The American Idol judges were left in tears by heartbreaking stories on Sunday’s season premiere that reminded them of their own struggles.
The opening night of season 17 saw many of the usual high jinks – and Katy Perry, 34, even told the ‘sweet’ story of how she first fell for fiancé Orlando Bloom as he tried to steal her burger at In-N-Out.
The emotions however proved too much at times, with Lionel Richie, 69, telling one contestant: ‘You got me crying, you crying – everybody’s crying.’
Season premiere: Katy Perry wiped away tears during the emotional season 17 premiere Sunday of American Idol on ABC
The premiere closed with Luke Bryan, 42, clearly crushed at the story of a contestant whose brothers both committed suicide – with Luke opening-up about the heartbreak of losing his own brother and sister.
He was also the first of the judges seen struggling to contain his emotions at Kai the Singer, a 19-year-old who grew up mostly homeless and whose family-of-eight is still so poor she does not even have a bed.
Saying that her performance ‘started stirring many, many emotions in me,’ Luke struggled to hold his emotions as he told her: ‘Quite frankly I don’t know how kids like you – I don’t know how you pony up and make it here.’
Katy lost it when Kai replied ‘my church,’ with the Roar singer soon weeping so much that Kai – also crying – joked: ‘One of us gotta be strong here.’
Emotional episode: Luke Bryan also struggled with his emotions at times during the premiere
Overcoming adversity: Kai the Singer, a 19-year-old who grew up mostly homeless and whose family-of-eight is still so poor she does not even have a bed, auditioned on the show
Holding back: Katy struggled to hold back tears as Kai performed
‘I don’t want to compare our situations but I was raised in the church, too,’ Katy said, loudly sniffing back tears.
‘I didn’t grow up with money and money was always the problem. It was the cause of everything not-great in my life.
‘We had food stamps and hit the food bank – all that stuff – because my parents were traveling ministers. When I was 13 the church bought me a guitar.’
Poor family:Katy told the singer that she could relate to her story of being poor
Kai confirmed her church bought the guitar she played at the audition, with Katy adding: ‘So I relate to what you’re saying.
‘I think it’s so beautiful, and I think it doesn’t really matter where you come from – and I know it’s so hard, this struggle, and you’re an inspiration to so many people by getting here today.’
Lionel then told the youngster: ‘You are here for a reason and a purpose. God can only do for you what he can do through you.’
Music legend: Lionel Richie told the teenager that she was there for a purpose
‘Oh, you better preach Papa Lionel!’ Katy hollered, thumping the desk.
Kai played Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud on acoustic guitar, before Luke told her to just sing – then got her to play something different.
She then played My Girl at the piano, changing the lyrics to say ‘music’ was what could ‘make me feel this way.’
On piano: Kai took to the piano and performed a sweet version of My Girl at the piano
‘You’ve just got such a beautiful soul,’ Katy told her. ‘I loved when you changed that lyric – it was so beautiful it made me tear up because it’s so authentic.’
During her pre-recorded package, Kai had said: ‘Everybody wants you to go to college and be somebody but it takes money to go to college. I’m kinda behind on that.’
After she got three yeses and a ticket to Hollywood, she smiled: ‘When your dream depends on how much money you have, it’s not much you can do. This just proves it all wrong.’
Crying time: The singer also cried as the judges praised her performance
The tears were there again when Nick Townsend, 25, dedicated the night’s final performance to his two brothers who both committed suicide.
Luke looked crushed, and soon admitted it made him think about his own brother, Chris, who died in a car crash in 1996, and sister, Kelly, who died unexpectedly at home in 2007.
‘I haven’t brought this up on this show because I haven’t had to,’ Luke said.
Family loss: Luke made a rare reference to his own loss about his own brother, Chris, who died in a car crash in 1996, and sister, Kelly, who died unexpectedly at home in 2007
‘But I’ve lost both my siblings – I just applaud you for keeping a positive attitude and continuing to fight and just try to be a light for your parents too, man,’ he told Nick, who replied: ‘That’s my main goal.’
Luke clearly struggled as he hugged Nick, telling him ‘We’ll be praying for you.’
‘You know what you gotta remember, it’s alright to cry good tears,’ he told Nick’s sobbing dad, Leroy, before telling his mom, Liz: ‘Remember fun, happy, good, good days.’
Good tears: The country star said it was OK to ‘cry good tears’
After Nick’s performance of James Bay’s Let It Go Lionel had told him: ‘I applaud you on the fact that you just climbed up out of that hole.
‘Know that I am very proud of you.’
After the yeses, Lionel told him: ‘They’re shining down on you, you know that right?’
Big hug: Luke gave Nick Townsend who lost two brothers to suicide a big hug
Nick admitted that his first thought was that he wished his brothers, Zach and Matt, were ‘here to hold this with me.’
‘But then I thought, they are – not physically, but how much I love them and I’ve always loved and will forever love them. They’re holding it too,’ he said.
After Nick left, Lionel admitted: ‘Got me crying, man, got me crying the whole thing.’
Tender moment: Lionel also found himself crying
Help available: The show posted the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Katy had also freaked out in a different way – when Johanna Jones, 23, revealed she was a cook for In-N-Out Burger.
‘Can I tell you one thing that’s kinda sweet? I met my boyfriends over an In-N-Out,’ she said of now-fiancé Orlando Bloom.
‘We were at the Golden Globes and we weren’t together, and so I had my security guard grab 10 In-N-Outs. And all of a sudden I see my boyfriend’s hand – he wasn’t even sitting at our table – he just swoops in and he grabs it, and I’m like, ”Hey that’s my burger!” she said, pretending it was slow motion and admitting she was excited to see whose hand it was.
Favorite snack: Katy bonded with Johanna Jones over their love for potato chips
‘In-N-Out creates true love,’ Johanna said, with Katy smiling: ‘It really does.’
The pair also bonded over Johanna’s love for potato chips, with Katy throwing her a bag – then getting her to race Luke at eating them, with Katy bizarrely putting the empty bag in her mouth.
After her performance of Sam Smith’s I’m Not The Only One, Katy told her: ‘Johanna Jones, I’m scared for you. The job you have worked so hard for, you will have to quit.’
Killed it: Johanna nailed her version of Sam Smith’s I’m Not The Only One
Johanna and her elderly backing guitarist were both left in tears at getting three yeses, with Lionel calling her ‘mesmerizing.’
The premiere opened with Lionel getting a special tribute, with fan Walker Burroughs, 20, performing some of the judge’s famous hit Hello.
‘Coming for your job,’ Katy teased Lionel, who later met Walker’s excited mom, telling her: ‘You raised your kid so well.’
First up: Walker Burroughs was the first to get a Golden Ticket to Hollywood
Walker’s main performance was Ben Rector’s Love Like This, with Katy insisting: ‘I think you’re top 10 material.’
‘You remind me just how untalented I am,’ Luke said, telling the hopeful that people would be ‘captivated’ by him.
‘I’m very, very proud of you, and more importantly, I’m excited for you,’ Lionel said, predicting he would ‘blow the competition away.’
Proud moment: Lionel was proud of Walker who also sang his song Hello
Walker gushed later: ‘I got to sing Hello with Lionel Richie, and I made my mother tear up – and that makes me a happy boy.’
Lionel also leaped to his feet with joy when rapper Nick Rogers, 17, claimed he was a key influence along with Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West.
Katy however asked Nick to name a song by Lionel and he couldn’t leaving the singing superstar crushed and Luke laughing: ‘From the top of the mountain to the lowest of the valleys.’
Rap game: Nick Rogers claimed that Lionel was an influence but couldn’t name any of his songs
But Lionel joined the others in giving a yes, saying: ‘I still don’t like you. But I’m gonna go from my gut.’
The teen dedicated his flirtatious performance of Bazzi’s Mine to Katy, who warned: ‘I could be your mother.’
The attempted ruse made them extra cautious when Tiffanne LeMay, 20, claimed to be a super fan, saying: ‘I’m going to confess my love for Lionel Richie and hopefully he’ll like me back.’
True fan: Tiffanne LeMay also clamed to be a Lionel superfan but she backed itup
But she proved she knew numerous songs of his and even brought in an album, with Katy – who also wore a Lionel Richie T-shirt at times – joking: ‘Teacher’s pet.’
Tiffanne got three yeses for her performance of The Best Part by H.E.R. and Daniel Caesar – and her mom, Debra, also got a hug from Lionel, who praised her for ‘raising her with the right values’ as a fan of his music.
Another parent to meet the judges was 23-year-old Laci Kaye Booth’s dad – even though he was missing most of her life chasing his own dreams of music stardom.
Special moment: Lionel thrilled the contestant by joining her on the stage
Jody had been just 15 when he was expecting his daughter, and he divorced her mom, Priscilla, when Laci was just three, missing most of her life.
But they bonded again for a road trip to record music together when she was 15, with Jody calling it ‘one of the best weeks of my life’ and saying: ‘We were always meant to play together. She was born into it and so was I. It’s kinda like the circle of life.’
Luke insisted she was ‘world class’ and Katy called her a ‘diamond in the rough’ after her performance of Merle Haggard’s Mama Tried.
Together again: Laci Kaye Booth reunited with her dad before auditioning
After her dad surprised her in the audition room, meeting the judges, he said: ‘I’m living my dream through her.’
Margie Mays, 25, came in with so much crazed hyperactive energy – constantly burping with nerves – Katy asked how many coffees she had consumedand asked: ‘Do you know where I live?’
But she left Margie in tears as she told her: ‘You’re literally a star.’
Energetic performance: Margie Mays, 25, came in with crazed hyperactive energy
She got through – even though Lionel gave a no, telling her it was ‘to scare you to death to know the seriousness.’
Katy insisted after Margie left: ‘That’s the greatest person I’ve ever met.’
Myra Tran,19, moved to the United States from Vietnam a year ago to pursue her dreams of stardom – and was soon overwhelmed with the high praise for her version of Jennifer Hudson’s One Night Only from Dreamgirls.
Instant fan: Katy immediately fell for quirky Margie
‘You are up there with the Kelly Clarkson’s of the world,’ Luke insisted, while Lionel said after Myra’s three yeses: ‘That was a religious experience.’
Country singer Tyler Mitchell, 26, bragged to the judges: ‘I’m here because I’ve been told I’ve been given a God-given talent and I’d like to show it off.’
The judges seemed to agree, with Katy calling his performance of Vince Gill’s Whenever You Come Around a ‘special moment.’
Big voice: Country singer Tyler Mitchell got a ticket to Hollywood
When he said he rarely performs because he’s afraid of forgetting lyrics, she told him: ‘You could sing gibberish and it would be great. I mean literally, a star is born.
‘Believe in yourself because you’re going to go all the way.’
Joking of how Tyler’s family works in oil fields Lionel said: ‘You struck oil. You woke us up. And that is exactly what a star is supposed to do.’
Country song: Tyler performed Vince Gill’s Whenever You Come Around
After getting three yeses, the 6ft 4ins singer said: ‘This is probably the best day of my life because I made my family and my wife proud.’
Lionel initially gave a no for Uché, 24, for his hyperactive version of Christina Aguilera’s Ain’t No Other Man, with Luke also admitting: ‘I’m a little scared about how much we may have to coach you through this thing.’
But he got through after Lionel unexpectedly changed his mind after hearing Uché namecheck Prince, Rick James, George Clinton and Bootsy Collins.
Long name: Uché shortened up his name for everyone
‘If you can pull off what you just said, you’ve got a shot at this,’ he told him. ‘But you gotta bring those guys.’
Uché – who is openly bisexual and heavily involved in church – said after getting through: ‘Hashtag God is real.’
By far the most bizarre performance was by VoKillz, 24, who called himself a ‘mystic death-creature vocalist.’
Made it: The singer made it after Lionel changed his mind
‘I’m not a serial killer or anything like that,’ he insisted, saying he invented a new genre called ‘Mystic Death Trap Metal.’
He entered in a black skull mask and presented them with a black bag, which turned out to just have jewelry in it.
‘Oh hell, no. I rebuke you Satan!’ Katy screeched, hiding behind the desk along with Lionel as VoKillz screeched his way through his own song.
Rocking out: VoKillz, 24, called himself a ‘mystic death-creature vocalist’
‘I’m thinking that this is not your lane,’ Lionel told him. ‘But man, you got it down for your other lane.’
While Katy surprised him with a yes, he was out with a no from Luke, who told him: ‘Keep rockin’.’
American Idol will return Wednesday on ABC.
Together again: Lionel, Katy and Luke will be back on Wednesday on ABC