Tampa Bay’s Zach D’Onofrio switched from socks to sweaters in his return to ‘American Idol’

The Florida Southern College student is back in primetime on Sunday, March 14.

click to enlarge ABC/CHRISTOPHER WILLARD
ABC/Christopher Willard

Three years ago, on March 11, Zach D’Onofrio’s life changed. The bespectacled, endearing 17-year-old Wiregrass Ranch high school student and quirky sock collector stole Katy Perry and America’s heart with his unexpected deep croon on “American Idol.”

Though he won the golden ticket, his appearance on the show was short-lived. He was eliminated from the competition in Los Angeles during “Hollywood Week.” Now D’Onofrio is back on “Idol,” a more confident, relaxed, and experienced singer, ready to see just how far he can go.

“Last year, I was a freshman at USF studying Biomedical Sciences, so nothing in relation to singing at all. This past school year, I made the switch to Florida Southern College, studying music management,” D’Onofrio told Creative Loafing Tampa Bay. "I really wanted to stick with music and give 'Idol' another shot. I always knew I would. The producers in the past said, ‘Once you’re 19, you should audition again.’ I thought ‘I’m 19, why not?’ and I sent in a video online. I wanted to prove to myself that I could still be with music.”

In his Zoom audition, D’Onofrio’s incredible voice was accompanied by actual instruments since Zach is now also a musician.  He sang “No Fire” by S. Grant Parker while playing the ukulele and played the piano while singing “Places We Won’t Walk” by Bruno Major. D’Onofrio didn’t hear back immediately, and with a full, hectic college schedule, he forgot he applied. About three months later, he got his acceptance notification. “Once I got that email, I got to work right away practicing,” he said.

Now a college sophomore, D’Onofrio, with his girlfriend, fellow 2018 contestant Catie Turner in tow, headed to Ojai, California for live auditions. Although he was already experienced performing for judges Lionel Richie, Luke Bryan, and Perry, he felt more pressure to show he’s grown as an artist.

“The first time, I felt like I was scared of everything. Now I’m more relaxed, confident, and happy to be in the music industry doing what I’m doing. I’m just happy I stuck with music and didn’t become a doctor. I am a Certified Nursing Assistant now, and that’s a cool backup, but it’s just not my passion,” he said.

"Back then, I wasn’t confident to sing on the stage with instruments, but now I’ve grown to be able to sing and play at the same time and feel confident with that. It actually made me feel more comfortable. I knew what to expect, but I didn’t want to miss making it through this time because that would show that I haven’t grown,” D’Onofrio explained. “If I made it through the first time and didn’t the second time, what am I doing? It was scarier in a way. I didn’t want to mess up the audition.”

Last Sunday night, D’Onofrio played “Golden Slumbers” on the piano before being joined by Turner who played guitar while she and Zach worked through Harry Styles’ “Falling.”

All three judges gave D’Onofrio a yes, with Perry adding that he was like a turtle. “But the turtle wins the race,” Perry added.

Richie, for his part, put it even more directly. “What we need from you right now,” Richie said, “is to come out of your shell.” 

Though you will see D’Onofrio and other contestants without a mask on TV, they were all tested for coronavirus every other day, and the mask is only removed when the singer walks into the audition. “It was all very safe. The judges are six feet apart, and you are really far away from them, and overall, everything is really distanced. You can only have one guest this time. Last time, it didn’t matter how many people you had, and this time, Catie is my guest,” he said.

And you’ll want to look for more than his quirky socks when D’Onofrio returns to primetime. He now also has a collection of favorite sweaters (an interesting hobby since he does live and go to school in humid, sweltering Florida). “I’ve switched from socks to sweaters. I don’t know what it is about them. Even though Florida is terrible with heat, I still wear sweaters. I have my best-looking sweaters with me at all the auditions. From socks to sweaters, that’s kind of my style,” D’Onofrio said.

Though he’d hoped to watch with his Wiregrass Ranch High School alumni, the pandemic altered that plan. Instead, on Sunday night, D’Onofrio will be with his family watching the show. He said his life permanently changed the moment his face appeared on living room screens across America.

click to enlarge ABC/CHRISTOPHER WILLARD
ABC/Christopher Willard

“I became known as ‘American Idol’ kid or the kid with the socks. It was such a cool experience. Who would have thought that I’d be a junior in a high school then a sophomore in college—It’s kind of strange how this keeps connecting my life to the show, no matter which part I’m in. I’m just thankful for the show and happy that they want to show me on TV,” D’Onofrio added.

He said that everyone in college is supportive, and his teachers ask weekly what episode he is in. The president of the school reached out, and she’ll be watching his audition, too. “A lot of people here are in support of me, which is a really cool feeling,” D’Onofrio said.

He realizes the importance of being a role model for younger kids watching his journey. To the young people inspired to audition, he offered sage words of advice: “Keep being yourself. Throughout this whole experience, I never let it change me. I know ‘American Idol; doesn’t happen to everyone, but for any situation, no matter—don’t let it change you and who you are.”

When asked if we get to see Catie screaming when he comes out with a golden ticket, Zach replied, “Well, I guess you’ll have to tune in to see that. I’m hoping…”

UPDATED: 03/15/22 3:20 p.m. Updated with video and a short recap of D’Onofrio's in-person audition.

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