In its seventh season, American Idol is still an unstoppable phenomenon with 27 million viewers each week. Judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson say this year's contestants are the most talented yet.
Simon—who also produces America's Got Talent and hosts The X Factor, a British talent competition—says he never thought American Idol would last seven days, let alone seven seasons. "I think we get lucky every year," he says. "I never take anything for granted. We try and make the show better every year."
Contrary to what some past and present contestants may think, Simon says he never intends for his no-nonsense critiques to be nasty. "When you've got these unbelievably awful people coming in, I can't sit there like Paula and say, 'Well, here's a magic wand, and you'll all turn into Mariah Carey.' Because you're not," he says. "I try to give people good advice."
To succeed in the music business, Simon says singers need two things—talent and the ability to work hard. "Most of these people who come on our show, they've never done a day's work in their lives," he says. "They want to win a lottery ticket. And I go, 'Fine, if you want to do that, I'm going to criticize you occasionally.'"
Every week, millions tune in to watch the American Idol contestants perform on stage, but only a select few get to go behind the scenes. After six seasons of secrecy, Simon's using his all-access pass to take Oprah's cameras on an exclusive backstage tour!
On show days, Simon drives to the Hollywood set in style. His car, a Bugatti Veyron, is one of the most expensive, powerful automobiles on the market.
Once Idol's most-feared judge arrives on set, he heads to his trailer. Though it's not as luxurious as his car, it's equipped with all the comforts of home. Simon's fridge is stocked with lemon-lime Perrier, as well as milk for his English breakfast tea.
This home-away-from-home also has a bedroom and shower. "If I'm feeling very diva-ish, I'll lie down before the show," he says. Just before he's due at the judges' table, Simon says he takes a shower to wake himself up.
Along with a fresh crop of contestants, the seventh season of Idol also has a new star—the state-of-the-art set! Host Ryan Seacrest unveiled the larger, more elaborate stage during the March 11, 2008, broadcast.
"This is Star Wars," Simon says. "It's unbelievable, right?"
This set features an elevated band platform, bleachers for the crowd and a mosh pit for screaming fans.
Less than an hour before the March 12, 2008, show, Simon visits the set and runs into David Foster, an acclaimed producer and songwriter. David is appearing on the show to perform alongside the season five runner-up, Katharine McPhee.
Some people think Simon's too tough on the contestants...but not David. "Every single thing you say on the show is right," David says. "I'm not kidding."
"From the most successful record producer in the world..." Simon says.
The next stop on Simon's backstage tour is Ryan Seacrest's dressing room. "Ryan is on the second floor because he sort of doesn't like to mix with anyone on the show," Simon jokes.
As the host, Ryan is one of the first people to know which contestant is going home. This information is so top secret, he says he can't even share it with Simon. He'll have to wait and find out with the rest of America.
Typically, Simon says he doesn't see fellow judge Paula Abdul until seconds before the show starts. "[We] just like to keep a distance from each other," he says. "From her perspective, as much as mine."
Though some may say their onset banter is scripted, Simon says the tense moments between him, Ryan and Paula are real. "They used to be much more kind of grovel-ly toward me, but as the show has gotten more successful, they've gotten more confident," he says. "And [they] probably dislike me more now than they did seven years ago."
As loyal viewers know, every season of American Idol is different from the previous. Looking back, Simon says the show's fifth season became more of a popularity contest than a talent competition.
"I thought the most talented guy that year was a guy, Chris Daughtry, but the most popular was Taylor Hicks," he says. "Taylor was fine, but I like it to be a talent competition. I don't think the right guy won that year."
Simon says he thinks the sixth season was the weakest of them all. "I remember thinking, 'If this year is not better than last year, I think it's going to be over. I think [people] are going to lose interest,'" he says. "Then, as luck would have it, in my opinion, I think we've got more talent this year than we've ever had on any season."
Now that the field is narrowed down to 11 contestants, Simon says the clear frontrunner is 17-year-old David Archuleta. "But don't rule out Brooke White, David Cook and Jason Castro," he says. "Any one of these guys could win. I think it's going to get very, very interesting."
After years of looking for the next big thing, Simon says he's found his favorite discovery. Leona Lewis, the winner of the third season of The X Factor, British television's version of American Idol, has been compared to great American singers like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey...not too shabby for a 22-year-old.
Music has always been Leona's passion. Her parents struggled to send her to the prestigious Brit School—which has produced scores of British recording artists including Grammy winner Amy Winehouse. Later, Leona worked as a waitress and receptionist to help pay for studio time.
On the The X Factor, Leona established herself as the shining star among a field of 24. After winning the competition, she signed a recording contract with Simon and music mogul Clive Davis.
Her first single, "A Moment Like This," was downloaded 50,000 times in just 30 minutes—a world record-setting pace!
Ever since she was a kid singing into a hairbrush and putting on performances for her parents, Leona says she's dreamed of being where she is now.
And she says being compared to Mariah and Whitney is amazing. "It's a big compliment," she says. "They've had such long, successful careers. ... I can only hope to one day follow in their footsteps."
Simon says Leona truly blossomed over a few episodes of The X Factor. "On the third show, something changed," he says. "Overnight, I could see her transform from a great singer into a superstar. And she's one of the nicest people I have met in this business."
Simon's other talented find very nearly gave up on his passion. When Terry Fator was 10 years old, his life took a radically different turn during a visit to the library. He found a book on ventriloquism and a short time later began performing with puppets.
After more than 20 years, Terry was still performing, but he was anything but a star. "I did a performance for a thousand-seat theater in Dallas, and there was only one 12-year-old in the audience," he says. "It was so disheartening."
On the verge of hanging up his dummies for good, Terry's wife convinced him to keep going. He decided to go for his big break, competing on America's Got Talent in summer 2007. Despite their skepticism of all ventriloquists, Terry won over the judges and audience with a tight-lipped, jaw-dropping performance of Etta James's bluesy standard "At Last."
After weeks of competition, Terry was named winner of America's Got Talent and walked away with a $1 million prize.
For his Oprah Show debut, Terry brought along a few friends to help him out.
First, Terry and Walter T. Airedale sing Garth Brooks's "Friends in Low Places." Then, Terry and Julius get in the mood with Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On." Finally, Terry and Winston the Impersonating Turtle leave the audience dancing in the aisles with the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive."
"I'm having the time of my life," he says. "I didn't think America was going to vote a ventriloquist as the best act in the country."
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