'American Idol' Favorite Wade Cota Opens Up About His 140 Lb. Weight Loss — and What It Means for His Career

"I'm feeling a lot better and looking a lot better and I have a lot more confidence and I'm writing more than ever," the musician tells PEOPLE with a smile

wade cota
Wade Cota. Photo: David Majour

It was 2019, and Wade Cota was at the top of his game.

As a top-five finalist on season 17 of American Idol, it seemed as if everyone was talking about the kid with the soulful voice and the mighty stature. But then, Cota overheard something that rocked him to his core.

"There was a podcast where someone was talking about American Idol from the night before and about how incredible my performance was," Cota, 30, recalls during a recent interview with PEOPLE. "And then the guy says, 'We love you Wade, but lose 150 pounds or you are going to die.'"

Cota remembers thinking that this faceless guy from that nameless podcast was probably right. Somehow, he had found himself on one of television's highest-rated singing competition shows at the very same time he weighed more than he ever had.

And deep down, Cota knew that most fans sending him messages during his American Idol run about losing weight only wanted what was best for him. But it was the other messages, the far more hateful messages, that he couldn't get out of his mind.

"Yeah, there were plenty of messages telling me that I should kill myself and that I was too fat for TV," Coda says quietly. "Those are the ones that really got to me."

Wade Cota in 2019. Eric McCandless/ABC

So, as Cota found himself voted off the show and ready to begin this music career that he had always envisioned, he also found himself spiraling into the deepest of depressions.

"I stopped eating," says Cota, who remembers the days in which he would drink a six-pack of Coca-Cola a day. "I stopped taking care of myself."

Granted, Cota had long lived with the realities of his genetics. The Italian kid from Arizona had been raised in poverty and on pasta for the most part, watching as his biological father abused his mom both physically and mentally.

"He almost beat my mom to death a bunch of times," Cota remembers. "He molested my sister. He molested my brother. He went to prison when I was 5." He pauses. "Food became something I could control."

But in 2019, Cota found himself ready to make a change. And he wasn't the only one.

Cota's mother had suffered from diabetes since she was pregnant with him, and she too was at a point where she felt she needed to get her weight in check. So together, the mother and son began their journey to a healthy lifestyle.

Cota stopped drinking soda and eliminated all sugars, began practicing intermittent fasting and following a keto lifestyle, and the weight began to come off.

"I literally had 50-gallon trash bags that I started filling with all my bigger clothes," he remembers. "I said to myself, 'I'm giving these away because I'm never going to be here again.' I didn't even want anything to fall back on. I just wanted all of it to go away."

As of today, Cota lost a total of 140 lbs.

"I'm feeling a lot better and looking a lot better and I have a lot more confidence and I'm writing more than ever," he says with a smile, admitting that he would ideally love to lose another 50 pounds. "I'm just in a much, much better spot."

The weight loss also improved Cota's sleeping habits and raised his energy level so much so that he even started playing basketball.

"I'm not good at basketball," laughs Cota, who is set to release his new album Love Me Like I'm Dead this summer. "I'm really, really bad, but that makes me run more because I must get my own rebounds. I shoot probably 50 half-court shots. And every time, it goes right over or right under. And then, I must run after it and it's awful!" He laughs. "But it's almost like I do it on purpose now because it gets me to run."

Another piece of Cota's weight loss journey that he wasn't necessarily expecting was just how shedding over 140 lbs. would affect his booming voice.

"Singing is so much easier now because I don't get out of breath," he explains. "I can hold longer notes. I feel like my voice has grown leaps and bounds since when I was heavier than I am now. I feel really good."

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