Lionel Richie Is the ‘Adult in the Room’ on ‘American Idol’

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.”

Popular on Variety

More Music

  • Woodstock Festival of Arts and Music

    As Woodstock Turns 50, the Fest's 10 Most Sacred Music Moments (Watch)

    Cars were left abandoned along the New York Interstate. Electrical and speaker systems fuzzed and popped. Amps blew then went silent. The rain was endless as the mud sank deep and rank. Young children ran naked and dazed through crowds of strangers. Food was scarce. Water, unclean. Looking back, Woodstock seems a more apocalyptic, than [...]

  • 'ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band

    Film Review: 'ZZ Top: That Little Ol' Band From Texas'

    Settling in to watch “ZZ Top: That Little Ol’ Band From Texas,” you may have a burning question that applies to almost no other rock documentary, and that is: Who, exactly, are these guys? The ones behind the beards? If you’re old enough, of course, you probably know that ZZ Top started out, in 1969, [...]


    Jay-Z to Acquire Ownership Stake in NFL Team (Report)

    Jay-Z will soon acquire a “significant ownership interest” in an NFL team, TMZ reported on Friday. The team was not disclosed, but a source told the site the deal will happen in the “near future,” adding that the billionaire rapper “wants to continue to be a change agent for the NFL.” Jay-Z’s company, Roc Nation, [...]

  • Blake Shelton, Trace AdkinsCMA Music Festival

    Blake Shelton Takes a Shot at 'Old Town Road' in New Single

    Blake Shelton and Trace Adkins have just released a duet, “Hell Right,” that seems to have a beef with “Old Town Road.” But is it a light-hearted, maybe even affectionate slam — or should anyone read culture-war significance into the two country stars expressing a preference for Hank Williams Jr. over Lil Nas X, the breakout [...]

  • Led Zeppelin Stairway to Heaven

    Department of Justice Backs Led Zeppelin in ‘Stairway to Heaven’ Copyright Case

    The U.S. Department of Justice has weighed in on the next big music copyright case on the horizon following the Katy Perry “Dark Horse” decision, and taken Led Zeppelin’s side in the long-running copyright dispute that pits the writers of the group’s anthem “Stairway to Heaven” against the publishers of the earlier song “Taurus” by [...]

  • Teddy Riley Walk of Fame

    From Blackstreet to Hollywood Blvd. as Teddy Riley Receives a Star on the Walk of Fame

    Many musical artists are responsible for hits, whether recording and writing for themselves or producing smashes for others. Teddy Riley’s got the success, having fashioned platinum-plated R&B works for, and with, Bobby Brown, Michael Jackson, Keith Sweat, Doug E. Fresh and more since the mid-’80s, not to mention the music of his own slick soul [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content