May 2016

Lee Jean: Bluffton Resident, American Idol, World Soul

Author: Kent Thune | Photographer: Krisztian Lonyai

If you speak with Bluffton resident, Lee Jean, you wouldn’t guess he was a finalist in the biggest musical reality television series in the history of pop culture. Although Jean (pronounced like the French, ‘zhahn’) just completed the final season of American Idol as a top-eight contestant, and he is a talented musician, writer, artist and performer, he’s also a 16-year-old Bluffton High School student who has the soul of an ancient philosopher.

For example, just hours after finishing the climactic American Idol season finale, viewed by millions of people, Jean was waiting in an airport for his flight from Los Angeles back to his home in the Lowcountry. It was then that he finally had a brief moment to reflect on the life lessons learned in his exciting but strange and challenging journey over the past several months. Jean said of his American Idol experience, “I learned that things are constantly changing; don’t get too comfortable in one place; you have to be ready to adapt to any situation.”

But Jean learned lessons about life long before his recent ascent to pop stardom. He comes from what he calls “a fairly big family: two older brothers, two younger brothers, one older sister, and one younger sister.” He also has a niece. “[She] is basically like my little sister, I love her so much,” Jean said.

Perhaps his biggest lesson, one that has guided him in his musical journey and in his life, came from the relationship with his older brother, DJ, who died tragically in an accident in 2012. “He was always so supportive of everything I’ve always wanted to do. He really did believe in me; he believed that I was going to be something big one day, and hopefully I am,” Jean said. “DJ was an inspiration to me as a person and as a musician. He taught me to just be myself. I learned from him what it meant to be authentic.”

And authenticity is something that Jean definitely displayed and used in his American Idol success. For those of you who are not familiar with the format and the behind-the-scenes, inner workings of the musical reality show, the contestants are mostly left alone to guide their own decisions and performances. “Except for duets, we were allowed to choose the songs, our wardrobe, and we could say whatever we wanted to say. On Idol, you get to be yourself,” Jean said.

Fortunately for Jean, “being yourself” is something that helped propel him from a crowd of thousands of hopeful contestants around the country to just a handful of young artists hoping to be the next big thing in the musical world. Jean’s instantly loveable personality and authentic charm, along with his surprisingly deep knowledge of modern and classic music, created a winning combination that delighted the ears, and warmed the hearts, of millions of people in the living rooms across America and beyond.

His song choices ranged from the modern and penetrating ballad, “I See Fire,” by Ed Sheeran, to the timeless classic, “Let It Be,” by The Beatles. And on most of his performances, Jean accompanied himself on guitar, which is rare on American Idol, especially for a kid just halfway through high school.

Now that you know a little more about Jean, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that his favorite American Idol experience was not just about the music. “I enjoyed meeting people with similar interests as me,” he said. “It’s amazing what can happen when a bunch of musically talented kids are sitting in the same room together for hours at a time! Out of the top-50 or so contestants, almost all of us are really good friends, now. I think I have all of their phone numbers; and on the night of the final episode, I made friends with several of the finalists from the earlier seasons of American Idol.”

Ater all that he went through with American Idol, from the first audition in Atlanta, Georgia, through the challenging but exhilarating rounds of performances on live television, to his elimination just before the top-six round, to the world spotlight in Hollywood, California, is there anything that Lee Jean would do differently, if he were given the opportunity to do it all over again?

“No. I feel like everything happens for a reason. Even the anxiety I felt when I wasn’t sure what would happen next, is part of what I loved the most. It was a rush,” Jean said.

So what’s next for the 16-year-old, Lee Jean? As you might expect by now, he’s handling everything like a man who’s already lived a full life: “I’m not sure what tomorrow will bring. But that’s okay with me. I’m just living minute-by-minute, day-by-day. Right now, I’m just looking forward to being normal again, to seeing my friends, writing some songs, and playing some gigs… But I’m also looking forward to being not-so-normal, when I can get back out into the world and do what I love.”

In the immediate future, be sure to watch for Jean around the Lowcountry, where he’s certain to be playing gigs at some of his favorite places like The Roasting Room in Bluffton or around Coligny Plaza on Hilton Head Island.

And what about the more distant future? It doesn’t really matter. As Lee would say, “Everything happens for a reason.” Whether it’s five years from now or five decades from now, Lee Jean will be exactly what he is destined to be: himself. 

Kent Thune is a musician, philosopher and a freelance writer who happens to be an investment advisor and the owner of a Hilton Head Island money management firm, Atlantic Capital Investments. He is currently working on a book to be published later in 2016. You can follow his musings on mind, money and mastery of life at or on Twitter @ThinkersQuill.

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