As siblings who are just one year apart, Liahona and Ammon Olayan are really close and do pretty much everything together. But they also know just the right things to say to hurt each other — which is why the teenagers once went three weeks without talking.
It wasn’t exactly an easy feat since their rooms are right next to each other. After days of passing each other on the stairs or in the hallway or in the kitchen in silence, the siblings eventually decided to put their harsh words behind them and move forward.
And they decided to write a song about it.
“I think you guys are on the right path,” Katy Perry told the Olayans after they sang “Listen to My Heart.” “You are talented beyond belief. Incredible songwriters — like, should be signed right now.”
“Listen to My Heart” launched their success on the show. But after their audition, the Olayans had to carve out individual paths on “Idol” — “It doesn’t say ‘American Twins,’ it says ‘American Idol,’” Perry said at one point during the competition.
For as much as the siblings fight, it was a struggle for Liahona Olayan, 17, to keep moving forward on the show when her brother got eliminated in an early round — he was the one who had encouraged her to pursue music in the first place.
Olayan’s sadness led to one of the more dramatic moments on “Idol” this season, when Perry scolded her and said she was acting “defeated” and that she was “sabotaging” her chance of success.
Olayan, who lives in Vineyard, Utah, caught up with the Deseret News about how she pushed through that criticism and rose to the top 24 of “American Idol.”
Saying goodbye to her brother
Olayan stepped to the front of the stage when the judges called her name. It was Hollywood Week, the second round of “American Idol,” and the show was rapidly cutting down its competition.
And then Perry said words that made Olayan’s heart sink: “Back row, we’ll see you next time.”
Her brother wouldn’t be moving forward with her.
“He started the journey with me, and I hoped for him to continue, to keep going as far as he could,” Olayan said. “In a way … it made me feel like I was letting him go. That’s what it felt like as we walked opposite ways on the stage.”
But Hollywood Week wasn’t over yet. Olayan still had to perform a duet with fellow “Idol” contestant Laila Mach. The two had to pick a song and get it performance-ready in a day. Olayan said this part of the competition was particularly stressful, and that there were some cases where duet partners didn’t get along or contestants rehearsed to the point where they nearly lost their voices.
Although Olayan and her partner had good chemistry, she was still dealing with the pain of her brother’s elimination. As she and Mach rehearsed the Rihanna song “Stay,” Perry walked in and listened for a while. Olayan said the pop star then told her to lean into the sadness of her brother getting eliminated and put that yearning into her performance.
“I tried, but I guess it didn’t come out the right way,” Olayan said.
It’s not that Olayan got eliminated after performing the duet — she didn’t. But before she advanced, she did get a mouthful from Perry, who told her she was acting like she didn’t want to be on “American Idol.”
“You’re wasting everybody’s time,” Perry said. “We said to you early on in this competition that you could be top 10, and you know who’s sabotaging it? You. You were being defeated the whole time, and you’re putting (Mach’s) dreams on the line, and that’s really selfish. You took this whole ship down.”
Coming from a competitive family of eight kids, Olayan is used to stern talking-tos from her parents. But Perry’s lecture threw her off a little — especially since she thought she had followed the “Idol” judge’s advice.
“When she started bashing or critiquing me for like a minute and 30 seconds in front of everyone, I was so confused at first,” Olayan said. “But part of me kind of understood where she was coming from. She later told me, ‘You can’t think you’re nothing without your brother,’ and that actually really helped me to keep pushing forward.”
Rising up on ‘American Idol’
After making it through Hollywood Week drama, Olayan felt overwhelmed. Although she had her dad with her in California, she had never been away from her entire family for this long. On top of that, Perry had just scolded her on national television.
“It was just so stressful around me,” Olayan said. “It’s like a lot of stress for a teenager. I was kind of wavering — ‘Do I really want to be here? I could just walk away.’”
As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Olayan said her faith helped carry her through the ups and downs of the competition. She prayed a lot on the “Idol” set, and knew she wasn’t supposed to give up. Having her dad nearby also provided a source of comfort.
“I’d think about my family and how much they’ve sacrificed for me and how much I’ve sacrificed to be there,” she said. “And I thought, ‘I’m not just gonna throw it all away. If I’m going to go out, I’m going out with a big bang.’”
So Olayan gave it her all in the next round.
Backed by a full band, she brought an energetic performance of Meghan Trainor’s “Me Too” to the “Idol” stage. She danced across the stage with a smile on her face, and brought the song to a dynamic end by doing a split — a move Olayan said was literally a split-second decision.
“There it is!” Perry screamed after the performance.
The judges gave her high praise, and pushed her on to the top 24, where Olayan got to perform with Grammy Award-winning R&B singer PJ Morton. Working with Morton was one of her favorite moments on “Idol,” and singing with him taught her more about being vulnerable and connecting with an audience.
But it would also end up marking Olayan’s final performance on “Idol.” On April 11, the show revealed that the singer didn’t secure enough viewer votes to advance to the top 16. Although she was initially disappointed by her elimination, Olayan — who was one of the younger singers in the competition — said she was proud of the progress she made.
“I realized I wasn’t there to really win,” she said. “I was there to learn.”
What’s next for Liahona Olayan?
On “American Idol,” Olayan loved the thrill of performing.
“When it’s showtime, and the crowd starts yelling your name and the cameras are all over the place and the lights go down and it’s just you, the adrenaline starts pumping and you’re like, ‘Yes! This is where I belong. This is my dance floor. This is my ground,’” Olayan said. “It’s the best feeling in the world.”
But for all of that excitement, Olayan had some frustrations while competing on the show. For example, each round of “Idol” has specific requirements, so Olayan didn’t always get to pick the songs for her performances.
“In a way you were kind of put in a box,” she said. “I kind of wanted to be on ‘Idol’ and just express more of who I am.”
Now that her time on “Idol” is over, that’s what Olayan is focusing on next.
She and her brother both have solo projects in the works and a joint album they plan on releasing soon. It’s music Olayan is excited to share, as she believes it better reflects her as a person and an artist. The music also dives more into her faith — something she wishes she could’ve shared more of during her time on “Idol.”
“These are the songs that actually get to define who I am,” Olayan said. “I hope people get to see the actual me and will want to know more.”