Can two divas, a dawg, and a Down Under country singer hit a ratings high note? Oh, the drama!
By ROB MONIHAN
It's the first day of shooting American Idol
Season 12's Hollywood Week, and the judges are on their best behavior. Sitting side by side at the dais, five-time Grammy winner Mariah Carey and three-time nominee Nicki Minaj listen patiently, compare notes and whisper suggestions to each other as dozens of male contestants step forward to sing. Flanked by Aussie country crooner Keith Urban and idol
mainstay Randy Jackson (the only returning judge), the divas reveal a camaraderie that's a far cry from the antagonism they displayed just a few months earlier.
In October, when auditions rolled through Charlotte, North Carolina, cell-phone-video footage of Carey and Minaj arguing over a contestant's performance was leaked on the Internet. "If you say one more disrespectful thing to me, off with your head!" Minaj threatened. "Why do I have a 3-year-old sitting around me?" countered Carey. The tension escalated further when The View
's Barbara Walters reported that Carey had hired extra security in response to an alleged death threat from Minay involving a gun. Minaj fired back on Twitter: "I guess it hurts 2 have the producers tell u to ur face that nicki is the best judge we've had since simon. Awww, poor u. Keep them lies cmn." As auditions continued in four more cities without further incident, some Idol
alumni—including Jennifer Hudson and former judge Steve Tyler—questioned if the argument was nothing more than a publicity stunt.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the turmoil and cast changes, Idol
continues to outshine the competition as the dominant leader in ratings (more than 21 million viewers tuned in to last year's finale) and chart success (Season 11 champ Phillip Phillips' debut album has sold more than 475,000 copies). Backstage during a break in taping, it was all smiles when the new quartet gathered for a sit-down along with host Ryan Seacrest. In fact, when asked about the fight, the judges made light of the incident.
Ladies, there were reports of fighting early on. How are things between you now?
To me, the show is such a freakin' massive entity that nothing should matter to the public but that. It's American Idol
. It's bigger than life and bigger than any stupid whatever.
If you look at Keith, he looks like a mild-mannered guy, but we have so
Keith is the problem!
We're getting along. It's just a lovely family, and in a family, there's never
Ryan and Randy, you've been with the show since the beginning. What does this panel bring that previous ones didn't?
Should I leave the room?
No, you should stay. This panel brings a very broad, spirited and unique perspective with each individual artist. There is never a dull moment. We look ar this as a fun new beginning.
You have a broad range of very passionate advice and opinions. You want everybody to stand in their lane with passion and conviction.
Whose opinion usually wins?
Sometimes they're swaying. Like when Nicki has passionately believed in someone and we've all said no, she's managed every now and then to turn us around by pointing out a few things we might not have been thinking about.
But that's true with all the judges. When they believe in a contestant, they don't want to back down.
Mariah, why did you sign on to the show?
For me, it's about finding brilliant talent. If you look at the record, it's unparalleled; no other show even comes close. I was approached by basically every other competition show there is, and it just didn't feel appropriate. But this could be really cool, because I could play a part in the career of someone who may not have gotten that same type of attention had I not joined the show. Not to say it's all about me, but, as an artist, to be able to participate in someone's career like that is such a great thing.
What do you bring to the panel?
I have an ear for what we're looking for in terms of listening to someone's pitch or their delivery. It's nice to see genuine talent meet the pure spirit of a young artist.
Keith, you left a judging gig on Australia's The Voice to join Idol. Why is Idol the better fit?
The fact that it's given birth to legitimate artists, not just people that were popular that season and then faded away. In a lot of cases, those who didn't win—the Daughtrys, the Adam Lamberts—have gone on to sell records and have real careers. There was the credibility factor I really loved.
Nicki, how did you get involved?
I never thought I would do something like this, because I'm from the hip-hop culture, and I thought it was maybe something that would be frowned upon. [To others
] You guys are on TV and the radio every day, and that's so scary to me, being seen everywhere all the time. I don't know if I want that.
Try to pick up the dry cleaning now!
What's your style of judging?
I try to use comic relief. Everybody wants to come in there talking about "inspiration." Ugh! That's not real to me. Maybe I want to know what color socks you have on because that's going to spark something in you. Nobody says, "I want to inspire the world and I am going to stand on the mountaintop!"
Ryan says that every day.
It's the real world! I don't want to be a part of a show that's cheesy and corny. My role us to bring some sort of a twist so that [singers] don't come in here with these cliché answers all the time. Today when we were judging, there was this one little boy that everyone thinks is really cute—and he is—but that cuteness started irritating me.
When he suddenly became Mr. Showbiz! He became that kid who took his raw talent and turned it into an Off-Off-Off Broadway play.
Could you have faced this kind of pressure when you were starting out?
I did one of these shows when I was 9 [Australian talent-search program Pot of Gold
], and I know that feeling. We've all had so many noes in our life, and a lot of them have been the fuel I've used to burn even brighter.
I want to tell the contestants to take a breath and relax, because I know that for me, I would rather sing in front of a hundred thousand people than four.
Peole say they're not paying their dues. Nobody wants
to pay their f---ing dues—we'd all like a shortcut. But you never get out of paying your dues, you just may have to do it in front of an arena full of people.
On TV, which is even harder. I think these shows are so helpful for these kids. It's a break.
But they don't know how lucky they are to be here.
How's the talent this season?
The ones that have immediately stood out for me are more gospel and soul singers.
A lot of the girls seem to be inspired by Adele.
What do you think is Idol's key to success in its 12th season?
All the other shows do a similar thing, but we hold in high esteem the idea of "May the best talent win." When you look at 11 seasons now, seven of those winners have careers. That puts us head and shoulders above all the rest, because I don't think any of those shows produce any of that.
Do you worry about competition?
I worry about what we need to do. If we get caught up in focusing on everything that's going on around us, we're not making the best show that we can make. In the weeks to come, the shows that we'll be shooting won't be exactly like they were last season. There will be some tweaks and changes.
To me, Idol
's a Picasso. This was the first one of its kind, and it's still the best. Many try to duplicate, but this is the gold standard, as far as I'm concerned. We say American Idol
is the search for the next superstar, and I think we've done that pretty damn well.