'American Idol: The Untold Story' Book Author Richard Rushfield Talks Past 'Idol' Scandals, Backstage Divas and Season 10

by Kim Potts, posted Jan 18th 2011 11:30AM
American Idol The Inside StoryHere it is, 'American Idol' fans, the book every viewer who's spent the last decade devoting several hours each week to the show will want to read.

Journalist and author Richard Rushfield's 'American Idol: The Untold Story' (Hyperion) hits stores today on the eve of the show's pivotal 10th season (Wed., Jan. 19, 8PM ET, Fox), with 'AI's' biggest star, Simon Cowell, gone, newbie judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler yet to prove themselves and fans' complaints about the lack of exciting contestants growing louder each of the last few seasons.

The must-read book breaks down every season of the show, as well as larger issues like the diva antics of everyone from Paula Abdul to Crystal Bowersox, the 'Idol' voting controversies, the rising star powers of Cowell and Ryan Seacrest and that whole Brian Dunkleman scandal, and reveals scoop you've never heard before.

We had a chance to talk about all this with the man who's had better access to 'American Idol' creator Simon Fuller, Cowell, producer Nigel Lythgoe, the cast, crew and contestants than pretty much any other journalist.

Richard RushfieldIn fact, though Dunkleman himself sat down for a rare chat with the author, even he might be surprised by a Rushfield scoop on page 100 of the book.

'American Idol: The Untold Story' really is the ultimate fan read, as it touches on every topic fans have ever spent hours discussing. Was that your goal in writing it?
Well, you know, as a fan of the show myself, I just know what a roller coaster ride it is every year, and I wanted to first of all capture that roller coaster ride and, you know, write a book that really creates the great adventure of every season. And I also wanted to be able to give people a sense of what was really going on, which is that a lot of times there was more than met the eye.

It certainly does that, in several instances. One of the biggest surprises in the book is, finally, the real scoop on what happened with first season co-host Brian Dunkleman. Maybe people won't be so quick to make the Dunkleman jokes after getting the whole picture from the book.
The Dunkleman joke has been an easy one to make all these years. But yeah, you know, I wanted to show the whole effect 'Idol' has in the lives of people that step through it. I mean, on the one hand, you have the Carrie Underwoods, who are taken from nothing and turned into superstars, and then on the other hand, there are people whose time with 'Idol' has had not such a happy effect on them. And I think Brian Dunkleman is leading amongst those who, after 'Idol,' was far worse off than he had ever been before 'Idol.' He just had his career completely destroyed. And that was a really harrowing tale to hear. But it showed another side of the power that a show like 'Idol' has.

He obviously is still dealing with the weight of his decision to quit this show that became such a phenomenon, but you reveal in the book that he was going to be fired anyway. Is that something that he's always been aware of?
No. I mean, he told me, he said he's always wondered if he hadn't quit, announced that he was quitting, whether they would have had him back or not. Because he actually feels proud of the work that he did on that show, and he actually feels like it worked well, what he did. But I was able to find out, and I guess he'll learn when he reads this, that he wouldn't have ... He says he's always wondered, and it's always haunted him ... but he will learn when he reads this that that was not the case.

Brian Dunkleman Ryan SeacrestWe all watched and saw that there just was not a great chemistry at all between he and Ryan Seacrest, but do you think it's also fair to say that no one was going to get in the way of the mogul-in-the-making that Seacrest has proven himself to be?
I think that was definitely true in the long run. Maybe even in the short run, because, I go on in the book, they actually tried to replace Dunkleman in the second season, and I think it was largely on Ryan Seacrest's objection that they made it clear this is a single-host job. He was extremely determined and driven and knew exactly what he wanted from the day he stepped foot on that set, and I think ultimately anything that stood between him and his ambitions was going to get run down.

He's always had those Dick Clark aspirations?
Yeah. He was telling people on the first ('Idol') audition tours, when nobody had heard about this show or certainly no one had heard of him, that he wanted to be the next Dick Clark, which was a pretty grandiose ambition, but he has -- may have -- fulfilled it.

You have a lot of input from former contestants in the book, and one of them, season 5's Ace Young, really came off as being pretty savvy about the show, the way it works, the way the music business and entertainment industry works. Just in general, do you think the show misses the opportunity to let the audience know more about the contestants, their personalities, while they're contestants?
You know, I think that's something that the show really struggles with and tries to find the balance on. First of all, you've got 12 people you've got to introduce at the beginning of a season, so there are a lot of people to get out there. But I think they struggle ... they'll have a season where there's just so many of the video packages of (the contestants) at home with their families or their sick relative or whatever it is, and then people get tired of them. And then the following season it will be all mentors or something like that. You'll hardly know anything about the contestants.

So, I think the big thing is, it's become so much about the personalities that the audiences have stopped thinking about this as a contest to produce a recording star. They've just sort of thought about it as a popularity contest. So I think in the immediate future, 'Idol' needs to put more emphasis back on the singing, and maybe even less on the personalities.

American Idol season 10Without yet having seen the new judges or the new crop of contestants, obviously, what's the outlook for the new season, in terms of what 'American Idol' has to accomplish to remain a hit?
I think their priorities are right from everything I've heard. The big challenge is, it's been five years since they've created a mega recording star, and doing that was 'Idol's promise, that it would create these giant singing sensations. And for the first five years of its history, it did that pretty reliably. And now it's been five years since Chris Daughtry, since they produced someone who plays arenas. And I think they really know that they need to do that, and all their statements have been about focusing the show on that.

Whether they pull it off, whether they'll have the right talent that can rise to that, whether people will connect, whether the judges will help it or get in the way, we'll have to see. The thing is, it's like, "Man makes plans and God laughs." It's like, "'Idol' makes plans, and the audience laughs." If things went as the producers wanted, just about every season would have ended up with a different result. So we'll see if the audience goes along with this.

What was your first reaction to the hiring of Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler as 'Idol' judges?
They had always said they wanted people that had a wall-full of hit records, of platinum albums, (people) who could say, "I know what it is to be a hit. I know how to make a star," and have credibility with that. And both of these people are genuine stars. Their careers have had longevity, and they've done a lot of different things, and they should be able to judge that well. And, you know, compared to a lot of the people whose names were brought up, I think they bring a real interest and star power to the show. But whether they connect with each other, whether they connect with the audience, whether they ultimately have things to say that are of value to the contestants, we'll see about that.

Ryan SeacrestEveryone's focusing so much on Simon being gone and the new judges, but again, after reading your book, the thing that maybe people are overlooking is the impact of executive producer Nigel Lythgoe returning to the show this season. Is that a positive thing for 'American Idol'?
Yeah, you know, I think a TV show needs a real dictator in a way. You can't have 50 people running a TV show, and Nigel is an extremely strong man, strong hand at the tiller there, who puts his vision down and lets nothing come between him and that. And I think, in the last couple years, the show has sort of suffered from too many cooks and been pulled in a lot of different directions. I think, for better or worse, you'll see Nigel, especially now that they've called him back, he'll be having more power. And I think for better or worse, you will see Nigel's vision on display there, and so it should be coherent at least.

How important a change do you think it is that the minimum age for competitors has been lowered from 16 to 15?
We've only had one underage winner when all is said and done, so we'll see. Fifteen ... that is really young to be going through the sort of brutal pace that they go through, and they'll be living and competing with people who are twice their age at that point. So it's going to be really interesting to see if there's a 15-year-old that can survive that. But if you get one ... 'Idol' has been around so long; someone who's 15 now, (the show) has been around since they were four. So a lot of these people were sort of raised and trained for 'Idol' like Olympic gymnasts from the moment they opened their mouths. You might have some of these prodigies just sort of genetically engineered to be an 'Idol' sensation.

Have you been watching Paula Abdul's new show, 'Live to Dance'?
I have watched a couple episodes. And, so far, it is Paula being Paula, you know, gushy and tongue-tied and clapping her hands ... She's in a sphere there, with dance, where she's very knowledgeable, and she understands it a lot, and she has more to say than people might think. Paula essentially worked as the straight man in a buddy act with her and Simon, so to see the straight man just sort of on their own, without someone to play off, is a little weird, and how long that will stand up on its own, we'll have to see. But there's a lot of good. People love Paula. For every scandal that Paula had, for every misstep, it just made people feel even closer to her. (Her fans), it's like they feel like, you know, she was suffering for them. She's almost like this Christ-like figure to (them), with all she's gone through. So she's got a lot of good will to work off of.

Simon CowellAnd next season we'll see Simon Cowell back on Fox with 'The X Factor' ... is there a chance that it will be as huge as 'Idol,' or even bigger than 'Idol'?
Well, that is the question. They're going to be squaring off about it. I mean, 'X Factor' does really take a lot of the 'Idol' elements, just in terms of a TV production, and pushes them to another level, and it's a much more contemporary-feeling show. I mean, they sing Ke$ha on 'X Factor,' which never has happened on 'Idol.' So I think there's going to be a lot of pressure on a lot of people.

If 'Idol' can't come up with a big winner this year, can't produce a big star this year, I think a lot of people will be saying at the end of the season, you know, the show's time has passed, and maybe 'X Factor' is more attuned to where the culture is right now. But, you know, the thing about 'Idol' is that they've always walked a line. It's never tried to be the hippest show or the most with-it show ... it has really appealed across the demographic spectrum to teenagers and grandmothers alike. So I think it's a balancing act for them.

The book covers a lot of the voting controversies, the Clay vs. Reuben and Adam vs. Kris controversies, as well as DialIdol.com and Vote for the Worst, as well as the various ways the Internet has impacted the show ... Do you think they'll ever implement online voting for 'Idol'?
There have been rumors that they're talking about that this year. It's been said. And I think it will come along at some point. You know, as I say in the book, the original plan of 'Idol,' Simon Fuller's original idea, was that it was going to be entirely an online show, and he had that idea when only 10 million people on planet earth had e-mail accounts. So I would bet you'll see that, if not this season, then by next season. They're very concerned, always, about the integrity of the voting system, and I would bet that there's a lot of worries about the fairness and the possibility for people tampering with it. It's very easy to write a program that (would allow you to) cast tens of thousands of votes in seconds online. So I'll bet that has played a part in that.



You've had access that most people outside the show haven't had, have sat there in the audience many nights. Is it difficult, when you're there, seeing them as people and not just contestants, to be as flip and critical as those of us who are watching from our couches sometimes are?
Definitely. I mean, if you see what they go through, the grueling pace and how exhausted they are, and how they're being pulled in every direction ... sometimes they have half an hour to make a song choice. It's happened. And they have to do a song that people know, but that they can make their own and that reflects who they are as an artist, but also is respectful to the song. And they have to arrange it in a way that's true and convincing, but shows them off, but also isn't self-indulgent. And they have every person they've ever met texting them advice and ideas and telling them what was said about them on the 'Today' show this morning, and how someone didn't like their hair or the way they ... I mean, you know, they could go crazy.

And a lot of them do kind of lose it. It's a really grueling thing for people who, by and large, have no experience at this level in show business. Almost nobody does. So when you see them go through all of it, you do have a lot of sympathy. And that they're willing to do that, to put everything on the line and stand up there alone on the stage and face the meanest man in American culture, while millions of people watch them getting ripped to shreds ... it's really impressive what they go through. I couldn't do it. So it definitely makes it a lot harder to throw a stone. But on the other hand, you know, making fun of their hairstyles and gasping at their bad performances is part of the fun of it.

Carly SmithsonDo you have an all-time favorite 'Idol' contestant?
I have a number of them. I support the rocker girl category, generally, so Carly Smithson, Nikki McKibbin, Megan Joy and Siobhan Magnus are amongst my personal favorites. But I love all the Idols.

And are you covering the new season?
I am going to cover it, but I think from a slight distance. I'm going to step back and try to just comment on it, watching it on TV, but maybe not on the front row for every show this year. I'll be on Twitter. I have a little 'Idol' blog of my own I started called Idol Inferno, so I'll be doing stuff on there, and I'll be writing articles for The Daily Beast. So I won't be shutting up too much, unfortunately.




Watch a Retrospective on 10 Years of 'American Idol'

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Shirley & Kevin

I love Idol, regardless of whether or not Paula and Simon are gone. I love Paula, but don't care so much for her show. So You Think You Can Dance, I feel beats it hands down. I sort of like the judges on Idol now. I'd rather see the talent than to have the judges take from the talent by creating their own drama.

January 22 2011 at 1:14 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Gayle Charcas

I actually had the same idea about idol being borring without Simon, cause I loved his personality, but I have watched the auditions and am really impressed with all three of the judges. I think Steve is great, an amazing personality, he is really music itself. JL is great alsp and Randy is of coarse Randy AKA " The Dog".I also loved the ABS contest. Steve has great body for a man his age! Give idol a chance for season 10, I think you will like me be impressed that the judges make it a whole new amazing expierence!

January 21 2011 at 3:24 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
puertoricolady

Dang Jennifer, how does it feel to listen to real talent?? Not that you would know anything about it. Those kids sound 100000% better now than you ever will!!!!

January 19 2011 at 10:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
sh45323

I totally agree with Glamorize ;), but would add Chris Daughtry to the list. I really loved Adam Lambert, though. Not only is he really great looking, he is a great singer and very entertaining to watch. I can't tell you how many times I watched his rendition of Mad World video on-line. He seems to have the vision of where he wants his career to go.

January 19 2011 at 5:57 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Glamorize ;)

Adam Lambert is the best americn idol contestant in history. bo bice and constantine maroulis are my other favorites but i love adam the most ;)

January 19 2011 at 5:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Gina

No big stars since Chris Daughtry? I'm going to have to disagree with that assertion.

Adam Lambert is well on his way to becoming a superstar. It was a few years before Daughtry blew up. Adam's Idol season has only been over for a little over a year and he's already headlined his own sold-out U.S. tour (the Glam Nation tour this past summer).

I think everyone is too quick to write off the Idols after their seasons are over. Give them some time (especially Adam) and you may be surprised.

January 19 2011 at 4:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
MaryJane

Love American Idol. Don't like the fact that the ones that are horrible have already passed through three sets of judges, so they believe they are good enough, only to be humiliated on television for ratings. I think that is wrong. I used to laugh at those people too before I knew the truth about "using" them. Just not nice. I wish all the contestants good luck for this season. Sing your hearts out. I hope American Idol doesn't change the show too much, afterall, it is about finding a good singer and making them a star isn't it?

January 19 2011 at 4:37 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
dugaro

Jim D
Need to get rid of Ryan Seajerk he really has a problem

January 19 2011 at 3:00 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to dugaro's comment
Shirley & Kevin

Get rid of Ryan, are you joking? Did you see Paula's show yet--now THAT"S a boring MC.

January 22 2011 at 1:19 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
enth88

A hit cd album needs a million sales. A million fans that buys an album of their favorite performer. Talent shows have been on TV before American Idol. Ted Mack's Amateur Hour was the first I remember. Star Search was the first national show. So, this is not new. Some of the winners fail, some of the finalists become successful. It's just a TV show, so turn the channel and watch something else you can critique.

January 19 2011 at 2:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
epsalo

Just watching AI over the years I notice that anyone who sings Sam Cooke's song called A Change Is Gonna Come very well they make it to Hollywood.

January 19 2011 at 2:40 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to epsalo's comment
epsalo

And if they have a raspy voice and can carry a tune they always put them through to Hollywood also.

January 19 2011 at 2:42 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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