Autistic man’s ‘American Idol’ audition moves judges: ‘These are happy tears, I promise!’

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Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan react to Sam Finelli’s ‘American Idol’ audition. (Photos: aBC) When Sam Finelli tried out for American Idol Season 20, in the final minutes of Sunday’s episode, he confessed that this had been his dream since childhood — but he’d never sang anywhere other than his bedroom, basement, and shower, aside from the occasional karaoke night. “I’m going to be honest with you: I never thought I’d be here in a million years,” he told the judges, admitting that he’d always worried that he wasn’t “good enough.” But at age 28, Sam, who works in a bakery by day, was in his last year of Idol eligibility. So, he finally decided, “I’m ready to go after my dream. … I hope in the future for more.”

Sam has high-functioning autism and explained that he never “connected with people very well” (hence his life-long reluctance to perform in public), but music was always his “best friend” and his coping mechanism when growing up. Still, he said that his audition song, Kacey Musgraves’s encouragement anthem “Rainbow” — a perfect choice, Katy Perry noted — was a song he needed “20 years ago.” Sam’s voice was not technically perfect (although his high register was pretty and impressively controlled), but it was pure, and this was a sweet and stunning rendition. By the end of the song, Katy was crying, Lionel Richie was crying, and even Luke Bryan was crying. “That felt like an experience ,” Luke marveled. And when all three judges gave Sam a standing ovation, Sam starting crying as well, clarifying: “These are happy tears, I promise!” Then Sam’s supportive mother Suzie was invited into the audition room to hear the judges’ unanimous “You’re going to Hollywood!” verdict, and she joyfully wept as well.

“I was so afraid to audition!” Sam exclaimed through his happy tears. To that, Lionel told him, “We are so proud of you … You were born enough. And what you consider your handicap is your gift.” Katy added, “There’s always been a rainbow hanging over your head.”

These were the other successful auditions of American Idol Season 20’s third episode: