"Determination is so, so important, and if you don't have that, then you're not going to get past anything," the 19-year-old Louisiana native tells PEOPLE of his dramatic weight loss.
"I knew I had to lose it, and I never gave up on it because I would work out in the past and I always gave up because I never saw the results," he said. "But when I started seeing the results I was like, 'You have to keep going, keep going!' "
And keep going he did, earning points along the way from judge Keith Urban who was energized by Taylor's newfound joy.
"We love him, the four of us. He's sort of like an artist's artist," Urban told PEOPLE. "He's so fiercely original, and I love that he made it through. We're all thrilled."
Taylor, whose family lost everything in Hurricane Katrina in 2005, said he relates most to another former Idol star, Jennifer Hudson, who has similarly dropped weight and transformed herself.
"She didn't even win this show, but she took the platform that she was given and she made something out of nothing," he said of her inspiration. "I really don't think too many people can do that."