Wesley Chapel native Zach D’Onofrio made his first brief appearance on ABC’s hit reality television show “American Idol” back in 2018.
Then he was a timid 17-year-old Wiregrass Ranch High School student who perhaps came away best known for his colorful sock collection, before being eliminated during the show’s “Hollywood Week” competition in Los Angeles.
D’Onofrio’s second chance at stardom proved more fruitful.
Entering as a more seasoned and confident 20-year-old college sophomore studying at Florida Southern College in Lakeland, D’Onofrio aimed to advance farther in the competition and to have a more enjoyable experience overall.
Mission accomplished for D’Onofrio.
He made it to the second round of “Hollywood Week” thanks to his rendition of Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind,” as part of the show’s genre challenge.
He also had previously impressed celebrity judges — Luke Bryan, Katy Perry, Lionel Richie — in a live audition broadcast March 14 singing “Golden Slumbers” by The Beatles solo, and “Falling” by Harry Styles with girlfriend and former “Idol” contestant Catie Turner.
However, D’Onofrio’s run ended in the show’s duets challenge on March 22, where showrunners paired him with Sloane Simon, a 16-year-old high school cheerleader from the Pittsburgh area.
Together, they belted out a cover of “You Make My Dreams” by Hall & Oates.
Following the aired performance, Perry said of D’Onofrio: “Listen, I believe in you. You really have grown and overcome.”
In the same breath, however, the Grammy-nominated pop star said both D’Onofrio and his duet partner “need more experience” and “it’s not the time” for them to continue in the competition.
But, she later added this of D’Onofrio on the broadcast: “Next time he comes back, he’s going to show us — the underdog always wins, always.”
Despite a rejection witnessed by millions of viewers nationwide, D’Onofrio came away pleased to have achieved more compared to his first go-round, thanks in part to countless choir and voice lessons taken the past couple years.
He also left with several friendships forged with other talented contestants throughout his appearance on the show.
He traded in his unique socks for showy, colorful sweaters, too.
“My whole thing the second time was getting out of my shell, and I really did think I got out of my shell,” D’Onofrio told The Laker/Lutz News in a recent phone interview.
“I definitely felt better the second time. I just didn’t want to get cut earlier than I did the first time. I just wanted to make it farther, that was my main goal, and I did.”
D’Onofrio acknowledged that he felt more comfortable this time performing in front of the daunting star-studded cast of judges — who are among the world’s all-time best-selling artists in their respective genres. After all, it wasn’t the first time he performed for them.
“I definitely was more confident, because I was like, ‘Yeah, they know me, I’ve done this before,’ like it really wasn’t that bad,” said D’Onofrio, who grew up in the Seven Oaks neighborhood in Wesley Chapel.
“I just saw (the judges) as people this time, instead of figures, because they really do give advice, and talk to you heart-to-heart and it feels real, because some things on TV are sometimes fake, obviously, but when you’re actually there in person and you can connect person to person, it just feels really nice.”
D’Onofrio began singing around his junior year of high school, making his talent known at Dreamhouse Theatre in Lutz, which was then owned by his family.
The budding singer-songwriter adeptly plays the piano, electric guitar and ukulele, and fancies himself an old soul at heart — with a passion for oldies and classics music dating to the 1940s era.
“It just feels right when I sing those types of songs,” said D’Onofrio, who lists Billy Joel among his favorites.
“That was kind of my goal with “American Idol,” to introduce the new generation of people that maybe aren’t familiar with that type of music…so it’s like taking older songs and just making them fun and new and that’s kind of my goal, just so people don’t dislike oldies.”
While D’Onofrio said no music labels have reached out to him since his latest “Idol” appearance, he’s received offers to perform at some local piano and jazz bars in Tampa Bay.
His college also has been quite supportive of his career, hosting an “Idol” watch party and has “offered a lot of really cool opportunities,” such as on-campus performances.
He’s also acquired a certain level of fame — from getting verified on Instagram to having fans reach out to him on social media from Argentina, Brazil and Philippines, and other places.
Even former “Idol” contestant Clark Beckham, who finished runner-up on the show in 2015, reached out to him for words of encouragement.
Every once in a while, D’Onofrio is even recognized on campus, or about town.
But, people tend to be timid about approaching him.
“At school, I get so many stares,” he said, noting he realizes it’s because of his American Idol appearances.
He doesn’t say anything, because he thinks that would make them feel awkward.
“People want to say something but they never do, and I’m like, ‘I’m not scary, I swear, it’ll be OK.’”
Music is the motivation
D’Onofrio continues to make music from his college dorm room — which he’s transformed into a makeshift studio.
He also collaborates on projects with a friend through FaceTime calls.
He plans to release a single titled, “Don’t Leave,” in late April, which he describes as “a pop piano ballad.”
He’s also working to produce and release an EP album by summertime.
Now the lingering question: Could the third time be the charm for D’Onofrio, on “American Idol” or another reality television singing competition?
At the moment, D’Onofrio is focused on finding success as an independent artist and pursuing a degree in music management.
But he hasn’t closed the door on music competitions.
“I’m sure I’ll audition again just to see,” he said.
But he doesn’t know if that will be to “American Idol” or “America’s Got Talent” or “The Voice.”
If he makes a return to “Idol,” he’d like to make it to at least round three.
While he’s exited the show this year, 19-year-old Alanis Sophia, of Dade City, remains active in the competition.
Published March 31, 2021