The story of Just Sam, ‘American Idol’ and what reality shows owe winners

The story of Just Sam, ‘American Idol’ and what reality shows owe winners

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NEW YORK — The noise at the gala just kept getting louder during Samantha Diaz’s 25-minute set. While a large group of attendees stood by a small stage as the singer known as Just Sam belted out cover songs, hundreds more chatted and laughed and enjoyed general merriment as they sipped cocktails and sampled mini desserts in the sleek Glasshouse event space overlooking the Hudson River.

“I know you guys back there can barely hear me, but I just have a few more songs,” Just Sam said, cheerfully, with the confidence of someone who frequently has to talk over crowds. “And if you know them, like these fine people in the front, please do not hesitate to sing along.”

More heads turned as Just Sam launched into Adele’s ballad “Easy on Me,” followed by upbeat Jennifer Hudson and Selena tracks, and there were cheers when some in the audience started dancing. “We’ve got great energy here,” Just Sam said. “Let’s keep the vibes going!”

Just Sam, 25, was unfazed by the racket. They spent much of their formative years singing over the roar of trains in the New York subway, entertaining commuters and tourists with pop and R&B hits and gospel songs. A Harlem native adopted by their grandmother at age 6 along with their sister, Just Sam had dreams of becoming a performing artist. So like countless other aspiring singers without industry connections, they turned to a path with infinitesimal odds, but one that can occasionally change lives: reality TV. They auditioned for NBC’s “The Voice,” they said, and after being turned down, decided to take another shot and try out for ABC’s “American Idol” in 2019.

They not only got through the first round, but won “Idol” in May 2020 — the first openly LGBTQ+ winner in the show’s history. To many viewers, the victory made perfect sense. Just Sam’s stunningly smooth voice and delightful stage presence captivated fans, and the show leaned heavily into their emotional, inspirational story as a subway busker who earned money to help their grandmother. In one episode, Just Sam brought their subway donation box onstage as they sang a pitch-perfect rendition of “Hearts Ain’t Gonna Lie.” When the performance ended, judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan walked over and placed cash in the box as inspirational music swelled in the background.

So it looked like an especially cruel turn of events this year when Just Sam posted videos on Instagram and revealed that they were, once again, busking in the subway. The “Idol” record deal didn’t work out. The prize money was gone.

“If I ever went back to the trains, I didn’t expect it to be something that I had to do. I felt like it would be something that I did for fun, you know, relive an old moment or memory, you know?” Just Sam said in an interview last month after their performance at the buildOn Gala, a celebration and fundraiser for the education nonprofit group. “But I literally could not afford to pay my rent. I couldn’t afford to eat.”

“I didn’t tell my grandmother what was going on at the label. I was embarrassed. She found out when the world did — that’s something that not many people know. I didn’t want to worry her,” Just Sam continued. “But I was embarrassed, truly, because I never really thought — I never saw anyone on a show like that who won, like, go back to their old life.”

Those Instagram videos on the subway, posted in April and May, were not the first time Just Sam revealed that life after “Idol” had been difficult. In early 2021, they confirmed they parted ways with their label, Hollywood Records and 19 Recordings. In early 2022, Just Sam said on Instagram they were “broke” from trying to fund their independent music career.

But there was something this year about the sight of Just Sam, earnestly singing in the subway next to that donation box, that made “Idol” fans and casual observers furious. Even though everyone knows in 2023 that life after reality singing competitions is often challenging, it still raised questions: How did someone let this happen? Shouldn’t reality shows be held accountable for the everyday people that they make famous? Angry “Idol” fans tagged the show and judges in Instagram comments, demanding an explanation. The videos went viral.

The answers are complicated, and Just Sam wants to make it clear: Despite how tough the last 3½ years have been, they do not blame “Idol,” the producers or judges for their hardships. A major obstacle was timing, given that Just Sam won in the early months of the pandemic, not an ideal time to launch a singing career.

“I’m grateful for them. They changed my life forever,” Just Sam said. “Even though it’s not in the way I expected.” (ABC and 19 Entertainment, parent company of 19 Recordings, declined to comment for this story; Hollywood Records declined to comment on the record. Fremantle, the “Idol” production company, said no one was available for an interview. Representatives for Richie, Perry and Bryan did not return requests for comment.)

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Now, Just Sam is working with a new management company. After the subway videos blew up online, celebrities such as producer Timbaland and rapper Lil Durk reached out, and strangers asked what they could do to help. That’s how Just Sam wound up at the buildOn Gala — the marketing director saw the news stories and thought they would make a great representative for the organization, “someone who had that essence of future possibilities and hope.”

Just Sam recently returned to the trains to sing, but they are also focused on writing and recording new music, and future projects in the entertainment industry.

“This is not the end of the story. That’s what I want people to know,” Just Sam said. “I especially want younger people to know that my life changed and I didn’t know that it was going to. I just kept working. … Keep on fighting, keep on working hard, and it will pay off.”

Auditions that elicit tears are “American Idol’s” specialty. Just Sam’s was so moving that the show used it as early promotional footage before the season premiere in February 2020. They told the cameras that they were going by their stage name Just Sam (a nickname inspired by the fact that their style varied and classmates didn’t know whether to call them a girl or a boy, so went with “Just Sam”). Just Sam shared that they grew up in the projects with their grandmother and started singing on the subway in middle school to help pay the bills. They genuinely loved the “underground world” with fellow performers.

“Life was hard, but I got through 100 percent of my worst days,” they said. As Just Sam started to sing, they were overcome with nerves and broke down in tears. The celebrity judges walked over and enveloped them in a group hug. “You got this,” Perry assured Just Sam.

“I want you to feel safe,” Richie said, after Just Sam delivered a flawless cover of Andra Day’s “Rise Up” and the judges voted to send them through to Hollywood. “Uncle Luke, Auntie Katy, Uncle Richie. We got you, okay? I want you to rely on us to coach you through this. And forget about winning. You’ve already won.”

Just Sam, through sobs, asked if the judges would pray with them, and they did.

But then Just Sam did win, during the most surreal “Idol” finale in history. During the early weeks of the season, as the coronavirus spread, the show went completely remote — the finalists went home to be with their families and film performances from living rooms and backyards. Just Sam, however, couldn’t go back to New York for fear of getting their grandmother sick. So they remained alone in a Los Angeles hotel room for the rest of the season.

On May 17, after Just Sam performed “Rise Up” again, along with Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” host Ryan Seacrest announced to the audience: “The next American Idol for 2020 is: Just Sam!”

Just Sam stood there in shock and then started screaming while they clutched an iPad that showed their grandmother, also screaming.

“I swear I thought I was dreaming. It was unreal. … Before they announced that I was the winner, I was just like, ‘Congratulations, Arthur,’ in my head,” Just Sam said, referring to the runner-up, Arthur Gunn. The next day, Just Sam embarked on the traditional “Idol” winner media tour on ABC talk shows, albeit virtually, and embraced the moment. “The world was going through something crazy, but it just felt like this is a little bit of light with the darkness that was going on.”

Unlike previous “Idol” winners, Just Sam, like the rest of the world, was stuck. They signed a record deal with Hollywood Records and 19 Recordings, which has partnered with multiple “Idol” contestants. Theoretically, Just Sam would have quickly been in the studio working on a debut album — but not in 2020.

“I was trying — or we, my team at the time — was trying to figure out how I was going to get into the studios and back into doing things that a normal ‘Idol’ winner would be doing after their win,” Just Sam said. “But it took months before I got in there.” With everyone fearful of the virus and the future, momentum slowed to a crawl. Just Sam was left essentially by themselves to try to navigate contracts and manage their money as bills piled up.

Just Sam did not go into detail about what went awry with the label, financially or personally. Their current management team said, “Due to NDA agreements, it is ill-advised for us to comment on the agreement between Hollywood Records and Sam. In addition, we were not representing Sam at that time and we are unable to clarify.” (According to recent contracts, “Idol” winners have received $250,000; they got $125,000 when they won the show and $125,000 when they turned in an album.)

Just Sam has admitted they have since learned the importance of fully grasping the terms of contracts. They said when they parted ways with the label before releasing an album, they were advised that if they wanted to keep any of the songs they had recorded, they would have to pay thousands of dollars for each of them.

“A lot of those songs, I was not able to rerecord. And with whatever little bit of money I got after, I did use toward some of the songs,” said Just Sam, who has several songs, such as “Change” and “Africando,” on streaming services. “And whatever else was left went to rent.”

Between releasing music independently on streaming services, Just Sam got a few odd jobs, such as working at Starbucks. But they knew from experience that they could make a decent amount of money on trains, sometimes around $100 per day. They had another setback in summer 2022, when they posted on Instagram about being hospitalized for an undisclosed illness. In spring 2023, they posted that they were back to performing in the subway.

“I was disappointed in myself for allowing myself to fall so low after winning idol,” Just Sam wrote in a now-deleted Instagram caption captured by the Sun. “Since then, I have learned so much and I’ve been able to take my experiences and share them with other artist in hopes that they don’t experience the same things that I did when it comes to making it in this life.”

When Just Sam’s story went viral, there was a lot of arguing among observers in the social media comments. Some were rude and judgmental, asking how Just Sam found themselves in this position — but many others thought the judges and producers should have done more to help.

During filming, the judges emphasized their support. (“No matter where this competition goes, I’m going to be Papa Lionel for the rest of your life,” Richie said at one point; Perry had declared, “Look Sam, you’re never going to go back to singing on the subway.”) Just Sam, who said they have not heard from the judges or producers since their story went viral, said they were realistic about how much the show could do.

“People were, like, mad: ‘What are you doing back on the train? What did “Idol” do for you?’ I’m like, no … I cannot thank them enough for everything that they’ve done for me,” Just Sam said. “They truly were like a family to me, the ‘Idol’ cast and crew.”

Their friends acknowledge that while Just Sam is gracious about the aftermath, their struggles were still hard to see. Ladan Osman, a writer and filmmaker who co-directed the 2018 short film “Sam, Underground” after being fascinated by Just Sam performances on the subway, was thrilled when they won — for her friend’s career prospects, and because Just Sam was important representation on TV.

“This is a young Afro-Latino person who is nonbinary, who is very out and very proud,” Osman said. While the show didn’t talk about the performer’s sexuality, which Just Sam addressed in later interviews, Osman noted that audiences seeing Just Sam being themselves and thriving on national TV was “actually a really big deal.”

That made it all the more difficult when Osman saw Just Sam going through a hard time after “Idol.” One reason their story hit a nerve, Osman said, is that people have more awareness about how impossible it can be to succeed in the music industry, whether it’s singers trying to own their master recordings or those who are under contract but can’t get music released.

“I think Sam needs to be folded into that larger conversation, and there needs to be a closer look at some of these competition shows,” Osman said, adding that Just Sam’s honesty helped spur their story forward. “Artists are taking tremendous risks to express their displeasure and the greater justice that they hope to experience, which is really just a bigger question about workers’ rights.”

Dorothy Toran, a veteran television executive and president of Partners In Kind Productions, loved seeing Just Sam compete on “Idol.” She thought they were a magnetic presence, and was shocked last year when she saw an Instagram post that showed Just Sam was working at Starbucks.

Toran sent Just Sam a message and wound up connecting them with an agent who is now managing them at crowdMGMT; she is also in talks with Just Sam to share their “really mind-blowing” journey from an unscripted TV perspective. Toran said the fact that Just Sam had to return to the subway was “unacceptable,” particularly given potential safety issues as a young, queer Black person who is now recognizable because of the show.

“So much of the success of shows like ‘Idol’ and ‘X-Factor’ is that you get to know the contestants far beyond their musical talent,” Toran said. “I think there is a responsibility to just not support the person’s art, but to support them fully and give them emotional support and stability.”

“Many people make millions of dollars in ad sales and revenue and in views and in social media imprints behind Sam’s win, and they are back on the subway and not benefiting from any of that,” she added. “And that’s not fair.”

After the buildOn Gala, Just Sam was sitting with full glam hair and makeup and surrounded by their team and beaming grandmother — the type of scene audiences might expect from a former “Idol.” Just Sam was happy to be rebuilding their career and talked about how they were proud to be the first LGBTQ+ “Idol” winner. Even though that fact wasn’t included in the show, they were never “hiding.”

“I love Jesus and I love women. So I’ve had a lot of people come for me about that, and I’m just like, ‘God loves me,’” Just Sam said. “I think it’s important for people to know, from someone like me being in this position, I’m going to make sure that my community knows we are loved by God.”

Ultimately, in addition to their own artistic dreams, Just Sam wants to inspire others. And also make them see that it’s never shameful to struggle.

“Everybody’s waiting to see that big blowup moment again like ‘Idol.’ I think it’s going to be something greater than ‘Idol’ — no shade, I love them. But I think that wasn’t the end. That was just the beginning,” Just Sam said. “And there’s so much more to come.”

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