Julia Gagnon at her home in Cumberland. She’ll be appearing on “American Idol” on ABC Sunday night. She wanted to participate in the internationally televised show so she’d have something to share with her birth mother in Guatemala. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

For much of her young life, Julia Gagnon didn’t share her gift for singing because she didn’t want to stand out among her classmates in Maine. The Guatemala native says she’d been bullied and harassed for her looks and background, and that made her want to be quiet and blend in.

But on Sunday night, Gagnon, 21, will be seen sharing her vocal passion and talent with the whole world on the televised singing competition “American Idol.” She’s doing it, in large part, to share a special moment and journey with her birth mother in Guatemala, Sara Ramos, who is seriously ill and fighting an infection.

“ ‘American Idol’ being such a big international thing, I know this was something she could see me do and that I could share with her,” said Gagnon, who lives in Cumberland with her adoptive parents, Meg and Jim Gagnon.

Gagnon auditioned for “American Idol” in Nashville in the fall, and her performance will appear on Sunday’s episode, airing from 8-10 p.m. on ABC. A video of her audition, showing all three celebrity judges giving her a standing ovation, has been used in online promotions for the current season of the show, but was recently taken down. For her audition, Gagnon performed a powerful version of Aretha Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way” and was praised by judge Lionel Richie in the video.

On Sunday’s episode, viewers will find out if Gagnon gets eliminated or gets the “golden ticket” to the next round of the show’s competition in Hollywood. During the Hollywood competitions, a field of about 150 singers will be whittled down to 24 finalists, who will be flown to Hawaii and compete against each other for the rest of the season. The current season began on Feb. 18, with several episodes showing auditions, but the final episode date has not been announced.

Julia Gagnon, of Cumberland, during her “American Idol” audition last year, which will be seen on Sunday’s episode of the show. Courtesy of American Idol and Fremantle

Gagnon didn’t feel comfortable singing in public until she was in middle school and her class at North Yarmouth Academy was putting on a talent show. She thought it would be fun and chose to sing “Popular” from the musical “Wicked” because she had just seen it on Broadway. Her performance impressed classmates and stunned her teachers, including her chorus teacher, Nora Krainis, who had never really heard Gagnon sing because she usually lip-synched so she wouldn’t draw attention to herself.


“When she finally sang for me, I was blown away. She had this deep, ancient, mature voice. I don’t think she had any idea what she had,” Krainis said. “Once I heard her sing I wanted to create every opportunity for her to sing in concerts or in drama. But I’d check with her mom (Meg Gagnon) regularly to make sure I wasn’t pushing her into anything she didn’t want to do.”

Gagnon sang in high school concerts and musicals but then stopped singing when the pandemic hit and she entered Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. After three years there, she wanted to come home to Maine and enrolled at the University of Southern Maine, where she is a senior majoring in history and is on a pre-law track.

Her first summer back in Maine, in 2023, she heard about a competition called Central Maine Idol, which is modeled after “American Idol” and held at The Quarry Tap Room in Hallowell. Gagnon had watched a friend compete in it and realized she missed singing. So she entered and won the contest’s $10,000 prize.

Gagnon said she only sings songs she emotionally connects to. Two of the songs she sang during Central Maine Idol were “Show Yourself” from “Frozen” and “Stand Up” by English soul singer Cynthia Erivo.

“From the moment she belted out her first note, we knew we had a very special contestant with an amazing talent,” said Brian Root, of Winthrop, one of the Central Maine Idol’s producers. “Every week, Julia brought people out of their seats with standing ovations. She’s all in with every song she sings.”

Gagnon will be busy Sunday night, attending two watch parties in her honor. She’ll be at the first one, at North Yarmouth Academy, around 7 p.m. Her parents will stay there while she travels to the other party at The Quarry Tap Room, hopefully arriving about halfway through the episode. She’ll sing for the gathering as well.


“It’s so sweet, so nice of people to do this for us,” Gagnon said of the watch parties.

Gagnon said winning Central Maine Idol gave her the confidence to try out for “American Idol.” She said she had told her birth mother about the win and could sense she was proud. But Gagnon thought “American Idol” would be something her birth mother could take part in with her, by watching.

Gagnon only found her birth family when she was 18 and has kept in touch. She said it’s given her “a new appreciation for my real parents,” who adopted her and have raised her. Gagnon’s long-term plans have involved going to law school and, because of her personal history, practicing family law.

But she said her experience so far with “American Idol” has made her think about the possibility of doing something more with music. The show’s judges, Luke Bryan, Katy Perry and Lionel Richie, have all had successful careers in music.

“It has crossed my mind, to take this opportunity and possibly do something more for myself with my music,” said Gagnon. “Yeah, I definitely have some newfound dreams.”

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