When Laine Hardy left for Hollywood, he made sure to pack his hunting boots.
No matter where he goes, he’s never going to forget where he’s from.
“It’s really hard being away from home,” Hardy said during a recent phone interview with The News. “I brought my LaCrosse boots with me just so I can wear them around and let people stare at me. Every guy in Louisiana who hunts wears these boots. I had to bring them.”
But as much as people might stare at him walking in those boots on the streets of Los Angeles, it doesn’t compare to the number of people watching him rock the stage on American Idol.
If you’ve followed the nationally-televised singing competition the last two years, you know the story: After being eliminated in last season’s “Final Judgement” episode, Hardy is no longer the shy teenager still searching for his voice.
He’s back and better than ever, wowing the judges — and the nation, which voted to keep him another week — with one crowd-pleasing performance after another.
Hardy has done much to change his image from last year, though he swears he’s still “the same guy” he's always been. He may act the same, but he definitely looks — and more importantly sounds — much different than before.
He’s lost his teenage bangs and now has a grown man’s haircut. He’s expanded beyond country music and has sang tunes by The Beatles, Sam Cooke and — his personal idol — Elvis Presley. He wears stylish suits as easily as a pair of blue jeans and a button-down. He runs across the Idol stage jamming on his guitar as fans scream for more.
He’s even got his own catchphrase, with “Party with a Hardy” becoming a popular hashtag on social media.
As host Ryan Seacrest said during the Top 10 reveal last week: “America loves the bayou boy.”
That certainly seems to be the case.
With nearly 600,000 followers on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, Hardy has become one of the favorites to win the 17th American Idol crown, a title won by megastars such as Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, among others.
Time and time again, he’s impressed Idol judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan, who have all lauded his improved confidence, stage presence and singing — while Perry has made more than a few remarks on Hardy’s rock star looks.
“Is it okay to have a crush on a contestant?” Perry joked to fellow judges Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan during an episode in Hawaii.
So what’s it been like for Hardy, a Livingston Parish native, this time on American Idol compared to his first run last year?
Well, we asked him, going from his audition in Idaho — when he had no intentions of singing — to what he does in his spare time as he and his fellow Idol contestants prepare for the biggest performance of their lives.
When you went to Idaho to play guitar for your friend Ashton Gill in her American Idol audition, did you really have no intentions of auditioning again?
“No, sir, I really didn’t. I didn’t think that there was any way I could do it [two years] in a row. I didn’t have that in my mind. In my mind, I was doing my friend a favor and playing guitar for her while she sings.
“I had no idea when I walked in there that anything like that could happen, so I wasn’t worried about it. When I sang, I kept that in mind that there was no way, but it happened, and I’m in the Top 10, so here I am.”
Even when the judges gave you the gold ticket to Hollywood, were you still in shock?
“At first, I thought it was a joke. Then they were like, ‘Yeah, it’s real,’ and I was like, ‘Wow, alright.’”
What was it like for you during Hollywood Week this year compared to last year?
“Last year, my Hollywood week experience was a little rough because I didn’t know what to do. It was my first time doing it. Last year’s group round was crazy, but this year, Hollywood Week was smoother to me because I knew the little things that would help out when preparing for a certain round during that week.
“Group Round still went a little rough, just because you’re singing with people you don’t really know. But it was definitely better because I learned a lot from last year and applied it to this year.”
Do you feel like the experience you’ve gained from performing the past 12 or so months has made a difference for you this season on American Idol?
“Yes, sir, I really do. After I got eliminated last year, all the shows that I played during the summer and winter, all this has added up to preparing me, apparently, to be on American Idol again. You can say that the shows I did last year just prepared me and gave me a lot of experience and knowledge for this.
“I still sometimes don’t know what I’m doing, but it’s working so far.”
American Idol has kind of kept you dangling during the elimination episodes. Two years in a row it came down to you and one other contestant.
You made it through this year, but what was it like waiting again until the end?
“I could see it coming. I saw everybody starting to leave, and it was just me and Tyler. I was like, ‘No, no, no, this isn’t gonna happen again.’ I don’t know, it’s crazy. But I ended up making it through, so at least there was better news this time.”
You said during the last episode that you feel more comfortable wearing suits, and it seems to have carried over to your performances. Is it as simple as that?
“My thing is, I like wearing suits, but I will also like to wear jeans, boots, a button-up shirt and a hat. It just depends on what the occasion is and what kind of performance I have to do. If it’s something I need to get me to the next level, then I’ll wear suits. But I’m not always gonna wear suits.”
So would you bring out the hunting boots for a show?
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
Katy Perry has made a few comments on your looks. As a young guy, what’s it like hearing someone like her tell you how good looking you are over and over again?
“Yeah, I don’t know what to say to that. I just sit there and don’t say nothing, because I don’t know what will come out of my mouth. I just smile and wave.”
Have you been able to do anything in California?
“I’ve seen a lot of cool stuff. Disneyland was crazy. That was my first time.”
Do you have a message for your fans back at home?
“I just want to say thank you to everybody at home right now for being there for me and getting me through every round. It’s taken a lot to get through all this.
“Everybody being behind me and supporting me makes so happy because it gets me through being away from home and it lets me know that home’s gonna be there when I get back and it’s not gonna go anywhere. It’s always gonna be there.”
Hardy and the other American Idol contestants will take the stage during Sunday’s “Disney Night” episode that airs at 7 p.m. locally on ABC Network. Voting opens at the start of the nationwide simulcast and closes during the show's last commercial break, according to the American Idol website.