LOS ANGELES – Less than two hours after winning “American Idol,” Noah Thompson barely has time to sit and eat, let alone check his phone.
The 20-year-old construction worker from Louisa, Kentucky has an interview with “Good Morning America” in New York Monday morning, meaning he’s whisked into a car right after stepping off the “Idol” stage and off to an airport to catch a 10 pm red eye flight.
It’s a lot for Thompson, a small-town guy who’d never been on a plane until his “Idol” audition in Austin, to process.
“Honestly, dude, I was just kind of numb,” Thompson tells USA TODAY over the phone about an hour after Sunday’s finale, while eating pizza in the car. “It blew me away. I just did not know how to feel. Anybody could have won this show, you know what I mean? I just did not think it was me.”
‘American Idol’ finale: Noah Thompson, Huntergirl give country showdown of the ages in Top 2
Before “Idol,” Thompson says he led a “simple life,” working construction while raising his one-year-old son Walker. He wound up on “Idol” against his wishes, when his work friend Arthur signed him up without telling him.
“I just got shoved into this competition basically by my buddy, but I’m grateful for it,” he says. “I just did not expect this outcome at all. After Top 3 was when it really hit me.”
‘American Idol’: Noah Thompson gives his ‘best’ performance singing from COVID quarantine
Arthur first approached Thompson about “Idol” while the two were framing a wall at a school for work, but Thompson said he was not interested. Lucky for Thompson, Arthur did not take no for an answer and signed him up anyway.
With no prior music experience, Thompson was a nervous wreck walking into his audition for judges Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie.
“I can promise you, nobody’s walking into that audition room more nervous,” he says. “My heart was beating out of my chest. I could not even look at the judges.”
Arthur, who accompanied Thompson to the audition, summed up both Thompson’s talent and his relatability to the judges: “Other contestants, they’ve had vocal training. They do these crazy warm-ups. This is just straight raw, right here.”
Thompson says he still prefers not to warm up before singing, even after going through “Idol.”
“I do not like all the noises people make when they warm up,” he says. “I do not really do that. I feel weird when I do it, but I’m learning. I’m trying to take everything I can in from this whole process.”
‘American Idol’: Katy Perry wants ‘extra hour of therapy’ after Noah Thompson covers her ex John Mayer
It clearly paid off. Week after week, Thompson received rave reviews from the judges, who commended him on not just his vocals, but also his authenticity in the country genre.
He says the best advice he received came from Richie.
“I remember Lionel had told me to step out on that stage with my big boots and just own the stage, and that always stuck with me,” he says. “I think about that a lot.”
But Lionel is not the only artist who impacted Thompson.
During an episode in which Carrie Underwood served as a guest mentor to the contestants, she teared up talking about Thompson’s journey on the show. Underwood, who won Season 4 of “Idol” in 2005, said that “American Idol” was created for people like herself and Thompson, “who did not know to dream that big but knew they wanted to do something.”
Thompson says he looks up to Underwood and admires how she stayed true to herself, even as she catapulted to stardom. It’s something he hopes to emulate in his own career.
“I’m not trying to be somebody, you know what I mean? I’m just trying to be myself,” he says. “I did not wanna change for nobody or no one. I wanted to be who I was and hopefully that was good enough.”
Looking toward life after “Idol,” Thompson does not quite know what his future has in store, other than playing shows and making music. After visiting Los Angeles for the first time for Hollywood Week, he thinks Nashville is a better fit for him to start his career. “I need trees, you know what I mean?” he says.
‘American Idol’ judges reveal they’re ‘heartbroken’ over Kenedi Anderson, but optimistic for Top 14
No matter what, Thompson plans to keep on being himself, while also fostering the confidence he found on “Idol.”
“It’s made me open up a lot and just grow,” he says of his experience on the show. “It helped me with my confidence, just everything. I feel like it’s changed me in a lot of ways. It’s just changed everything, but it’s a good change for the better. I’m really looking forward to it.”
Every ‘American Idol’ winner’s coronation song, ranked from worst to best