"American Idol" shifted its focus away from the Mariah Carey/ Nicki Minaj sideshow on Thursday's (January 17) episode, instead spotlighting the contestants that came through the show's Chicago auditions. Specifically, Lazaro Arbos.
Arbos was the final contestant featured on the two-hour show, and his appearance was teased throughout the evening. Arbos, a 21-year-old ice cream scooper from Naples, Florida, blew the judges away with his strong, confident rendition of "Bridge Over Troubled Water," made all the more impressive by the fact that he got through it without stuttering.
Arbos has a strong stutter when he speaks, a condition he's had since he was a boy growing up in Cuba. But when he sings, it melts away, as do the insecurities that cripple his everyday speech. His was the kind of story "Idol" loves, and the judges immediately took to him. "Your story is very, very inspiring, I think you brought a really great vibe into the room," Minaj told him, and Carey agreed. "I think you have a beautiful voice," Mimi said, before giving him a hug at the end of his audition. "You're adorable, you're gonna do great!"
Arbos was one of 46 contestants who earned Golden Tickets in the Windy City, and he's definitely the name producers wanted viewers to remember from the Chicago auditions. Another standout was MacKenzie Wasner, a 17-year-old from Leiper's Fork, Tennessee, whose father plays keyboards for Vince Gill. Wasner did Gill proud by performing his "Whenever You Come Around" for the judges, and she was praised for her star power and the strength of her voice. "I think that someone like you walks in a room once every few years. That doesn't even sound like it's in a competition; that sounds like we're listening to your first single," Nicki told her. She was given four "yes" votes — Mariah actually pointed in her direction and said "pow" in approval, which must be a Level-7 diva gesture — and handily earned a trip to Hollywood.
Another Golden Ticket recipient was rocker Gabe Brown of Marion, Iowa, whose big rock pipes sounded like Jack Black at his most raucous. He belted out the Rolling Stones' "Gimme Shelter" and earned four big yeses, and his floppy hairdo earned him the nickname "Curly" from Ms. Minaj. Meanwhile, Isabelle Parell, a 15-year-old from Centerton, Indiana, snagged Keith Urban as a duet partner during her version of "Baby It's Cold Outside," and earned kudos for her poise, attitude and charisma. She got three out of four "yes" votes — Randy Jackson was a holdout — but that was enough to get her to Hollywood.
Other winning contestants included 22-year-old Griffin Peterson of Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, whose teen-idol good looks won him the favor of Minaj and Carey; Curtis Finch Jr. of St. Louis, whose version of Smokie Norful's "God Is Able" was one of the most impressive auditions of the night; 19-year-old Mariah Pulice of Darien, Illinois, who suffered from anorexia and whose version of the Beatles' "Let It Be" brought the other Mariah in the room to tears; 17-year-old Brandy Neelly of Louisville, Ky., who was called "A-plus-mazing" by Mariah after her version of Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart"; Stephanie Schimel, a 21-year-old from Milwaukee who was called a mix of Carrie Underwood and Gwen Stefani by Keith Urban; Johnny Keyser, a 23-year-old former Hollywood Week contestant who will get another crack at the spotlight; and the memorably loopy Kez Ban, a 27-year-old street performer from Durham, North Carolina, who sang an original song that caused Minaj to dub her "captivating" and who complained to host Ryan Seacrest on her way out of the audition room about the amount of paperwork she'd have to do now that she'd made it to Hollywood.
Yes, the episode also featured some back-and-forth between Mariah and Nicki, but the most telling moment between the two came when a friend of one of the contestants came in the room to fulfill her dream of meeting Mariah in person. Nicki understood what she was going through: "Do you know what it's like the first time to meet Mariah Carey?" she said, to which Carey defensively replied, "You did not like me when you met me." But Nicki wasn't setting up Mariah; she was talking honestly about meeting the legend for the first time. "It's so monumental," Nicki said, and Mariah followed it up with a sincere, "Thank you, Nicki." See, that's progress!
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