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Interviews With 3 ‘Idol’ Alumni

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Interviews With 3 ‘Idol’ Alumni

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Monday night’s (April 29) live episode of American Idol will include a tribute to Mandisa, the season 5 finalist who died April 19 at age 47.

Melinda Doolittle (season 6), Danny Gokey (season 8) and Colton Dixon (season 11) — who were all personal friends and professional colleagues of the late Grammy-winning artist — will return to the Idol stage in Hollywood to honor the late singer with the song “Shackles (Praise You),” a 2000 top 10 hit by Mary Mary.

Doolittle and Mandisa became friends before either one competed on Idol. “I met Mandisa in the studio,” Doolittle told Billboard while waiting for her flight to Los Angeles to appear on the show. “We were both singing background for a project produced by our good friend Chance Scoggins. Mandisa was singing soprano, of course, and I was definitely singing alto, and we hit it off. She told me she was going to compete on American Idol and I said, ‘That couldn’t be me. You have a great time.’

“I remember watching Simon Cowell say some words to her that weren’t kind, but she was so resilient. She was willing to forgive him while I was thinking: ‘What kind of human being is he?’”

Melinda Doolittle

Melinda Doolittle

The following week, Cowell made a rare on-air apology to the singer he insulted. “I’ve been learning from her ever since how to navigate life and treat people well,” says Doolittle. A year later, she told Mandisa she was going to audition for Idol after all.

“She immediately said, ‘What’s going to be hard is Hollywood Week. That almost broke me, so I made myself a Bible study and I’m going to give you that so every day you have something to read.’ She gave me this pink bedazzled folder of Bible studies to go through. Her other advice was, ‘Take snacks.’ Those were the two best things she could have told me about Hollywood Week.”

The two singers stayed in touch during Doolittle’s season. “She was the biggest cheerleader anyone could ever have. After my performances, she would message or call me and tell me everything that was good. If I brought up something that went wrong, she would say, ‘That’s not what we’re here to talk about.’ She remained a cheerleader for the rest of her life. She would buy front-row seats to my concerts and be the loudest audience member ever.”

Their friendship continued to grow as the years passed by. “We would go to dinner together. We both got mistaken for the other all the time. I would just say, ‘Thank you.’ And when I was by myself, people would come up to me and tell me how the song ‘Overcomer’ [which spent 10 weeks at No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Christian Songs chart in 2013] changed their lives. I couldn’t wait to pass that along to her.”

With her flight delayed, Doolittle talked about returning to Idol 16 seasons after her run on the show. “I’m petrified every time. That stage holds such a beautiful pace for me and a scary place, all at the same time. I am so beyond grateful that they’ve chosen to honor Mandisa and to be a part of it with my buddies Danny and Colton. We’re good friends and we go to church together. I’m glad to have them with me. But I would be lying if I didn’t tell you I still get extremely nervous about that stage.”

Colton Dixon

Colton Dixon

Jimmy Fontaine

Billboard also reached out to Dixon, who was in Alabama on his final stop in a four-show tour, before flying to Los Angeles on Monday morning. Like Mandisa, Dixon was signed to Capitol, which led to his own very successful career in Contemporary Christian music.

“I remember when I met Mandisa the first time, discovering how much of a fan she was. She was so supportive of what I was doing. Not only did our industry lose a really big voice and a powerhouse of a person, but Christian music lost its No. 1 cheerleader. She was that for everyone.”

Asked about Mandisa’s hit single “Overcomer,” Dixon said, “It was a massive song with so much truth. Everyone needs to hear that. Buckle up, keep going, and you can do it. And that’s who she was too. I loved all of her songs. There’s so much joy in her music.”

Dixon recalled that he toured with Mandisa one time. “We were out with TobyMac. Mandisa and I were on a bus together. Every morning, I would beat her to the front lounge, and when she came up, I would sing her song ‘Good Morning’ to her. I’m pretty sure she hated that song by the end of the tour. But we had so much fun together. What I’m going to miss the most are those Mandisa talks, those hugs. I believe I’m going to get those again one day, but I’m going to miss it while I’m here.”

Billboard also asked Dixon about his thoughts on returning to Idol. “Anytime American Idol reaches out, it’s an honor for me to be a part of that stage. I wish it was under different circumstances. But as both a fan of the show and a friend and colleague of Mandisa, when I get there today, I’m going to say, ‘Thank you for paying tribute to her,’ because she was a big voice on the show and a big voice in our industry off the show. It means a lot to those close to her that they would recognize that. So I’m humbled and honored to be a part of that tribute.”

Danny Gokey

Danny Gokey

Rachel & Connor Dwyer

On Sunday, Gokey was singing at an evening worship service on Maui to offer hope to the survivors of the devastating Lahaina fire of August 2023. He sent Billboard a written statement about participating in Idol’s tribute to Mandisa.

“Mandisa was not only a fellow Idol, but a true friend and a huge part of the CCM music community. I had the privilege of touring with her several times and it was always fun to sing together. Her joy was infectious and she encouraged people on and off stage! When I made my debut in Christian music, she was my greatest supporter. It wasn’t easy coming off a failed record deal after the show, but she was the one who welcomed me first and loudest and rallied everyone to support me. She loved to cheer people on, to help them see the God-given purpose they had in the world. It’s an honor to be the one cheering her on this time and highlighting the impact she had in so many people’s lives.”

Showrunner and executive producer Megan Michaels Wolflick, who has been with Idol since season 2, tells Billboard, “Mandisa was a bright light who brought joy to the millions who fell in love with her on American Idol back in 2006. She continued to have a storied career, always showing her dedication to her fans and her faith. She will be missed on an immense level. It is with a depth of gratitude that we are able to celebrate her life on our show.”

American Idol airs live Monday night at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on ABC.

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