What brought Idol out of its shell was the steady stream of scandals it provided for the ravenous new media. Here are the ten greatest scandals of Idol’s first decade.
By: Richard Rushfield
Idol was perhaps the first show on television to have as much of a life off the screen as on.Â Â These days we are used to The Hills girls, Bachelor contestants, Real Housewives and Jersey Shore housemates seeing their dramas spill over from the shows that made them famous to the covers of the tabloids and the greater celeb-obsessed blogosphere.
But when Idol debuted on the US airwaves in 2002, such a phenomenon was relatively unknown.Â The internet was still in its infancy and network programming was a remote, pristine world, largely untouched by the hurly burly press.
What brought Idol out of its shell was the steady stream of scandals it provided as fodder for the ravenous new media.Â Each year it seemed, some gotcha shattered Idol’s peace, some disqualification brought it face to face with the public beast.
Ten years later, the stream of scandals doesn’t seem to have hurt entertainment’s greatest juggernaut.Â If anything, the blow-ups have kept us all talking about the show, even when the singing got a little dull.
Here then, in order of appearance, are the ten greatest scandals of Idol’s first decade:
10. Justin Talks Back
When Pop Idol debuted in the UK, judge Simon Cowell quickly became the man the nation loved to hate, and contestants who talked back to him became heroes for fighting the grinch.Â Such was not to be the case in the US. Riding high as the Season 1 front runner, when Justin Guarini suffered his first off-night, he was visibly shaken, and responded to Cowell’s harsh critique with a relatively mild retort, “I want see what the audience thinks.”
9. The First Ringer: Kelly Clarkson.
It has become an annual tradition; the discovery each year that a certain contestant is not as amateur as the driven snow but has performed on stage. Some even on stages in Hollywood. In general this recurring scandal stems from a general misunderstanding of the Idol rules.Â Contestants are not, as producers explain each year, required like Olympic athletes to be untouched amateurs, never paid for their work.Â The rules only demand that contestants not be under any current contract when they join the show.Â In the end, this confusion comes down to Idol’s audiences being more catholic than the pope; having expectations of the singers above what is actually required by the show.
The very first Idol was also the very first accused ringer.Â While on the show, Kelly Clarkson was portrayed as a happy go lucky Texas tomboy in pigtails.Â However when the news came out just after the season ended that she had in fact not only lived in Hollywood, but recorded music with A list producers, many in the press cried foul.Â Kelly proved however to be the teflon champion, so likable and beloved that no accusations would ever stick to the first Idol.
8. Frenchie Davis
The Godmother of all Idol sex scandals. In the years since, risque photos have surfaced of many a contestant.Â But when the videos of Season Two early frontrunner Frenchie Davis came to light, it was no ground for the show which prompted a round of soul searching among the producers.Â Ultimately the nature of the videos – a sex act performed upon a beverage container on a site entitled “Daddy’s Little Girl”Â proved too hot for Idol and Frenchie became the first public disqualification in the show’s history.Â While no serious contender has been eliminated for similiar reasons since, no images have since surfaced to rival the triple X octane of Frenchie’s.
7. Corey Clark
Just a couple months after Idol’s first disqualification with Frenchie, the show eliminated yet another contestant when it came to light that sleepy eyed bad boy Corey Clark was wanted in his home state of Kansas for battery of his 15 year old sister and assaulting a police officer.Â Clark was given a chance to explain on the air before he was sent home to face the music (he ultimately pleaded no contest and was sentenced to six months probation). The arrest apparently hadn’t come up on background checks because the police had misspelled Clark’s name on the official report.Â Getting one last moment on the Idol stage did little, however, to assuage Clark’s sense of injustice at being disqualified.Â He left the Idoldome, but would come back to haunt it again years later, when he would provoke the mother of all Idol scandals.
6. Clay Aiken Cheated?
Accusations of vote fraud would become the permanent background noise of American Idol finales, but in Season Two a rare Seacrest flub started the ball rolling.Â Twice in show, Seacrest misstated the gap between Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken, saying first that out of 24 million votes cast, only 13,000 separated them.Â Â Later in the show, he attempted to correct that statement, clarifying that the winner had won with 50.28 percent of the vote – which would add up to a number some ten times larger than the previously stated 13,000.Â The following day, Fox felt compelled to put out a statement explaining that Ruben had in fact won by 130,000 votes.Â But it was too late; a thousand conspiracy theories had been launched and to this day, tribes of Claymates roam the land believing their hero was cheated of his rightful crown.
5. Corey Clark, Part 2
Beaten but not bowed, Corey Clark darkened Idol’s doorstep once more.Â In 2005, he reappeared giving an interview to ABC’s Primetime Live claiming that while on Idol he had had a clandestine affair with Judge Paula Abdul, who secretly coached him through the contest.Â On the show he played a voice mail message purported to be from Paula, in which she seemed to be telling him to keep quiet about their relationship.Â In the furor that followed, pundits opined that Fox would have to dump its star if the show was to remain credible.Â But Idol stood by its gal and toughed it out, denying Clark’s charges.Â Ultimately, the media narrative turned against ABC, accusing them of sleaze in trying to damage a rival show.Â Paula survived and even turned up on Saturday Live to mock the accusations, but it was a very close call.
4. Sanjaya and the Rise of Vote For the Worst.
Each season had seen a contestant that the caused the pundits to tear their hair out wondering, how does this no talent survive.Â But none caused more heartburn than Season 6’s Sanjaya Malakar, who openly seemed to mock the hallowed Idoldome stage.Â Looking for an explanation for Sanjaya’s longevity, the press turned to a heretofore little known site called Vote For the Worst, which led an anti-Idol movement, encouraging haters to subvert Idol from within by supporting the least talented contestants.Â Early in the season, the site had thrown its weight behind Sanjaya, as had radio host Howard Stern.Â Sanjaya made it to only to seventh place, but not before becoming the show’s permanent anti-hero.
3. David Hernandez Breaks the Gay/Straight Barrier
When evidence emerged that Season 7’s David Hernandez had worked as a gay stripper, it was Idol’s first open encounter with the question of sexual orientation.Â Many wondered whether the family friendly show could afford to keep Hernandez on.Â In the end, the scandal turned out to be a non-event.Â Idol let the viewers decide the question, and they kept Hernandez around for another week.
2. Paula and the Performance that Wasn’t
Since it’s earliest days, Paula’s tongue-tied seemingly ditzyness was one the show’s great subplots.Â However, in Season 7, when she critiquedÂ a performance that had not yet occurred,Â it seemed like something worse was afoot.Â Â Speculation varied from on air substance abuse to evidence that the producers were fixing the contest.Â Paula later explained that a last second change of format had led to the confusion.Â The show, again, stood by its judge, but this time, there were no jokes about the subject to be heard on American Idol.
1. Cell Phone Gate
Since the defeat of Clay Aiken, no loss has sparked as many conspiracies theories as Adam Lambert’s in Season 8 at the hands of Kris Allen. The scuttlebutt among Lambert’s fantatical following was flamed when Immediately after the finale it came out that Idol sponsor AT&T had handed out special phones at Kris-boosting parties in Arkansas which allowed the recipents to place huge numbers of calls.Â No evidence has surfaced that the number of votes cast was sufficent to influence the outcome in an election where tens of millions of votes were tallied, but again, the cat was out of the bag and the Glamberts joined the ranks of Idol’s permanently aggrieved.
Â© 2011 Richard Rushfield, author ofÂ American Idol: The Untold Story
About the Author:
Richard Rushfield, author ofÂ American Idol: The Untold Story, for three years has coveredÂ American Idol for theÂ Los Angeles Times, writing hundreds of columns and conducting thousands of interviews with cast and crew. He is currently an entertainment columnist forÂ The Daily Beast, aÂ Vanity Fair contributing editor, and author of its long-running “Intelligence Report” column.