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Sweet Charity! Backstage At ‘Idol Gives Back’

Lyndsey Parker
Reality Rocks

Some people who don't live in Los Angeles may not realize that the Kodak Theater is located inside a mall. So it's a bit odd to attend some big A-list event there, like the Oscars or the American Idol finale, and see all the celebs filing past the Sephora and Victoria's Secret and Forever 21 stores and Cold Stone Creamery and Starbucks franchises as they sashay down the red carpet. It sort of takes the glamour out of the proceedings, you know?

But it's even odder to attend Idol Gives Back, an event wholly centered around desperately poor people in need--people who can barely afford clean drinking water, malaria bednets, or mattresses to sleep on, let alone venti frappuccinos or Miracle Bras--in the middle of such a hub of conspicuous consumption.

It also felt weird, and frankly kind of wrong, to be backstage at Idol Gives Back at the Kodak on Sunday, April 6, in the press area--feasting on complimentary ciabatta sandwiches, brownies, and all the Coca-Cola I could drink--while me and my fellow journalists all viewed tearjerking mini-documentaries depicting Annie Lennox tending to African HIV orphans and Simon Cowell sympathizing with a lupus-afflicted single mom. When the leftover free eats were wheeled away by the catering crew at the end of the night, I sincerely hoped they were being donated to a homeless shelter, and weren't just tossed in some dumpster behind the mall.

Anyway, it was even weirder when some of the Idol Gives Back participants, like Carrie Underwood and John Legend, came backstage for Q&A sessions and were tossed softball questions like "Who are you wearing?" and "How do you stay in shape?" After all, when these stars were presumably there to help starving people below the poverty line, discussing designer duds and personal trainers somehow seemed inappropriate.

But I don't mean to be a downer here. Despite the sad reasons that a fundraising telethon like Idol Gives Back must exist, being in the press area at the Kodak taping was extremely exciting, perhaps even more exciting than being one of the 3,000 spectators in the actual audience. I got there early, biding my time by semi-guiltily stuffing my face with the aforementioned free food, debating the merits of Danny Noriega and David Archuleta with the other writers, and watching Maroon 5's soundcheck. Basically it was like a viewing party in a bigger living room with a nicer TV, with an occasional famous party guest popping by to say hello.

After some very well-spoken spokespeople from the six benefiting charitable organizations (see the charity list at the bottom of this blog) took the mic to educate the press about their respective causes--that is, to remind us why we were there in the first place--the first famous face to make a press-room showing was Snoop Dogg, joined by his Idol Gives Back collabo partners Teddy Riley and Charlie Wilson and rocking a custom Idol Gives Back hoodie. Snoop happened to enter the room just as we journalists were watching Fergie crawl on the Kodak stage floor in a desperate, leather-trousered attempt to upstage Heart during their "Barracuda" number..and when a backstage employee respectfully turned the TV monitor to mute so we could speak to Snoop, he immediately complained: "Hey, why'd you turn Fergie down? Turn that up!" So we all watched a little bit of the close-captioned Fergie performance together, before Snoop and company stepped up to the mic.

Unlike some of the guests who later turned up, Snoop didn't answer too many questions about politics or world affairs, preferring to discuss the great Hannah-vs.-Miley debate (apparently his daughter thinks Montana and Cyrus are two different people) and performing an impromptu a cappella version of his Idol Gives Back song, "Can't Say Goodbye," with Charlie and Teddy. Snoop also apolitically avoided specifically answering the inevitable "Who's your favorite season 7 Idol contestant?" question, merely replying, "The one that can sing"--although Charlie Wilson all too willingly admitted he was a member of Team Archuleta.

John Legend came in next, looking amazing as usual, which of course prompted those vacuous questions about the designer of his white linen suit (I think he said Calvin Klein) and his tips for staying in shape. To his credit, though, John seemed eager to focus on more important issues. He praised the creators of Idol Gives Back, saying they set "a good example for young people, showing them that when you have the opportunity to help someone, you should do it; even if you're not rich, you can be a philanthropist." It was, however, a bit of a bummer that he too avoided the favorite-Idol question, and that he in fact claimed he's never watched American Idol. That was a recurring theme of the evening, and it frankly annoyed me. There's no shame in admitting an addiction to Idol. If there were, this column wouldn't even exist. And Idol Gives Back wouldn't exist either, if no one watched Idol--and that would be a shame.

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Anyway, Idol Gives Back this year was all about the ladies--the most memorable performances came from Heart, Annie Lennox, Gloria Estefan with Sheila E., Mariah Carey (looking better than she ever has, accompanied by a gospel choir and Randy Jackson on bass), and So You Think You Can Dance alumni busting a move to a Rihanna track. So of course the night's two most-hyped females had to make backstage appearances...

First Miley Cyrus showed up--taller, skinnier, and prettier that I ever imagined. Man, I sure didn't look like when I was 15. Nor was I as eloquent talking about poverty issues and charity. And Miley further endeared herself to me when she answered the Joan Rivers-esque press question "Who are you wearing" with: "Delia's!" Way to keep it real, Miley! I was just disappointed that she too said she doesn't watch Idol. So, is that the "cool" thing to say now? Come ON, who doesn't watch Idol? Only the aforementioned starving people in Africa without electricity, I think. I just refuse to believe it when Miley and John say they never tune in.

The other big A-list female backstage was Carrie Underwood, who only a couple of years ago made her first appearance at the Kodak Theater, winning the season 4 Idol title. Now she was back and more beautiful than ever, in a gorgeous gown that I'm pretty sure didn't come from Delia's. And she endeared herself to me even more than Miley did--because I was dying to ask her about the George Michael song she performed on Idol Gives Back, "Praying For Time," but I kept getting steamrollered by more aggressive, shark-like reporters who cut me off every time I raised my hand or opened my mouth. But then Carrie locked eyes with me, said, "I WILL answer your question," and made special effort to answer me. Aw. She really is as nice as she seems. And her reply (that the song meant so much to her she had to practice it for a good long time to get through it without crying, and that she chose not to sing one of her own songs because this special night was not about self-promotion) made me like her even more. Thanks, Carrie! You rule.

I geeked out even more when two of my personal idols--Ann and Nancy Wilson--came backstage. Anyone who's a regular reader of this column knows how much I love me some Heart (and that I'm constantly warning the finalists not to perform Heart songs, because no one can come close to Ann Wilson). Ann backed me up on the latter sentiment, matter-of-factly telling the reporters, "You've got to be a singer to sing Heart!" But the Wilsons probably don't mind the finalists covering their songs, since they told reporters that they credit American Idol (along with Guitar Hero) for drawing a much younger fanbase to their recent concerts.

Just when I thought I couldn't get any geekier, I looked to my right and there was Annie Lennox. ANNIE FREAKIN' LENNOX!! I had to take a big sip of complimentary Coke Zero just to keep myself from letting out a shrill squeal. Seriously, inside I felt like little Ashley Ferl coming face-to-face with Sanjaya Malakar. Annie is quite possibly THE coolest woman on the planet, gorgeous inside and out. Besides starring in the most heartstring-tugging Idol Gives Back film of the night (I cried into my Coke can, literally) and getting a standing ovation just for appearing onstage before she sang a note, her performance was amazing, really from the heart. Because it was obvious that this Treatment Action Campaign volunteer's heart was really in the right place.

"I think people are really hungry for a consciousness shift," she told us journalists, as she raved about her activism being inspired by Nelson Mandela. It was just annoying that half the journalists backstage were paying more attention to Miley Cyrus's simultaneous performance on the nearby muted TV monitor. "Oh, you can turn that off. I'm onstage now!" Annie the Diva quipped. She was joking of course, but she was right. Miley is cool, but Annie is the coolest of the cool and she always deserves everyone's undivided attention--especially when discussing such serious matters.

In between backstage cameos, the mute button was deactivated and we all watched the show on our press-room TV screen. Along with the performance highlights mentioned above, there were some touching films featuring the likes of Celine Dion, Forest Whitaker, Chris Daughtry, Paula and Randy, and of course Bono, plus PSAs from Whoopi Goldberg, Dolly Parton, Ellen DeGeneres, Kylie Minogue, Eddie Izzard, Kiefer Sutherland, and So You Think You Dance's Mary Murphy. (Mary's was the funniest, as she threatened to continuously emit her infamous hot-tamale scream until people donated. Now that is a real incentive to reach for one's wallet, if I ever heard one!)

Other high points of the show itself included Jimmy Kimmel's Simon Cowell roast (his material about Simon's ill-fitting black V-necks and "peppermill-sized" nipples was priceless...and Paula Abdul was probably laughing harder than anyone else at the Kodak), as well as a series of filmed endorsements from Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton, John McCain, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown (which proved American Idol is the world's great equalizer).

And presenter Brad Pitt got one of the night's biggest reactions just for showing up, with everyone in the audience squealing like me in the presence of Annie Lennox. Perhaps un-accidentally, his microphone shorted out and two female PAs oh-so-selflessly came out of the stage wings to assist him. "I just needed a reason to touch him," one of them confessed to the audience--a line that elicited bigger laughs than Jimmy Kimmel's best jokes.

The lowlights were thankfully few and far between, although a Billy Crystal/Miley Cyrus comedy skit, in which they pretended not to know who the other was, dragged about 10 minutes longer than necessary (I have a feeling that vignette will be ruthlessly edited for the version of the show that airs Wednesday night). And a Robin Williams bit, in which he portrayed an ESL-challenged, Ritalin-deprived foreigner auditioning for the Idol judges, was even draggier and unfunnier. Why couldn't HIS mic have shorted out, huh? Or why wasn't the backstage TV monitor muted during THAT mess? Seriously, I would've donated plenty of money to Idol Gives Back just to shut Robin up. I could tolerate Mary Murphy's cackle, but not that shtick.

And perhaps the biggest Idol Gives Back lowlight of all was the absence of any rumored "wild card" competition. (BOO!!!!) But overall it was a very special night, and it was quite an honor to be there. (Even if it was in a mall.) Last year Idol Gives Back raised $76 million, and I'm hoping this year's telecast meets its new $100 million goal. Please scroll down for info on how to donate and on the participating charities, and enjoy the broadcast on Wednesday night.

call 1-877-IDOL-AID or log on to

Children's Defense Fund -
The Children's Health Fund -
The Global Fund To Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis & Malaria -
Make It Right -
Malaria No More -
Save The Children U.S. -


Idol Gives Back Red Carpet Photos

Idol Gives Back Performance Photos

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