A Very Special Episode of American Idol brought all the feelings this Wednesday through two hours of auditions ranging from a screaming drill sergeant to a telenovela scenery chewer. But it was Shayy Winn, 17, and Ethan Payne, 15, who really had viewers— and Lionel Richie, judge— reaching for the Kleenex triple-ply. These children had two of the most inspiring background stories in the history of Idol, but more importantly, they had the talent to support it.
First up was Shayy, a student of performing arts who went legally blind a year ago because of a brain tumor, only 50% of which could be removed safely. “The doctors say I’m a question mark,” Shayy said when asked her long-term prognosis by the judges. She was ruthlessly bulled when the newly vision-impaired Shayy recently returned with her cane to school. (Some particularly cruel students even KICKED HER CANE! Who does that???) But this week the resilient singer channeled all her heartbreak into a beautiful and pitch-perfect audition of Andra Day’s “Rise Up” triumph-of-spirit anthem. And Lionel lost it.
The moment that Shayy, still and stoic in the center of the room, grabbing her cane, let out her first elegant note, Lionel practically began to weep. He was a blubbering mess when she was done. “You wrecked me,” Shayy said before rushing to hug her. “I’ve never seen Lionel cry so much,” Judge Katy Perry observed. “You look like you’re walking a daughter down the aisle,” fellow judge Luke Bryan told Lionel.
“You have what we cannot teach,” Lionel said to Shayy. “We cannot teach letting the music flow straight from the soul, and that’s what you did. It just pours out of you. … I’m so in love with you.”
“For me, you’re not a question mark,” Katy said, before she and her fellow judges gave Shayy three assertive yeses.
The show then cut to film of a homecoming rally for Shayy, as she walked into her school gymnasium proudly brandishing her golden ticket. Oh, so now her classmates are supporting her? Grrr.
And then there was Ethan, who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at 18 months old. Two years ago, the Make-a-Wish Foundation helped make Ethan’s dream to meet his own idol, Luke, come true and he ended up dueting with Luke in concert in front of 50,000 people. “I felt like the whole world had just shut down, and it was me and him,” Ethan recalled. After that big moment, Luke handed Ethan his guitar and told him, “This is gonna change your life. You’ll never be the same.”
Apparently Luke was spot-on with that guess — though he probably never expected to see a healthy and beaming Ethan enter the Idol audition room carrying that same guitar. Luke noticed him right away, and when Ethan suggested they reunite for another duet, Luke didn’t pause. The two sounded great together on Luke’s “Do I,” almost like they’d rehearsed, and Luke actually seemed more nervous than the smiling Ethan. I could not stop smiling myself while watching this — and neither could Katy, who called Ethan “15 going on 30,” and Lionel, who said “You, young man, are an inspiration. I’m hoping that the whole world understands what they’re watching here.”
“I think of Luke as like a father figure. I felt honored. I felt like I was one of his own,” said Ethan after he got his golden ticket. “We harmonized, we did stuff that was unrehearsed, and it went perfect.” I kind of think Ethan and Luke should team up and try out for Can You Duet? if this Idol thing doesn’t work out.