WTOP interview aired prior to show. Watch Brandon’s “Idol” audition in the video below.
WASHINGTON — This … is your next “American Idol” — and he happens to be from Virginia.
Twenty-one-year-old Ashburn native Brandon Diaz will compete in the two-part premiere Sunday and Monday on ABC, which is relaunching the hit show after 15 seasons on FOX.
“If you liked the 15 seasons on FOX, you’re going to love the ABC version even more,” Diaz said. “It’s a lot more of a talent show than a reality show. … You know how ‘American Idol’ used to have those people who were there more for the TV [hype] in the early weeks? I didn’t see a lot of that. No William Hung, ‘She Bangs,’ ‘Pants on the Ground,’ Oh, lord. None of that!”
This year also features a new trio of judges with Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan.
“I walked in the door and there was this little sliver where you can see the judges [and] I just locked eyes and I was like, ‘Oh my god, it’s Katy Perry,'” Brandon said. “Lionel is a living legend and has worked with the greats. … Katy is absolutely gorgeous, just stunning. … And Luke is just such a funny guy, very down to earth and very fun-hearted. They were just all so cool and made it very easy to be myself and sing my best and let it go. I truly feel like I left it all there.”
While Brandon performed Allen Stone’s “Unaware” inside the judges’ room, his mother, father and sister stood anxiously outside of the door waiting to see whether he got the golden ticket.
“Before he went in there, they had us all basically listening at the door with our ear,” mother Sherri Diaz said. “Then they go, ‘Okay, get ready, he’s coming!’ And we’re like, ‘Did he make it?’ And they can’t tell you. They know, but they can’t tell you. It’s so nerve-wracking!”
Decades ago, she listened through a different door as Brandon sang from his crib.
“I would go to his room when he was a baby to wake him up, and I would sit outside the door and he’d be singing little songs from his crib,” Sherri said. “When he was 2 years old, my husband [was] listening to Brandon who was singing already and he’s like, ‘That kid is going to sing really good, because he can stay on pitch at 2 years old. He was spot on for pitch.”
So, he began taking piano and vocal lessons and unofficially testing out his pipes during family trips to Cold Stone Creamery. His first official public performance came at age 7, when he performed karaoke at a bowling alley while visiting family in Springfield, Illinois.
“I was bowling with my cousins and all of the adults were in the bar’s karaoke lounge,” Brandon said. “My mom ran out and said, ‘Do you want to sing karaoke?’ I said, ‘Sure, why not.’ [I sang], ‘You Had Me From Hello’ by Kenny Chesney. … I was so nervous, my dad had to stand behind me and sing the whole song in my ear. That was my first moment on stage ever. After, I just heard the roar from the crowd and ran to my mom’s arms. It was super cool.”
A year later, he sang his first recital with a cover of Josh Groban’s “You Raise Me Up.”
“Back then, his voice was really high because he didn’t go through the voice change yet,” Sherri joked. “It was beautiful. People when they’d hear it, they would cry.”
Then, around age 14, he started landing paid professional gigs managed by his mom.
“She played the role of my ‘mom-anger,’ I like to call it,” Brandon said. “She was like, ‘Do you want to start letting people hear you sing and going out there and making money?’ So I started gigging around 13 all over D.C., Virginia, mostly wineries, weddings [and] I played Potbelly over in Ashburn. I had a slot every Thursday, just me, acoustic guitar and piano.”
After graduating from Briar Woods High School (“Rep the Falcons!” he said), Brandon enrolled in Berklee College of Music in Boston. It was here that heard about the “American Idol” open call in Boston, where talent scouts took tour buses to 20 cities to hear 60,000 people.
“I got reached out to and I decided, ‘Why not?'” Diaz said. “It’s a cool opportunity.”
After making the initial cut, he got called back to the “Executive Audition” in front of TV executives in New York City in August. After passing that round, he was brought back to New York City again for the actual “Idol” TV taping at a hotel across from Madison Square Garden.
“We get there at like 5 or 6 in the morning, Mom’s with me, Dad’s with me and my sister,” he said. “There’s this huge room, the big holding room you see in the show with the white chairs and the signs that say ‘American Idol.’ You chill for a bit, then all of a sudden you’re on. They’re pulling you every which way; they’re interviewing you: ‘How are you feeling?'”
Sherri admits it was a long day with plenty of anxiety.
“[You start] at 6 in the morning and by 3 he went in for his audition,” she said. “That’s like eight hours, so then you start second-guessing your song and getting a little stress. He was going to change the key and I’m thinking to myself, ‘You shouldn’t change the key.’ His dad went and did a rehearsal with him in the bathroom and he’s like, ‘Son, that’s the perfect key.'”
Not only did he lean on his supportive parents, he pulled inspiration from his late grandmother, his Abuela, whose birthday fell on the exact same date of the audition: Oct. 4.
“She passed away five or six years ago,” Brandon said. “She was a musician, as well, so it was a very special day. I miss her a lot because she was a big part of my musical career and upbringing. … I was sad because I missed her, but I was also excited because I was going into this life-changing audition that could be the beginning of my career.”
Around his neck, he wore a gold necklace with two medallions given to him by his Abuela.
“It’s a family heirloom,” Brandon said. “Right before I walked in, I had this moment where I couldn’t hold it in, and I just let it all out [crying]. … I was expecting to be more nervous walking into the room, but I actually just calmed down seeing the judges’ faces.”
Part of him was relieved that he didn’t have to stare down former judge Simon Cowell.
“I am kind of happy that I didn’t have to deal with Simon, but I’ve actually been in front of him before,” Diaz said. “I did ‘The X-Factor’ when I was 16, I did ‘Superstition’ by Stevie Wonder. I got through that first audition with Simon. … He’s exactly like he is on TV. He’s very scary to look at and talk to, but he really liked me actually. He was very complimentary.”
While the rest of America watches with curiosity at how the new ABC version will compare to the FOX hit, the Diaz family will be holding a watch party with family and friends in Ashburn.
“We’ll be screaming our heads off,” he said. “We’ll have a little viewing party. I actually have a wedding gig in Boston, then I’m coming home specifically to watch with my family. It’s one of those moments you don’t always get, so it’s nice to spend it with your family.”
Whether he advances or not, he knows the show can make stars whether you win (Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood) or not (Chris Daughtry, Jennifer Hudson, Adam Lambert).
“I mean, Tori Kelly got said ‘no’ to on ‘American Idol;’ a bunch of incredible people haven’t even won and have been super successful,” Brandon said. “I’ve been told ‘no’ way more than I’ve been said ‘yes’ to. That’s what I want to show people — that perseverance really pays off.”
Listen to our full conversation with “Idol” contestant Brandon Diaz and mother Sherri Diaz below: