The execs at ABC didn’t lie awake all night long worrying whether Lionel Richie would be a worthy addition to the “American Idol” judges’ panel.
“Whether you’re eight or 88, you feel as if he has been a part of your life,” says Rob Mills, SVP of alternative series, specials and late night. “He is on the Mount Rushmore of iconic hitmakers. So when you put that on TV, there absolutely is a sense of warmth and recognition that you couldn’t get with anyone else.”
Mills even suggests that Richie’s appearance on the show will make up for the memoir he hasn’t written: “Lionel has so much knowledge that he is imparting. This is his televised version of his autobiography. He wants to make sure the next generation of Idols are the keepers of the flame.”
But where’s the drama in this docudrama? In the early stages of production of the “American Idol” reboot, a potential scandal — of sorts — emerged, when a TMZ report alleged that there wasn’t nearly enough animosity among the new judges. That wasn’t totally unexpected, as no one imagines Lionel Richie suddenly going full Simon Cowell on his fellow jurists.
“I don’t think we have to fight,” says the singer. “As far as the shock and awe of ‘I don’t like you, I hate you’ — eh, you probably won’t get that.” Which is not to say that everyone’s on the same personality page. “I found out early on that I’m the adult in the room,” Richie says. “And I find it hilarious, some of the things Katy [Perry] and Luke [Bryan] say that I would never say on national television, and it comes out of their mouths so easily because that’s their generation. I’m a little bit more guarded on what I’m saying. I think their job is to see if they can get me to faint before the show is over.”
Mills confirms that dynamic: “I think that of the three of them, Lionel is probably the most mature in the room. That said, he has a wicked sense of humor and can be just as playful as Katy and Luke. In the third episode, the judges all give each other gifts and Lionel gives Katy and Luke an Afro wig and mustache.”
The ABC exec is confident Richie’s geniality won’t be a liability on a show that’s often been fueled by irascibility. “His being nice is not shtick,” Mills says. “He genuinely believes you can be successful and still be a decent human being. But there is also a side to him that is critical, and he is hardest on himself. This is his first time in a role like this, and he wants to be as legendary a TV presence as he is a music presence. He will be as critical of himself and the potential Idols as he has to be to be successful.”
Even though everyone, Richie included, wants to play up the idea that the singer can put aside his genial persona when he needs to, Richie takes some pride in how having an all-artists panel on the new “Idol” fosters more empathy with the contestants.
“Because we’re artists, when we tell them no, we all know what ‘no’ sounds like,” he says. “We know where the pain and the struggle is. Basically they’re getting free psychiatric help from us before they get further into the business.”