I received an advance copy of Richard Rushfield’s book “American Idol: The Untold Story” with a bit of a heavy heart. Because, yes, I know, I could have written a book like this. My wife tells me that frequently.
Rushfield, who writes for the Daily Beast, is eminently qualified. He covered the show for the Los Angeles Times and since season 6 has spent a lot of time on the set of the show. Being here in Atlanta, I’ve always been handicapped by not having access to the show’s behind-the-scenes people. He did have that. My advantage is I have covered the show since day one.
So did Rushfield really break any big news? No. Given how much the show has been covered over the years by me and many others, that would have been a tall order. But if you want a trip down nostalgia lane with some interesting tidbits thrown, this is a quick, easy-to-read journey.
He snagged sit-down interviews with the show creator Simon Fuller, who rarely gives interviews;Simon Cowell; and Nigel Lythgoe, the three linchpins. He talked to key Fox programming executives. He spoke with the stage manager Debbie Williams, who gave him some great anecdotes. Vocal coach Debra Byrd was helpful. Some anonymous stage crew folks threw in some dirt as well.
He did not get on-the-record interviews with Kara DioGuardi, Ellen DeGeneres, Ryan Seacrest, Randy Jackson or Paula Abdul, though it’s clear he got plenty of material from her agent or perhaps Abdul herself off the record.
He did not get any fresh insights from any of the biggest alums from the show including Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry, Clay Aiken, Fantasia, Kellie Pickler, Adam Lambert, David Archuleta or David Cook.
He relied on the second-tier folks like Justin Guarini, R.J. Helton, Nikki McKibbin, Ace Young, Carly Smithson, Matt Girarud, Megan Joy, Brooke White and Kimberley Locke. From one perspective that makes sense since those folks 1) probably haven’t been interviewed much in awhile, 2) are easily accessible and 3) are more willing to proffer the real dirt. He also set aside an entire chapter to what happened to Brian Dunkleman, which is fascinating in its odd pathos.
While the book is primarily chronological, he sets aside a few chapters on other topics such as the Vote for the Worst site.
Here are some notable tidbits I did not know about (or perhaps forgot):
- Originally, the show was supposed to have four judges, like “Pop Idol.” But the fourth judge, a young DJ from KROQ in Los Angeles, pulled out at the last second, feeling a cheesy pop music show would hurt his rock cred. The show simply had no time to find a fourth.
- Ryan Seacrest and his dad (an attorney) wrangled with “Idol” until the last second over negotiations. He literally signed on the dotted line hours before the first shoot.
- Nigel Lythgoe was arrested on his way over to the states for smoking on the plane.
- During season one, Nikki McKibbin got into a nasty argument with Simon Cowell during a dress rehearsal where he called her the b-word that rhymes with witch. And she said back, “I’ll ***in’ show you a b****!”
- The producers had the judges in the semfinals dump Jim Verraros even after the fans voted him in. Then sanity prevailed and they changed their minds. Poor Verraros was whipsawed big time that night?
- The producers also took out Simon calling R.J. Helton a “monkey” and subbed in “loser.” They even did a second “take” since that semi-final round was taped, not live. “Monkey’ in England does not have the racial connotations it has here but the producers did not want the public to think he was a racist.
- Rushfield implies there may have been something going on between Justin Guarini and the two ladies Kelly Clarkson and Tamyra Gray but didn’t have anything specific. He just hints at it.
- During season two, when Clay Aiken was not voted in by viewers in the semi-final round, Kimberley Locke recalls saying a prayer with Aiken and Ruben Studdard hoping Clay would get a spot in the Wild Card show. He did. And they ended up being the final three.
- During season four, Bo Bice was “ill” during the finale performance show. Why? He had drunk tequila all night long the night before.
- He wrote that in season seven, David Cook was the “first surprise verdict in Idol history” over David Archuleta. What? Really? I should go back in this blog and see if that was the case but I really think David Cook was favored to win by the time the finals rolled around. I just googled the topic and yes, Cook was favored to win by the end. So Rushfield got that wrong big time.
As for “first surprise,” I think Ruben Studdard beating Clay Aiken would qualify. Rushfield also made it sound preordained that Carrie would win season four but I don’t remember it that way. I honestly thought Bo still had a chance.
- During season 8, the three original judges would go out of their way to “block out” Kara DioGuardi. During commercial breaks, they’d all leave the stage and watch Simon smoke while Kara had to sit by herself awkwardly.
- In season 9, Crystal Bowersox was not easy to deal with behind the scenes, saying she had a bunch of “mini-diva” fits throughout the season.
- Rushfield sets aside an entire chapter to someone I had never heard of: Leesa Bellesi. Her husband’s a pastor. Season five, Katharine McPhee’s family joined her church. She helped Kat backstage. She would later become a place where out-of-town families of “Idol” contestants would go to for guidance and support. Amazingly, I have never heard of her and “Idol” executives tended to downplay her frequent presence backstage.