base of our hill. I was walking with my mom when I was five and she started singing a hymn, ‘The Lily of the Valley.’ I was harmonizing with her without realizing what I was doing. She turned around and said, ‘You’re harmonizing.’ I didn’t know what she meant so she tried to explain to me what harmonizing was and ever since then, I knew music has always been what I’ve known.”

Coleman’s embrace of music may be genetic. “When my mother was growing up, she was the girl who was in musicals and plays and was usually the one who got the main role. She sings all the time. She wrote poetry a lot. Over the last four years she started doing songwriting as well. So music was always in the house. All my siblings sing and my dad can, too. When we get together for Thanksgiving, we all like to sing ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ because some of my family is from West Virginia.”

Coleman remembers how she would respond as a child when people asked her what she wanted to do when she grew up. “I would either say I want to be a mom or I want to be a singer. But growing up, I allowed my insecurities and my fear to tell me that that was something that would never be achievable, so I shifted my dreams to owning a coffee shop. About six months ago I realized this could be something that would pan out for me. I always knew it was what I wanted to do, but I felt like it was a pipe dream or something that wouldn’t lead me to having a comfortable life, and I was okay with that. I shop at Goodwill and love to thrift. I don’t care about money, but I didn’t think that there would be people who would want to buy music from me. And the songwriting process was very daunting to me. I’m still having a hard time grasping that this could be a reality for me.”

Asked if she studied music in school, Coleman responds, “I was home schooled up until seventh grade and then I was in a tiny public school with 30 students. So there were scattered talent shows. The first time I ever performed on a stage, I was nine years old and I sang ‘Breakaway’ by Kelly Clarkson and I forgot the lyrics. I only did half the song, but I didn’t run off the stage. I just said, ‘That’s all I remember,’ and everyone stood up and clapped. Then in seventh grade I sang an Alicia Keys song. I would’ve loved to have been able to be in some theater or musical classes, but my school was so small. We had a choir and I got to be in it one year and I loved every bit of it.”

Deshawn Goncalves

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Born: Jan. 10, 2001 – Youngstown, Ohio
Favorite Alums: Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia, Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard
Musical Influences: Bruno Mars, Alicia Keys, John Legend
First Idol Experience: At age three, watching Fantasia on Season 3.

Goncalves’ earliest memory of music is going to church with his grandmother, who died when he was four years old. “She would have me wear the church robe and sing in the choir. I remember running around the church tripping over stuff because the robe was so long and I was so little. They didn’t have child-size robes.”

Goncalves was in the sixth grade when he first realized he had musical talent. “I picked up the trumpet and found I could do certain things that weren’t normal for other people. I would play some music and I could tell people what the notes were, by having perfect pitch. Back then, I thought everyone could do that. As time went on and I progressed musically, I knew I had a gift and that was before I started singing.”

As a seventh grader at the A+ Arts Academy school, Goncalves met a music teacher named LaJoyce Daniel-Cain. “She sat me down – no, actually, she told me to get up and sing. She said, ‘You are going to perform. I see that you have a voice and I’m going to make you use it.’ She saw that in me before I saw it myself. That pushed me to become an artist. I started singing and watching her play the piano and I would try to emulate what she was doing, while developing my own style.”

Seventh grade was a pivotal year for Goncalves. “I started doing it all that year – being in plays and school functions like The Night of the Arts and honor roll assemblies. People started to recognize me throughout the city. I gigged around and when I was 16 I went to the Apollo Theater where I won Amateur Night at the Apollo, singing ‘Feeling Good,’ which I sang on Idol this season.”

The 20-year-old says he has already learned a lot from his Idol journey. “I’ve grown so much from when I first walked into that [audition] room, like simply doing what makes me happy at all costs. That’s what matters. If I do that, people will gravitate toward me. It’s a really hard thing, because throughout my life I have always cared about what people had to say about me, what people thought and what people felt about what I did. I’m really breaking out of that now and I think it’s very necessary going forward to be that person.”

Caleb Kennedy

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Born: Oct. 21, 2004 – Spartanburg, S.C.
Favorite Alums: Bucky Covington, Caleb Lee Hutchinson, Gabby Barrett
Musical Influences: Jason Aldean, George Strait, Hank Williams, Hank Williams, Jr.
First Idol Experience: Watching with his family after church on Sundays.

Kennedy’s first memory of music is rocking on his childhood rocking horse (which he acknowledges might have been a rocking donkey) to Trace Adkins’ “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk.”

Beyond the rocking horse (or donkey), Kennedy grew up in a household where music was ubiquitous. “My mom plays piano. My dad picks guitar and sings a little bit. My grandmother’s brother played guitar and just about any instrument.” Kennedy was five when he was given a drum kit. “I didn’t spend too much time on it. I learned to play the drums when I was 10. Three years ago, when I was 13, I started playing guitar. It was my birthday and I got the bright idea to spend my birthday money on a guitar and I fell in love with playing it. I couldn’t put it down for anything. I would play it until my fingers bled.” Kennedy taught himself to play by watching videos on YouTube.

Eventually Kennedy started performing music in a public space. “I started out street busking. My sister would go downtown with her friends and I would sit out there with my guitar. The first time I did that, I sat for eight hours and made a dollar.” But Kennedy wasn’t discouraged. “I loved it so much. And then gigs kind of progressed as people started to know my name. The last show I played before traveling to California was in a restaurant called Wings Etc. and it was packed. There wasn’t an empty seat.”

Kennedy has already performed two of his original songs on Idol. “The first song that I remember writing is called ‘Mine.’ I was 13. It’s about this girl that I was crazy about but she would never let me date her. The hook was, ‘I’ll just keep hoping and wishing that one day you will be mine,’ but I never pulled that off.”

Kennedy says he became a decent songwriter once COVID hit. “All I did was sit alone and write and write and write. Then I co-wrote with other people who were staying home and that helped me so much, expanding my knowledge of writing and learning more about country music.

Grace Kinstler

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Born: Aug. 3, 2000 – Woodstock, Ill.
Favorite Alums: Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Adam Lambert, Katharine McPhee, Jennifer Hudson, Fantasia, Jessica Sanchez, La’Porsha Renae
Musical Influences: Whitney Houston, Christina Aguilera
First Idol Experience: Watching with her parents when she was a young child. “I would say, ‘I want to do that one day,’ and my dad would tell me, ‘You will, you will.'”

“I was always drawn to music,” says Kinstler. “I started playing piano when I was four. I was just fidgeting. I doubt that it sounded good. I was definitely not a prodigy. I was in kindergarten when I started to dance and in second grade I started piano lessons and took them for two years. When I was in fifth grade I did musical theater and continued through elementary and high school. And I loved to sing with the American Idol Wii game.”

Kinstler’s musical theater experience included roles in Hairspray, Big Fish, Annie, Shrek, Tarzan and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Her early work in musical theater convinced Kinstler that she was meant to be a singer. “That’s when I realized people enjoy watching me do this. It’s not just something I love to do; people actually get something out of it. I wanted to keep pushing, to keep growing. Even though other people were enthralled with what I was doing, as artists we are perfectionists and we are hyper-critical of everything we do. I’ve always been that way. But I wanted to make sure that critiquing myself was constructive and not toxic.”

Kinstler’s father encouraged her to write her own songs but she was reluctant because she believed she wasn’t very good at it. Then at age 14, she decided to go for it and wrote her first song, “The World Doesn’t Wait.” “I released it because I was getting my feet wet. I wanted to get the experience. Then I released songs every year and when I was 17, I released my first EP. And then in the summer of 2019, I released my second EP, which is the latest thing I’ve released so far.”

And what does she think is the highlight of her Idol journey to this point? “My duet with Joss Stone. That was a really special full circle moment for me because I had a show right after my dad passed and I was supposed to sing one of her songs, ‘Spoiled.’ That show was canceled because of COVID. I remember rehearsing that last year and then a year later to be where I am now – I’m in such a better place mentally and to sing with Joss was absolutely incredible.”

Hunter Metts

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Born: Sept. 12, 1998 – Nashville, Tenn.
Favorite Alums: Jason Castro, Gabby Barrett, Scotty McCreery, Jonny West, Francisco Martin, Louis Knight
Musical Influences: Alison Krauss, Rascal Flatts
First Idol Experience: Watching Jason Castro sing “Over the Rainbow” in Season 7.

Before he was born, Metts’ parents moved to Nashville to pursue music. “My dad was in music publishing for a long time, working at companies like Curb, Malaco, Starstruck and Writer’s Den. My mom moved to Nashville when she was older and she ended up singing demos. When she met my dad, she decided she wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. When she had my sister and me, she gave music up to raise us.”

Metts was in eighth grade when he first picked up the guitar. “I wanted to sing and I thought I needed to accompany myself – that it’ll sound better if I can play guitar. YouTube was my best teacher. Even now, for production tutorials or anything, I use YouTube.”

When Metts tried out for Idol the first time, he was getting a good reaction until he mentioned that his sister worked at Disney World, playing various characters, including Belle, Snow White, Mary Poppins and Ariel. Since Idol is broadcast on ABC and ABC is owned by Disney, that was a legal conflict of interest and Metts was told he couldn’t continue. Being a supportive sister, Mett’s sibling quit her job so her brother could try out for Idol again. After she returned home to Nashville to go to nursing school and a full calendar year had passed, Metts was finally eligible to return for an audition.

One of the most indelible moments of this season was Metts’ performance of “Falling Slowly,” the Oscar-winning song from the film Once. Near the end of the song, Metts forgot some lyrics and had a visceral reaction – he broke down in tears. “I thought I had been doing well, specifically the last couple performances and I was so in the moment and I thought I blew it and I thought it was way worse than the reality of it,” Metts tells Billboard. “In that moment, it’s really hard to articulate that feeling, because you look out and there are all these cameras and the judges. It’s your moment and you don’t want to mess that up. I came so close to a personal goal and I totally messed it up right at the end. Watching it back, it wasn’t as serious as I thought but I wouldn’t take it back because I do care that much.”

Willie Spence

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Born: June 18, 1999 – West Palm Beach, Fla.
Favorite Alums: Fantasia, Jessica Sanchez, Ruben Studdard, Jennifer Hudson, Katharine McPhee, Phillip Phillips, Candice Glover, Burnell Taylor
Musical Influences: Whitney Houston, Yolanda Adams, John Legend
First Idol Experience: His family loved the show and he started watching Season 2 and then played the American Idol game with his family.

“I never thought I would be on a singing show,” Spence confesses. “I would’ve never imagined this because I always taught myself. I didn’t like competition – I’m not the type of person who competes. But since I’ve done it, it has really been one of the best experiences of my life. It’s been a great journey so far and I’m grateful for the opportunity to be on this type of platform.”

Spence remembers first being aware of music at the age of three, hearing his mom and dad singing around the house and at church. Both parents sang for fun and not professionally and his father played guitar. Young Spence also played an instrument. “I wanted to be a drummer before I wanted to be a singer. They couldn’t get me off the drum set but then I started leaning more toward singing.”

Spence started singing in his grandfather’s church in Florida. “Then I moved to Georgia when I was six and I joined an organization called 4-H. It’s a statewide choir and I had the opportunity to sing in front of thousands of people. We performed at different colleges in Louisiana, Virginia, Kentucky and Arkansas. That was an amazing experience for me.”

Spence says the highlight of his Idol journey so far was the celebrity duets show, when he sang with Season 5 alum Katharine McPhee. “I told her, ‘I’m nervous before every performance.’ She told me she’s the same way and she said it’s okay.” Spence says that McPhee gave him some advice that he will keep with him for the rest of his career. “She said, ‘Don’t worry too much. Just live in the moment.'”

Looking to the future, Spence has some clearly defined goals. “I want to share my voice with the world and do what I love. And like I said in my audition, maybe hopefully win a few Grammys one day and be on the Billboard charts and the Billboard Music Awards. I want my music to be able to reach the world.”

Alyssa Wray

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Born: March 30, 2002 – Boyle County, Kentucky
Favorite Alums: Jennifer Hudson, Carrie Underwood, Fantasia, David Archuleta, Jordin Sparks, Lauren Alaina, Katharine McPhee, Crystal Bowersox
Musical Influence: Carrie Underwood, Beyoncé, Jennifer Hudson, Whitney Houston
First Idol Experience: “My mom tells everybody she brought me home from the hospital and we watched the first season with Kelly Clarkson. So technically, I’ve been watching since I was born.”

Like many singers, Wray says one of her earliest memories of being aware of music is from attending church. But she also has a more specific recollection: “I remember having a VHS of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella with Whitney Houston and Brandy when I was super little.” And there’s more: “One of my earliest music experiences was watching American Idol when I was young and wanting to be on it. The first year that I can remember watching was the David Archuleta and David Cook year (Season 7). I had the biggest crush on David Archuleta when I was six.”

Wray held on to the idea of auditioning for Idol for years. “I was in eighth grade when the show was canceled [by Fox] and I was devastated. I wanted to audition for shows and I would have loved to try out for The Voice but American Idol was special to me. I always wanted to audition because it was my dream for so long. I was really saddened when it was canceled and the next year, they announced they were bringing it back on ABC. I auditioned the first season it was on ABC.”

Many Idol alums have gone on star in Broadway musicals and it won’t be a surprise if Wray follows suit. Professing that she would like to win a Tony (as well as a Grammy, an Oscar and a Golden Globe), she recalls that she saw her first play when she was six years old. “It was a parody called Snow White and the 47 Dwarfs and the girl playing Snow White was this young Black girl and she looked like me and I remember thinking, ‘I want to be in a play.’ A few weeks later, my grandmother put me in a summer camp at that same community theater. I did my first musical in fifth or sixth grade and then in eighth grade, I did High School Musical Jr.” Since then, Wray has appeared in Legally Blonde, Sister Act, Frozen, Little Shop of Horrors, Mary Poppins and Shrek.

When it comes to her future, Wray isn’t only thinking of herself. “I want to share my art and advocacy with people. I’m very big on activism and I want to be an advocate for representation. I want to work for what’s right and get people the justice they deserve. You have to have a certain type of empathy to be an artist, and I want to use my platform for good.”

Just as this year’s Idol top contestants sat down for individual Billboard interviews, season 18’s Arthur Gunn did the same last year. Here is his profile that was included with the finalists from 2020:

Arthur Gunn

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Born: Oct. 24, 1997 – Kathmandu, Nepal
Favorite Alums: Alejandro Aranda, Laine Hardy
Musical Influences: Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin/Jimmy Page, Joe Cocker, Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt
First Idol Experience: Watched online while growing up in Nepal.

Born Dibesh Pokharel in Kathmandu, Nepal, the American Idol finalist now known as Arthur Gunn moved to America when he was 16 to reunite with members of his family who had been living in Wichita, Kansas, for five years. He had already learned to speak English in Nepal. He became interested in music as a child, singing with his family. “My mom gave me my first guitar. My brother and cousins listened to a lot of records and I saw them playing music and I wanted to do that too.” A year before he arrived in the U.S., he became more serious about his music, playing pubs and bars in Kathmandu.

Once he was in Wichita, Gunn bought a new guitar and played local coffeehouses. “I hung around musicians in Wichita and made a lot of friends. I traveled and played on street corners.” Gunn busked in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York and spent an entire summer playing music on the boardwalk in Ocean City, Md.

Gunn was aware of American Idol in Nepal, not from watching it on broadcast television but from online viewing. “When I came to America, I had no plans [to be on it]. Then I got a lot of peer pressure from musical friends who said I should try it. I was not so sure. All I want to do is play music and that’s all I know how to do. I’m willing to learn more and I thought this would be a great platform and so I thought I would give it a shot.”

What is it like being in the competition as opposed to watching it online? “It is amazing,” Gunn professes. “I’m still trying to grasp all of it. I’ve learned so many things about performing and being an artist and the music industry.” And how did Dibesh Pokharel become Arthur Gunn? “I was reading poetry by Arthur Rimbaud [a 19th century French poet who influenced modern literature]. His words were so modern and I thought his name Arthur would be a good stage name. A lot of people know me as Dibesh but Arthur is easier to use as a stage name. The Gunn came from me wanting to make fun of ‘gun.’ People use guns in battle but you don’t need guns to do things.” And does he respond when people call him Arthur? “It totally depends on who is calling me. But now I have to respond.”

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