Just Sam on Her 'American Idol' Win & Using Her Story to Inspire Others

Just Sam American Idol
Q&A
ABC

Samantha Diaz isn’t Just Sam anymore. The 21-year-old singer is now an American Idol. The singer who inspired millions with her story of performing in New York subways was crowned the winner during the ABC singing competition’s finale on Sunday. 

Since then it has been a whirlwind schedule with little sleep. There have been appearances on Good Morning America and Live with Kelly and Ryan, as well as a Zoom-hosted prayer alongside her church family. Though before all of it, the first thing on the New Yorker's agenda was calm her grandmother down from the other side of the country. 

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The two share an unbreakable bond as Sam was adopted by Elizabeth at age 6. Due to the coronavirus pandemic and for precautionary measures, the Idol winner has been quarantining solo in California. She hopes to travel back home in the next few weeks to celebrate in person.

Here, Just Sam chatted with TV Insider about her Idol journey and the unprecedented season that saw contestants sing for America’s votes remotely. 

The other contestants had the benefit of friends and family as their support system at home. What helped keep you centered and motivated during the competition? 

Just Sam: Speaking to my grandmother every day and my sisters, my church family, that definitely helped out a lot. And also the other Idols are like my family now. They knew I was alone. They checked on me more than they checked on each other to be honest with you. They are super supportive and sweet. It was tough, but I did have these things helping me. I had my Bible, Zoom chats. Also, knowing this situation isn’t going to last. That has also been another motivation of mine. 

You lovingly refer to Katy Perry as "Auntie Katy." From the judges' standpoint, how much of an impact did they have on you during the process? 

For me, when I’m on a stage I get this rush. It can help a performance. I didn’t have that. Either way, stage or no stage, home or in the studio, each and every contestant had the support of the judges. I don’t think there was much of a difference there. They would be there for us, even if we weren’t going through this crisis. Checking in on us. Making sure we are all good. They are all super sweet. Luke [Bryan], Lionel [Richie] and Katy, they are always checking in on us. If anything, we are getting more love. Especially, with Auntie Katy pregnant. That is extra love right there. 

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There is such an intimacy this season. How do you feel you have grown as a performer in a remote environment? 

I’ve grown so much throughout this entire competition. If you’ve seen my first auditions, even during Hollywood Week, there was growth there. Then you go from Hollywood Week to now, there was growth there. That really comes from the support given not only to me, but the other contestants, by the judges, the American Idol crew, production. Everyone was so kind.

That energy helped a lot. I was alone this entire time when other people had their family. It wasn’t just the quarantine days. I was also alone in Hollywood Week, Hawaii in that round. It helped so much having the support and helped my performances. The advice given to me by the judges played a huge part with my growth. 

Just Sam American Idol

ABC

You took calculated risks and made solid song choices. Your winning rendition of "Rise Up" by Andra Day among them. You even used it in your initial  audition. What does this song mean to you? 

It means to remember where you came from as you go where you want to go. It’s the perfect time for rising up, not just for me, but for this world. Yeah, we have gone through this. But we will rise up anyway. Yeah, we’re tired and feel broken and losing friends and family. But we’re going to rise up anyway.

Even going forward, I would love to put out music similar to "Rise Up" that motivates people, that inspires people. I feel "Rise Up" is perfect for this time. It’s not only about me and what I want. It’s about what I can do. What my voice can do to help others. What my voice can do to inspire others.

"Rise Up" is a song that inspired me. It’s a song I used to sing on the train when I was broken down and tired. The song is about making it to where you want to be and moving past the hard times literally for me. I hope to create more music like Rise Up

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During your initial audition you began to sing "You Say" by Lauren Daigle before breaking down in tears. Fast-forward to the finale, and you get to duet with Daigle. What was that experience like for you? 

Lauren Daigle are going to be friends moving forward. Any advice I need I’m just going to holler at her. In that moment during the audition I was crying because how much I could relate to the words. I was thinking, “Sam, this is the biggest opportunity of your life. Why are you sitting here crying?” I was upset with myself after the audition because I really love that song. It’s another song I sing on the train, karaoke and open mics. After seeing the episode on February 16 I wished I could sing that song for the world and show them I won’t cry and that I can sing it all the way through without breaking down.

When they surprised me with that opportunity for the finale, it was like, "Wow!" It was the opportunity I was hoping for. I was hoping to get another chance. Then to be able to sing it with Lauren Daigle herself. Someone who has been on this Idol journey and knows a bit about it. It meant so much. She personally reached out and called my cell phone. She is super sweet and so humble. She is such a beautiful artist. There are great lyrics to that song. It made me super happy.

I felt super blessed to have that opportunity because, win or lose, I was going to be able to sing with Lauren Daigle. The bonus was "We Are the World." I got to sing with Papa Richie, who is such a great father figure to all of us. He is a sweetheart. I got to sing with him and other Idol alums. The graphics and how they put the video together. It was more than perfect, especially for this time. 

You honed your skills on the subway. A lot of people can relate to your hardships and dream aspirations. What does it mean to be this example for others? 

It means to world. Having been that little girl who was inspired by people like Fantasia. I was only 20 when I came into this competition, and now I’m 21 and still pretty young. I feel like I’m not useless and doing my part in some way to help others. I’ve always been the kind of person to want to help. It means everything to me that there are little girls who are looking up to me and my story. And that I’m able to motivate them to keep them going on their journey in life. It’s beautiful. 

American Idol, Season 4, 2021

Just Sam’s song, “Rise Up,” is available now wherever you stream music here.