What was then called “American Idol: The Search for a Superstar” debuted on Fox on June 11, 2002, with two hosts: Radio/TV personality Ryan Seacrest and comedian Brian Dunkelman.
The series immediately set itself apart as a different kind of talent show with its two-hour audition episode. Not only would viewers see promising new singers, but they’d also get more than a taste of the delusionally bad ones, followed by brutally honest comments from unheard-of British judge Simon Cowell, who unlike the more charitably positive Paula Abdul, had an especially withering knack for crushing aspirants’ dreams.
“The idea that people would tell the truth and just say ‘You are bad,’ there was nothing like that on TV,” says Richard Rushfield, author of “American Idol: The Untold Story.” “People were stunned. The crew will tell you that they were stunned when they first heard this.”
More than 10,000 auditioners from seven cities were whittled down to a top 30, and from there a top 10 was chosen by viewers from three semifinal rounds and a wild card show. It became clear early on that a frontrunner was emerging in handsome, curly-fro’d Georgia-born crooner Justin Guarini, to the extent that producers feared a distinctively suspense-less run for Guarini to the title.
But Texas native Kelly Clarkson, a pigtailed, round-faced bundle of energy with a soaring voice — but who wasn’t even predicted by Cowell, Abdul and third judge Randy Jackson to make it past the top 30 — began making an impact.
“I remember when Kelly sang ‘Stuff Like That There,’ ” recalls TV Guide television critic Matt Roush, referring to the big band-themed episode that, after a succession of pop-oriented weeks, cannily separated the versatile vocal talents from more rigidly contemporary contestants. “The song really made her come alive, and it came at the point when you were learning as you went about your allegiances to different singers.”
The season’s biggest shocker came when Maryland-born Tamyra Gray, a poised, gifted singer many believed had a shot at being one of the final two, only came in fourth. Viewers got the surest sense yet that what happened on performance night was one thing, but voting results were everything.
“Things like that established ‘Idol”s authenticity to the audience,” Rushfield says. “They could see that, ‘Yes, we are actually controlling this.’ ”
Guarini and Clarkson made it to the September finale, which featured each singer performing the anthemic tuner “A Moment Like This,” intended to be the winner’s inaugural single ahead of a full album release. The results show, which pulled in more than 22 million viewers and earned “American Idol” its third perch atop the weekly ratings, crowned an emotional Clarkson the winner.
“Kelly created the entire ‘Idol’ narrative,” Rushfield says. “This was a competition built for Justin Guarini to win, and then this little girl, who wasn’t a bombshell, came out of nowhere. And that’s been the story every single year, of the little kid from middle America who no one sees coming.”
TOP 5 HIGHLIGHTS
- Auditioner Tamika Bush sets an early standard in reacting to the harsh truth when she tells “American Idol” cameras, “That British judge that’s on the end? He’s an ass, and he can kiss mine.”
- Since her audition wasn’t shown during the audition episode, Kelly Clarkson‘s debut for viewers was her electric version of Aretha Franklin’s “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” during the semifinals.
- On a night dedicated to big band-era music, Clarkson cements her competition potency with a rousing, transporting version of the Betty Hutton classic “Stuff Like That There.”
- Tamyra Gray delivers a stirring rendition of “A House Is Not a Home” on Burt Bacharach night, bringing Paula Abdul to tears and causing Simon Cowell to call it “one of the best performances on TV I’ve ever seen.”
- Kelly is announced as winning the very first “American Idol,” and adorably chokes up while she belts out a victory lap version of “A Moment Like This.”
After four successful albums, Clarkson — who recently turned 29 — is the second bestselling “American Idol” winner in terms of U.S. sales, and could see that position rise when her fifth RCA album is released this fall. This spring she had a No. 1 country music hit (the third “Idol” contestant to do so) with “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” a duet with Jason Aldean, which she performed on “American Idol” in April. Clarkson also recently scored a 2011 CMT Award nomination for Collaborative Video of the Year. As for whether the hit collaboration with Aldean indicates a turn toward country for the Grammy-winning Clarkson, RCA Music Group exec VP Tom Corson says, “Not particularly. It’s too early to give too many specifics, because we’re still recording. But it’ll have great ballads, and fun up-tempo