Brian Dunkleman was Ryan Seacrest’s original co-host on the first season of “American Idol” in 2002. Since his departure, Seacrest become a global star, leaving many to wonder, what happened to Dunkleman — did he quit or was he fired?
In this exclusive tell-all written for Variety, Dunkleman reveals his perspective on landing the job, exploring the first season and leaving the show. (This column has been slightly edited for grammatical purposes.)
“I hope you’re ready for your life to change,” a woman exclaimed in a hushed whisper as I exited the front doors of building one at the Fox lot. Was she an executive there? Maybe Fremantle? She could have been a cashier from the commissary for all I knew — a cashier with the inexplicable inside knowledge that I was about to become the host of what would go on to be the biggest show in the history of modern television.
At that moment, I didn’t know which end was up. My head was completely swimming. My stomach was in knots. All I knew was that I needed to get to my car as quickly as possible before the uncontrollable sobbing began. Maybe it was my body’s inevitable release of all the accumulated stress from just finishing my third high-pressure audition in as many days. Maybe it was knowing that I was about to start making $17,000 a week, an amount that I would later learn was relatively low according to industry standards. But considering the fact that my car at the time wouldn’t go in reverse, it might as well have been a million. Parallel parking was about to become a lot easier. Maybe it was my recent entry into therapy, where I finally began to deal with the death of my father, almost twenty years after the fact. A process that felt like I had been completely destroyed, then slowly reassembled, piece by piece, for less than a year. I was still quite a few pieces short. Or perhaps it was the year and a half of extremely heavy drug use, which had wreaked havoc on my brain and depleted my body, leaving my nerves frayed and my emotions completely raw — a year and a half stint that had ended just three months prior.
The correct answer is probably all of the above. But the answer to the bigger question was no — no, nice cashier/executive lady. I wasn’t even close to being ready for how much my life was about to change.
Fifteen years later, looking back at that summer, it almost doesn’t seem real. Like it happened to someone else. Considering the mental and emotional state I was in, it’s incredible I even made it through that whole first season. It’s such a blur now. There are some memories that are still so vivid: having a dance off with Paula Abdul at a club in Miami; getting hammered with the executive producer at a strip club in Chicago, telling me in the back seat of the cab that “Fox thinks you’re going to be a huge f–king star”; being on stage at the Kodak theater, just a few feet away from Kelly Clarkson giving a goosebump-inducing performance, being positive that she was about to become a star.
Did I quit? Did I get fired? All these years later, I still don’t know for sure.
I probably beat them to the punch. I wanted to have an acting career, and I knew that leaving when I did would give me the best shot of accomplishing that. Still working on it. But the undeniable truth is, I just didn’t have the wisdom at the time to handle what was happening. Do I regret not remaining on the show now that it’s coming to an end? Yes. Especially when I open my bank statements. But without the benefit of hindsight, I would have done the exact same thing.
All I know for sure, is that I was a part of history. I made it. Regardless of how history judges me, nobody can ever take that away from me. And as far as that acting career? Well, I ain’t dead yet.