After a raucous season that celebrated two decades of American Idol, the long-running reality singing juggernaut crowned its latest champion on Sunday night (May 23) during a 3-hour, star-filled season finale. Before the confetti fell, the three finalists — Noah Thompson, HunterGirl and Leah Marlene, each took the stage to sing a Bruce Springsteen cover and an original song and when the lights came back up at night’s end it was 20-year-old Thompson who hoisted the winner’s cup.
Kentucky construction worker Thompson sealed the deal with dramatic run through The Boss’ “I’m On Fire,” as well as his original, “One Day Tonight” and his favorite cover of the season, Rihanna’s “Stay.” He got the ceremonial visit home during the star-studded episode, playing a hometown concert for thousands, getting to see his toddler son and attending the unveiling of a road sign in Lawrence County honoring its hometown hero.
Thompson beat out stiff competition from Tennessee country singer (and second-place finisher) HunterGirl (born Hunter Wolkonowski), 24, who twanged up Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” and Rascal Flatts’ “Riot” as well as performing her original, “Red Bird.” Marlene, 20, came in third after playing Bruce’s “Cover Me” and her original tune, “Flowers.”
As always, there were plenty of guests to help the top 3 celebrate their epic journey, including Earth, Wind & Fire jamming on a medley of “Let’s Groove,” “Shining Star” and “September” with finalist Jay Copeland, Flo Rida hitting “Good Feeling” with the top 10, Deana Carter and Mike Parker on her hit “Strawberry Wine,” Ben Platt and Lady K taking on Elton John’s “Take Me to the Pilot” and judge Lionel Richie running through his “You Are” with the top 10.
Fellow judges Katy Perry and Luke Bryan also got in on the action, with Katy singing “Where We Started” with Thomas Rhett, Luke teaming up with HunterGirl on Randy Travis’ “I Told You So” and Katy coming back to sing her “Firework” with Marlene. Other guests who swung by included Tai Verdes, former Idol Gabby Barrett, Sara Bareilles, James Arthur, Michael Bublé and Melissa Etheridge.
In the end, it was a rocky road to the finale for new dad Thompson, who tested positive for COVID-19 two weeks ago — along with fellow finalist Fritz Hager — forcing him to perform from his hotel room while suffering from what he told reporters was the worst “sore throat [of] my entire life.” But when host Ryan Seacrest read Noah’s name at night’s end, the Bryan-proclaimed “aw shucks” kid was practically speechless, saying, “My heart is beating out of my chest. This is crazy.”
Watch some of the night’s biggest performances from the top 3 below.