“American Idol” contestant Kya Monee’ returned to the audition room to honor her late friend and former contestant Willie Spence during the reality singing competition show’s Season 21 premiere on Sunday.
Monee’ was paired up with Spence – who was killed in a car accident in Tennessee in October 2022 – as duet partners during Hollywood week when they appeared together on Season 19 of “Idol” in 2021.
Standing in the audition room once again on Sunday, Monee’ told judges Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie that she and Spence “grew a very, very close friendship” and that she’s still “trying to cope” with the loss.
“He was actually supposed to be here with me today for my audition,” Monee’ said, adding that “it’s just very hard to not have that support anymore but I know that he would want me to be here and keep pushing.”
Monee’ sang a tearful rendition of “I’m Here” from the theatrical musical “The Color Purple,” explaining that it was a song that she and Spence picked together.
“That’s how you sing through crying,” Perry said after the performance. Perry continued to share that while everybody’s feeling the loss of Spence, the judges “feel connected together” because Monee’ was authentic “just like he was.”
As Spence’s rendition of “Diamonds” by Rihanna played in the background, the judges sent Monee’ through to the next round. The singer wiped her tears and broke into a smile as she held her golden ticket and said, “Willie, thank you for not letting me give up. This is for you.”
Spence auditioned for “Idol” in 2021 with “Diamonds” after a 2017 video of him singing the song went viral. Spence ascended through each round and ultimately capped out as the Season 19 runner-up to winner Chayce Beckham.
A moving tribute montage played during the Season 21 premiere on Sunday as Richie could be heard saying Spence was a “wonderful angel” and that he was a “beacon of what ‘American Idol’ is all about.” A title card with the text “In loving memory of Willie Spence 1999-2022” was shown on screen to close out the emotional episode.