There was a time not so long ago when the words "Paula Abdul stalker" conjured up only feelings of snarky amusement. Because the phrase was mainly associated in American Idol viewers' minds with this guy:
But this week, the term took on much sadder--and much more literal--meaning, when a 2005 Idol reject and self-confessed Paula Abdul fanatic, troubled soul Paula Goodspeed, was found dead of an apparent drug overdose (possibly a suicide) outside Abdul's home.
Here's Paula Goodspeed's ill-fated Idol audition:
Now, I'm not going to say that Simon Cowell's vicious remarks to Goodspeed, not even the pointlessly cruel ones about her orthodontia, caused her to become suicidal. No one forces any of these wannabes to audition, and by now (or even by 2005, for that matter), anyone who walks into that audition room knows the drill and humiliating risks involved. I'm not saying they ASK for it, but they should at least EXPECT it. Plus, in Goodspeed's case it was clear she was unstable and had serious issues; that much was obvious before she ever opened her mouth and attempted to sing "Proud Mary."
But that brings me to the crucial issue here, one that's been brought up before by several TV critics: Does American Idol exploit the mentally ill?
Some say yes. Speaking about Goodspeed's death on Good Morning America this week, psychologist Dr. Bethany Marshall said: "[Goodspeed] may have felt that her life as she knew it was over, simply because she was criticized on this show. Here's the problem with these kinds of shows. If you have a personality-disordered, fragile, vulnerable contestant who is very sensitive to criticism, and you put the image of them being criticized on YouTube...plastered in front of millions of people--they're not Teflon-coated. They cannot handle it."
On her own MySpace blog after her AmIdol experience, Goodspeed wrote about the aftermath of her audition, admitting: "It's very hard reading such awful things being written about yourself.....or hearing things being said.... not like alot of people would understand what it's like having so many haters , just because I made the mistake of trying out for a singing competition before I was ~even~ ready vocally, emotionally and physically. I have to believe there is ~something good about me....."
These are disturbing words to read now. Maybe she didn't believe hard enough.
Of course, sometimes it's difficult for both the viewers and the show producers to discern when Idol's ridicule of its many tone-deaf hopefuls has gone too far. Some of the contenders, like last season's Paul "The Paula Stalker" Marturano (featured above) and Milo "No Sex Allowed" Turk, are actual professional comedians. They're just trying to snag a little screen time, and they're clearly in on the joke. Then there are the many merry pranksters who show up in crazy costumes singing gimmick songs like "Bohemian Rhapsody" or "Baby Got Back," and those types seem psyched just to get a spot on Best Week Ever or The Soup and a "Most Viewed" YouTube clip out of their brief Idol exposure. In these two above scenarios, everyone wins and no one gets hurt.
But then there are the Paula Goodspeeds. These are the deluded ones, the fragile ones...the ones we laugh at, not with. Sure, if their chances of becoming massive pop stars is about the same chance as Simon Cowell wearing a shirt in a color other than black, then maybe they do need to hear that. But how can Simon, Randy, Paula, and the show producers know when a contestant actually can't handle the truth?
I don't exactly know what I'm proposing here. There may be no foolproof method of telling which singers are just wacky eccentrics and which are truly grappling with mental illness--not even if Fox hired a fifth judge who had a degree in psychology. All I know is I remember when Paula Goodspeed tried out for American Idol...and I know I was laughing at her, not with her. And now I feel pretty lousy about that.