Another season of American Idol has come and gone, but this one will be notable not just for being produced during the middle of a pandemic, but because so several contestants left the competition mysteriously. These aren’t exactly worthy of an Investigation Discovery series, but it’s still remarkable that, of the top 24 contestants on American Idol season 19, four contestants ultimately left at various stages—even prompting a rumor about violence between a finalist and a judge. That’s 17 percent of the top 24.
Sunday night’s American Idol finale was performed live, in front of a studio audience, which is quite the change from last season’s terrific and inspired filmed-at-home episodes. The finale did end with an actual winner: Chayce Beckham, who Wikipedia already notes is “the ninth guy with guitar (GWG) to win in twelve seasons,” though he is the show’s first winner from California. Georgia’s Willie Spence was the runner-up, and Chicagoan Grace Kinstler placed third.
Of the four contestants who left the top 24 of ABC’s fourth American Idol season, there was one whose exit was for an unambiguous reason. Caleb Kennedy, 16, was cut after a Snapchat video surfaced on social media showing him sitting next to someone wearing a Klan hood. Caleb’s mother said he was 12 in the video, and said it was filmed “after Caleb had watched the movie The Strangers: Prey at Night and they were imitating those characters.” Caleb wrote on Instagram that the video “displayed actions that were not meant to be taken in that way” and “I know this has hurt and disappointed a lot of people and made people lose respect for me. I’m so sorry!”
But the other exits were far less clear, and so weird that American Idol blogger MJ Santilli tweeted the Elmo fire GIF and “New Headline: AMERICAN IDOL CHAOS!” That’s because yet another person dropped out last night—disappearing from the finale with such short notice that the producers had to pull another contestant from the audience to perform on stage. MJ declared this “the season of dropouts.” So here are the three who dropped out for mysterious reasons.
Arthur Gunn bailed on a finale duet with Sheryl Crow
That was Arthur Gunn, last season’s runner-up and a top-10 finalist this season. He won the “Comeback” round, a season 19 twist that gave one of last year’s top 20 a space in this year’s top 10. I can see how that may have been designed as a nice gesture to last season’s contestants, who got screwed by worldwide events, but it effectively screwed someone from this year’s group.
As the Wichita Eagle reported, there was “backlash about the twist, which some fans say is unfair to this season’s contestants.” Yahoo Music noted that after he joined the top 10, “Arthur even looked a bit guilty and chagrined, as if reluctant to appear too celebratory, as he sat with his sullen new costars on the set’s sofas.”
Gunn was to perform a duet with Sheryl Crow during the finale, but Graham DeFranco performed it instead. There’s a reason why it was such an awkward performance: USA TODAY reported that Luke Bryan said during a virtual press conference that DeFranco “literally came to cheer. He was there to support Chayce, and we’re pulling him out of the crowd going, ‘You’re gonna sing with Sheryl Crow.’ And he’s like, ‘Hell yeah!'”
What happened to Arthur Gunn? It’s unknown. As MJ noted, “If he were ill or had a personal problem, Ryan would have mentioned it and wished him well, right? …Could he have gotten cold feet after the heavy backlash to his presence on the show? Regardless, he travelled to Los Angeles to record a winners single with the rest of Top 6. After 19 Records released it, he promoted the song.”
Update: Arthur posted to Instagram that “I missed my opportunity to sing with legendary @sherylcrow” and “what happened is not much to discuss at this point”. He does discuss it a little more, but it’s still not very clear what happened:
It was last minute decision but I couldn’t help but say no cause of some personal morals and values due to unpleasant environmental experiences. It’s not necessary to state it, it is what it is, so I felt like I had to move on, It’s not the show @americanidol to blame, they were there long before nor anyone related to show. I’m grateful for @americanidol for have given me this platform and helped me to reach out to you all. sometimes things happens and it happens for a reason I guess. I feel upset about it as much as all you might have, and I’m sorry if I did let down anyone but I felt like all these confrontations didn’t need to happen at the show, so I just had to move on from there, sometimes all we can do is move on!!!
Wyatt Pike left at the top 16
Earlier this season, Wyatt Pike disappeared at the top-16 stage. While he performed on the April 11 show, he was not there for the April 12 results show. Ryan Seacrest said, “Wyatt Pike will not be competing in the competition. He had to drop out, but we wish him the very best.” Wyatt later wrote on Instagram, “I had to leave the @AmericanIdol competition for personal reasons.”
That was the same episode that Luke Bryan was missing and Paula Abdul substituted for him, fueling crazy rumors that Wyatt and Luke got into an actual fight, leaving Bryan with a black eye. Luke’s wife even responded on TikTok, writing, “I kinda wish there was a fight. I’m sick of taking care of kids alone and sanitizing. I’m peeing Lysol!!!” Luke returned to the show a week later; Wyatt never did.
Benson Boone, TikTok star, made the top 24 but left
Before that, Benson Boone, who has more than 1.5 million TikTok followers, made it to the Hollywood round, and was on a leaked list of top 24 contestants. But he disappeared from the competition. In his place was Anilee List, who MJ’s Big Blog noted was announced as part of the top 24 by Ryan Seacrest, not the judges, suggesting they didn’t have footage of the judges choosing her because she’d been eliminated.
Boone later wrote on Instagram, “It was a really hard decision for me to make, but I decided to step down from the competition. I am so grateful to have been part of the show, everyone was amazing and it was an INCREDIBLE experience!””
So why leave such an incredible experience? Of course contestants should feel free to exit a competition any time they want, for whatever reason. But when a show introduces people and develops them into characters, it’s odd when their storylines just end without a word—or with words that don’t actually say anything. Perhaps we’ll learn more in the coming months about why these three contestants all decided to bail on American Idol.