A juicy new book titled American Idol: The Untold Story, by my esteemed fellow "Idol" reporter Richard Rushfield, is out this week--conveniently, and probably not coincidentally, just in time for "AI" Season 10's big premiere. Gobs of drama surround this year's crucial sink-or-swim season, but even a cursory, Cliff Notes-style skimming of Rushfield's tell-all tome proves that drama is nothing new when it comes to this crazy show. Truth really is stranger than fiction, sometimes.
So what are the odder factoids gleaned from this thrilling new "Idol" exposé? Well, I encourage you all to read the whole shebang, cover to cover, but here are my own much-salivated-over Cliff Notes to get you started:
The Spice Girls were the inspiration for "Idol" - Simon Fuller, the head honcho of "Idol's" parent company, 19 Entertainment, made his biggest mark in the music biz managing/manufacturing the Spice Girls in the mid-'90s. But when Scary, Sporty, Ginger, Baby, and Posh fired the man whom the British press had nicknamed "Svengali Spice"--at the height of the career that he'd made possible for them--Fuller decided right then and there that when it came to his next pop project, he'd make darn sure he truly had control of the outcome in every possible way. Zig-a-zig-ah!
"American Idol" was supposed to be an online show - The Internet was still in its infancy when Fuller first came up with the idea for his little talent contest in 1997. In that pre-YouTube era of snail-paced 28.8 modems and animated-GIF-laden Geocities sites, the idea of an Internet show seemed a ludicrous impossibility. So "Idol" went the terrestrial television route. However, 13 years after Fuller came up with the online concept, "Idol" started hosting auditions on MySpace, and 19 Entertainment actually launched the most ambitious online TV show ever: the voyeuristic "If I Can Dream," starring Season 9 "Idol" castoff Alex Lambert. I guess Fuller was just ahead of his time.
Nigel Lythgoe was the original Simon Cowell - Nigel is a kinder and gentler judge now on "So You Think You Can Dance," but back in the late '90s, the future "Idol" producer was known as "Nasty Nigel," the judge on Britain's "Idol"-prototype TV talent show "Popstars." ("He created the bad guy character," Fuller tells Rushfield.) When Nigel left "Popstars" to helm "Pop Idol" and was contractually obligated to remain off-air, he handpicked Cowell to be his successor.
Simon Cowell almost quit "American Idol" before it began - After agreeing to join the cast of "Pop Idol's" U.S. spinoff, Simon nearly backed out one week before the show was to start shooting, fearing that his personality wouldn't translate well with U.S. audiences. "I remember calling my lawyer and I said, 'I don't want to do it. I haven't signed the contract. Get me out of it,'" Cowell tells Rushfield. After Fox producers assured him that he'd have "free rein" and wouldn't have to tone down one bit of his nastiness for sensitive American viewers, Simon agreed to stay on. And the rest was history.
But one other judge really did back out at the last minute - "Idol" was always supposed to have four judges, but at the 11th hour, a Los Angeles radio DJ named Stryker, who was hired to share the spotlight with Simon, Paula, and Randy, opted out--"citing what he would later term 'image concerns' over appearing on what he no doubt considered a cheesy singing contest that might damage his rock creds," Rushfield writes. With zero time left to recast, the "Idol" powers-that-be decided to just forge ahead with a three-judge format, and Stryker undoubtedly soon realized the foolishness of his decision. Ironically, he later served as the onstage DJ on the talk show of future fourth judge Ellen DeGeneres.
Former co-host Brian Dunkleman still regrets leaving "Idol" - "I went through such a severe period of depression I don't know how I pulled through it," he tells Rushfield. "There was a period there--I think I went two years after that not working. Two years. Not a voiceover. Not a commercial." Brian eventually shot a pilot for a pseudo-reality show about his post-"Idol" life, "American Dunkleman," which generated very little buzz...until his old partner, Ryan Seacrest, made a nasty televised joke at Dunkleman's expense, which ironically renewed interest in the forgotten "Idol" star.
Ryan Seacrest almost backed out, too - Ryan was on board to co-host "Idol" but almost didn't make the cut--after his father, negotiating on the younger Seacrest's behalf, haggled with Fox over the terms of his contract. Ryan didn't sign his contract until literally hours before the first episode's shoot. If he hadn't done so, his catchphrase "Seacrest out" could have taken on a whole other meaning.
Dunkleman once engaged in a dance-off with Paula Abdul in Miami - WHY is this footage not on YouTube? And why didn't Paula ask Brian to host her new show, "Live To Dance"? He could use the work.
Season 1 contender Kristin Holt was supposed to co-host with Ryan - The former contestant was brought in for Season 2, supposedly to be Dunkleman's replacement, but that plan never panned out and Ryan eventually ended up going it alone. Kristin did some "Idol" correspondent work, now works for the G4 Network, under the name Kristin Adams.
Hot 97 DJ Angie Martinez was almost a fourth judge - The New York radio star actually shot two episodes with Simon, Paula, and Randy in Season 2, before producers decided she wasn't a good fit and quickly returned to the three-judge format. Oh well. Maybe Martinez, Dunkleman, Holt, and Stryker can start their own show someday.
Back in Season 1, no one involved with "Idol" thought Kelly Clarkson had a chance - Kelly's audition wasn't even shown on-air during the early part of the season! Everyone, including Cowell, initially assumed Justin Guarini had it in the bag. Well, I guess even Simon wasn't always right.
Nikki McKibbin once called Cowell a "creepy perv" to his face - Nikki tells Rushfield that one time backstage, Simon "told me that my eyes were beautiful and he wanted to take my eyeballs out of my head and put them on his nightstand so he could look at them every night before he went to bed." A skeeved-out Nikki did not respond well to such a "compliment," and, interestingly, she never received a positive on-air critique from Simon again. Cowell denies this encounter, of course.
Nikki walked away from a contract with 19 Entertainment - She signed on after placing third, but balked when she was, according to her claims, forced to sing country music instead of rock. She struggled professionally and personally (with drug addiction) after that, and she now works in a memorabilia shop in Fort Worth, Texas. An "Idol" Season 1 poster hangs on the store's wall.
Simon and Randy once spontaneously fought on the show...and then had to reshoot their fight for the cameras - During a Season 1 critique of RJ Helton, Simon used the insult "monkey," a racially charged term that so angered Randy that their battle almost came to blows, as Randy threatened Simon to "take it outside." Fox loved the drama, of course, but skittish execs didn't want to air a segment with the M-word. So they had Simon and Randy restage their spat, with Simon using the word "loser" instead, and then editors used the best shots from the two takes. Reality TV isn't really real, folks.
Vanessa Olivarez's "M-word" moment was also scripted - The Season 2 semifinalist was voted off after controversially calling Ryan Seacrest a "monkey" during an on-air segment. Vanessa later claimed that was a scripted line she'd been ordered to say--that the "monkey" insult was not her idea. Conspiracy theories surrounding the openly gay contestant, and a supposed plot to get her kicked off the show, persist to this day.
Clay Aiken gave Nigel Lythgoe a heart attack - Nigel literally went into cardiac arrest while editing the popular but polarizing Season 2 contestant's bio piece. Thankfully, workaholic Nigel survived and soon returned to the set. This would not be first time Clay would cause hearts to flutter, as he remains one of the show's most beloved contestants eight years later.
Kelly Clarkson did not win "World Idol" - This one-off contest, held in 2003, pitted "Idol" winners from 11 different countries in the ultimate "Idol" battle. While it was widely assumed that Kelly or Britain's original "Pop Idol" champ Will Young would trounce the competition, the World Idol title instead went to Norway's Kurt Nilsen (who, incidentally, won by singing U2's "Beautiful Day," a tune that later became Season 9 "AI" winner Lee DeWyze's coronation song). Kelly came in second; Will placed fifth. Some pundits argued that Kelly's Texas charm did not go over too well with overseas audiences, given the political climate at the time.
Jennifer Hudson wasn't exactly BFFs with her fellow divas - J.Hud, Fantasia, and LaToya London dominated Season 3, and apparently this competitive environment brought out the worst in Jennifer, who ultimately placed lowest among the three divas. "She was very angry," an anonymous crew member told Rushfield. "One day all the girls got out of the car and into the elevator, and they're all screaming at each other and fighting. They go up in the elevator. Jennifer was on the phone in the back of the van saying to her mom or somebody, 'Well, clearly I'm the best. Clearly I'm better than any of these girls.'" Well, clearly voters didn't think so at the time.
John Stevens was the original Vote For The Worst posterboy - While the anti-"Idol" grass-roots website votefortheworst.com first made headlines for its successful championing of the patently unlikable Scott Savol over fan favorite Constantine Maroulis in Season 4, and later for its Howard Stern-supported pro-Sanjaya campaign in Season 6, it was Season 3's redheaded Sinatra impressionist who first received this dubious VFTW honor.
Carrie Underwood was signed to Capitol Nashville before "Idol" - Carrie wasn't quite the inexperienced farmgirl she was made out to be on the show, but a former Capitol Records recording artist. (In a less sophisticated, pre-YouTube, pre-Twitter web age, this info was kept under tighter wraps than similar career background checks on later contestants like ex-pros Carly Smithson and Joanna Pacitti.) When her Capitol deal disintegrated, "Idol" was Carrie's last shot at the music biz. And the rest, once again, was history.
Kyle Ensley was the straw that broke Simon Cowell's back - Back in Season 7, Simon vehemently fought to put this bespectacled nerd in the semifinals...and when he was outvoted, he quite vocally expressed his disdain while grumpily telling Kyle that pretty-boy Colton Berry had made the cut instead. Apparently it was this heated argument that led to an irreparable rift between Cowell and Lythgoe, the latter of whom left "Idol" after that combative season and only returned after Simon quit. And thus, Kyle the geeky student council candidate's place in "Idol" lore was forever secured.
Brothers are good-luck charms for "Idol" auditioners - Winners Ruben Studdard, David Cook, and Kris Allen all originally attended the "Idol" tryouts to keep their respective auditioning brothers company. Talk about sibling rivalry!
"Idol" has its own guardian angel - California pastor Leesa Bellesi has watched over "Idol" hopefuls since Season 5, starting with Katharine McPhee, to whom Leesa felt a strong spiritual connection after watching Kat's audition on TV. A bizarre chance meeting with Katharine, and then with Paula Abdul, led to Leesa gaining unprecedented backstage access to the show, housing the cash-strapped families of some contestants (Syesha Mercado, Jason Castro, Kristy Lee Cook, Danny Gokey) and developing close friendships with religious contenders like Jordin Sparks, Chris Sligh, and Phil Stacey. Leesa, however, sat out Season 9...is that why that season was sort of cursed? God only knows.
Ex-Idols get a last supper - In a longtime results-night tradition, eliminated contestants are the guests of honor at a goodbye dinner, during which the other contestants and their families salute the ousted singer by going around the table and each uttering a few kind farewell words. Aw. I wish they showed that on the air.
Paula Abdul enlisted her own professional blurb-writer in Season 8 - Ever wonder why the usually kooky Paula seemed so, well, lucid and coherent during her final "Idol" run? Well, now you know. She had hired help.
Simon Cowell rejected a colossal $130 million deal to stay on "Idol" - Apparently not even megalomaniac Simon can be bought. Helming his own U.S. show "X Factor" was apparently more important to him than raking in what would have been the biggest non-Oprah paycheck in television. We'll see if Simon's gamble pays off when "X Factor U.S." debuts in fall 2011.