University of Puget Sound student musician competes on "American Idol"
Singer-songwriter Zia Kloetzel ’25 was one of the top 56 contestants on the iconic show
For Zia Kloetzel ’25, who goes by the stage name Zia Blue, the journey to American Idol began on Instagram. In June 2021, just a couple of months before arriving on campus for her first semester, Kloetzel posted a clip of herself singing “Sixty Years” by Sophia James to her Instagram account. A few hours later, she received a direct message from one of the show’s senior producers inviting her to audition for Idol’s 20th anniversary season. It was the start of a whirlwind experience that would take her all the way to the historic Orpheum Theatre in Hollywood.
“I think I responded with, ‘Are you fake?’ I thought maybe it was a scam and they were trying to get my credit card number,” Kloetzel recalls. “But it turned out to be the real deal. I did two rounds of auditions over Zoom and then they asked me to fly to Nashville to sing for the celebrity judges.”
First-year student and singer-songwriter Zoe Kloetzel ’25 was invited to audition for the 20th season of American Idol.
By this time, it was November 2021, and the Montana native had started classes as a first-year student at University of Puget Sound. Still, the chance to perform for the judges and millions of people watching on TV was too exciting to ignore, so she juggled rehearsing with her schoolwork in the weeks leading up to her audition in Nashville.
“I remember Nashville being very chaotic. You’re waiting outside and getting your microphone set up. All the while, you see people coming out from their auditions looking upset,” Kloetzel says. “I had to wait and wait and then suddenly, I was in front of Lionel Richie, Katie Perry, and Luke Bryan. I must’ve blacked out, because the only thing I remember was Lionel Richie telling me he liked my vibe.”
Kloetzel ’25 plays her guitar during filming for American Idol TV spots. Photo courtesy of Steven Kloetzel P'25
Kloetzel grew up in a household steeped in folk and bluegrass. Her parents encouraged her musical interests from a young age, enrolling her in piano and guitar lessons, and frequently taking the family to music festivals around Montana. Kloetzel initially was drawn to playing the kind of folk and indie music her family always listen to, but something changed during her sophomore year of high school, and she found herself listening to artists like Alicia Keys, Lianne La Havas, and Stevie Wonder.
“Something in my soul definitely was calling for R&B, soul, and jazz. Something in my blood was telling me that was the direction I needed to go in as an artist.”
In spite of the stiff competition in Nashville, Kloetzel made it through to the next round of auditions. She received a literal golden ticket and an invitation to come to Hollywood, where the production would continue filming. In December 2021, she arrived at her hotel in Los Angeles and plunged into 12 grueling days of rehearsals and performances as the judges whittled down the group of contestants from hundreds to a few dozen. First came the genre round, where Kloetzel competed against other R&B artists, followed by a round of duets, and finally a showstopper solo performance, where Kloetzel was in the top 56 singers.
After nearly two weeks of stress, demanding filming schedules, and very little sleep, Kloetzel woke up on the morning of the showstopper round feeling sick. She got up on the stage in the Orpheum Theatre and performed “Stand Up” from the biographical film Harriet— while battling a sore throat, nerves, self-doubt, and exhaustion. As she walked away from the microphone, she suspected that her time was up.
“I knew was going home. I’d already accepted it. Luke Bryan said that I had a really mature voice, and Katy Perry compared me to Ani DiFranco, which was really crazy. I went to shake hands with them and Lionel Richie was like, ‘Oh, put that away. Come here,’ and gave me a big hug,” Kloetzel says. “It definitely was not easy being on American Idol, but I’m grateful to have that experience. I didn’t need to go on—I have so much learning still to do as an artist.”
With her TV competition days behind her, you can expect to see a lot more of Kloetzel around campus, where she’s exploring several possible majors, singing at Komadre Kombucha and other open-mic events around Tacoma, and performing with Puget Sound’s Repertory Dance Group. She’s also focusing more time on writing her own music, taking some inspiration from her time on the show.
“The community at Puget Sound is really strong. It's really fun to be in the Sub and be eating dinner with people, and then realize you're going to the same concert later in Schneebeck Hall,” Kloetzel says. “Also the jazz band is hands-down one of the best performing arts groups on this campus. They're really incredible and I hope to be able to sing with them someday.”