Oprah: What happened when you got the call for American Idol?
Steven: I'm actually the one who put it out there. Before I went to Betty Ford [in 2009], I said to my manager, "Get me something to do when I come out. If I'm going in there, I want something to do when I get out." I'd been talking to Marti Frederiksen, who I write songs with, and it turned out he was writing songs with Kara [DioGuardi], who was one of the show's judges. And I went and wrote a song with them as soon as I got out of rehab. And they said, "You gotta do American Idol. You'd be a perfect judge."
Oprah: Is it true that when they called, you said, "Is it still getting good ratings?"
Steven: I did. I also thought, "Am I going to take over for this grump who likes to put people down?"
Oprah: You mean Simon Cowell?
Steven: Yes. The last thing I heard Simon say [on the show] was, "I don't like you, and I don't like country and western." I thought, "How dare you?" That's not what music's about. Not liking a genre? That's really not nice.
Oprah: So you were worried about replacing Simon—or not worried?
Steven: America is a crazy place, Oprah. I thought maybe they might like someone who went, "You suck, get outta here." They might be used to that particular character on the show. But then I thought, "You know, there's something about me that's enamoring." I thought I'd take a chance with compassion and love....
Oprah: And playfulness.
Steven: And maybe fun—you know, not too stupid—could be the new black. I'm constantly weighing that, because I can get stupid out there.
Oprah: The last time I interviewed Simon, he said he was running out of things to say to contestants. Sometimes when people are really bad—so bad that those of us at home think, "God, is this a plant?"—are you thinking, "What am I going to say?"
Steven: Yeah. I keep a few things in my top pocket. One of them is something my friend Mark Hudson said: "Did you eat a lot of paint chips as a child?" And "Did you bump your head on the way here?" Because believe me, some of them come in and I go, "You don't really think you can sing, do you?" And they'll look at me and go, "What? My grandfather told me I could sing, Mom told me I can sing. Are you saying I can't sing?" That's when my heart breaks.
Oprah: Is it hard for you to hurt people's feelings?
Steven: Yeah. And I'll tell you why. How many children have been sung to by their mothers when they're 3 years old? Even though their mother can't sing. They sing to them anyway—You are the angel of my life. I don't want to tell someone they can't sing and they go home and now they'll never sing to their baby.
Oprah: So when Rolling Stone ran that great review about you bringing Idol back, how did you feel?
Steven: I felt so good. You know, half the people we send home are twice as good as Janis Joplin was when she sang her first note. Or as I was. I look at these kids and I go, "Oh my God, I really sucked. I would have gotten thrown off the show."
Oprah: In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell talks about the 10,000 hours the Beatles put in before we even heard them. Ten thousand hours is what makes people worthy of idolizing. Do you feel that for a lot of these kids, more experience would make a difference?
Steven: Sure. All these kids need is two or three years of clubs. I see a glimmer in all of them. But remember, we're looking for the American Idol.
Oprah: You've been performing more than 40 years. What did it do for you when you realized that a whole new world had embraced you? Everyone from grandmothers to 7-year-olds.
Steven: It just gave me a whole bunch of confidence. More than I had before. I knew I had some sort of magic.
Next: Steven on forgiveness
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