Cumberland’s Julia Gagnon made it all the way to the Top 7 on “American Idol.” Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

I never watched “American Idol” until I heard Julia Gagnon was going to be on it.

In fact, I’ve always been quietly judgmental about the show because of its voting process and how I’ve imagined the winners have to sign their life away.

But for several weeks this spring, I lived for the show. I spent many Sunday and Monday nights, even while on vacation in Florida, glued to the TV.

Now I’m sitting here, wearing my Julia Gagnon t-shirt, with a huge smile on my face.

It all began on March 24, which is when the episode with Gagnon’s Nashville audition aired. She was the last person to audition for season 22 of the show and during her chat with judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan, as well as the filmed vignette, Gagnon talked about being adopted from Guatemala when she was two years old.

Although she loves Maine, she endured bullying at school for being different. Gagnon said that in 2020 she located her birth mother, Sara Ramos, and that part of the reason for auditioning for “Idol” was to do something big that Ramos would be able to see.


We need to invent a new word; what Gagnon did can’t be contained by any version of the word “big.”

Gagnon’s audition choice was Aretha Franklin’s “Ain’t No Way.” Richie let out a breath before Gagnon sang the first note – he knew that choosing a Franklin song was risky.

But about 7 seconds in, all three judges were sharing astonished looks. In my living room, I was right there with them. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Did that come out of your mouth?” asked Richie. I looked at my dog Odie and uttered a shocked expletive.

Fast forward to April 21, when Gagnon advanced to the top 12 with her take on Whitney Houston’s “Run to You,” from the 1993 soundtrack to “The Bodyguard.” That’s my favorite Houston song. Again, I couldn’t believe my ears. Not only is her voice gorgeous and rich, she’s able to control it so well.

A week later, Gagnon sang the signature song of a woman I’ve long considered to be the greatest singer ever: Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow.” A bold choice but one Gagnon made her own, with infusions of the Israel Kamakawiwo’ole version and a voice so extraordinary that the judges were floored. As were the voters, who propelled Gagnon into the top 12.

On May 5, I repaired to the Salt Yard Cafe & Bar in Portland to cover a watch party. This was the night that the top seven was whittled down to the top five. I was confident that Gagnon would easily advance. She was by far, to my ears, the best vocalist and her evolution in confidence and stage presence had been astounding.


For this round, the seven contestants got to choose two songs. Gagnon’s first was the 1989 hit “Roam” by The B-52s. How good was it? So good that B-52s’ vocalist Kate Pierson took to Facebook to praise Gagnon. Pierson’s post read “Wow, this girl knocking out ‘Roam’ with some powerhouse vocals.”

Round two was Adele songs and Gagnon went with “Set Fire to the Rain.” With the opening lines, I felt she’d done it. Not only would Gagnon advance to the top five, she would win “American Idol.” But with that feeling was also the knowledge that Maine is a tiny state and, although fans around the country had been rallying around Gagnon, it was foolish to assume anything.

When it came time for the seven contestants to stand on stage and wait for the five names to be read, I was a nervous wreck. When her name wasn’t called I was truly gutted. I filed my story and, dejected, drove home and went to bed scowling, thinking that the “Idol” system was broken.

I woke up in that same space on Monday. Then I saw Gagnon’s Facebook post with these words: “Good morning!!!!! Yall thank you so much for blowing up my phone with love and support!!!! I am in high spirits and could not be more at peace with last nights results, as I had no idea I would even be privileged enough to BE in top 7!!!!!! Get ready for new music, new covers, and of course more content here!!! Love yall and what an awesome journey.”

Julia was OK.

This meant I could be, too. The dark cloud was lifted, and lifted further when I learned Gagnon will likely get to perform again during the finals on May 19. (By the way, I’m now #teamabi because Abi Carter, from Indio, California, is freaking awesome and she and Gagnon have become close friends.)

Now we all get to wait and see what Gagnon does next. More than anything, I hope she gets to sing on a Maine stage soon.

Aimsel Ponti is the Press Herald’s music writer.

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