'American Idol' Returns: Mariah, Minaj and a Make-or-Break Moment

9:00 AM PST 01/03/2013 by Shirley Halperin
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Fox execs reveal details in their fight to reignite TV's most important show as the diva skirmish backstage simmers on slow boil.

As for Carey? "I was on the fence about the whole thing," she tells THR. "I got approached by all the shows." Ultimately, she said yes to Idol with the urging of her husband, America's Got Talent host Nick Cannon on rival network NBC. "He said I should do it because it's the top, it's the cream of the crop. And I felt like, 'Do the show that's produced massive stars who have had major careers.' " On the panel, Carey serves as the music industry lifer but says she generally focuses on vocal chops. "I know everyone's like, 'We can't have schmaltzy answers,' " she says. "Well guess what? Some people still want to be inspired. Some people need to have that kind of validation and to feel like, if this person did it, then I can. And I do have one of those stories."

STORY: 'American Idol': Mariah Carey 'Had Reservations' About Joining Judges' Panel

Minaj also consulted those close to her. "I had a lot of talks with people -- my family, my best friends, my label, Lil Wayne, management and then the producers," she says. In the end, it was Darnell who helped sway her. Adds the 30-year-old: "He was so lovable and made me feel so comfortable and confident. He kept saying, 'I promise we're going to protect you; you're going to love it, we're a big family.' "

Among Minaj's concerns: her cred in the rap world, for one. As an artist signed to Cash Money Records -- home to her mentor Lil Wayne, Drake, Jay Sean and DJ Khaled and a label that has sold more than 78 million albums since its founding in 1991 -- she points to "a judgmental culture in hip-hop," where "sometimes you are afraid of being too famous because it's almost, like, is that even cool? Being that accessible, someone you see on TV every week? I never pictured myself as that type of person. I'm still surprised that I decided to do it."

Probably not as surprised as Idol's incoming diva Carey was to hear of Minaj's hiring in September. According to multiple sources, the singer -- who has sold 200 million albums worldwide since her 1990 debut and is mom to 20-month-old twins Monroe and Moroccan (they've yet to visit the Idol set because "they're a little big now; they run around, and it can be dangerous," she says) -- was promised top billing as Idol's queen bee, with a J.Lo-style focus on her pedigree as a vocalist, songwriter and producer. And deservedly so: Carey's songs are among the most-performed by Idol contestants, the vast majority of whom fall far short of her five-octave range.

STORY: 'American Idol': Nicki Minaj Addresses 'White Guy With Guitar' Curse

If there was to be a fourth judge hired, an insider tells THR, Carey was "pretty much assured" it would not be another female. Enter Minaj, part Harajuku riot girl, part cartoon caricature, all curves and sizzle and a hitmaker in her own right who boasts endorsements by Pepsi, M.A.C Cosmetics and Adidas.

And, as Carey saw for herself firsthand during the North Carolina auditions in October, Minaj also has a bit of a temper. In a grainy cell phone video, beamed around the world by TMZ and countless online outlets, the two judges are shown getting into a heated exchange, during which Minaj seemingly calls Carey "your royal f--ing highness" while Carey complains of being subjected to the tantrum of "a 3-year-old." Those were the milder epithets. According to Carey, speaking with Barbara Walters on The View the morning after the footage leaked, there might have been a threat -- possibly verbal, definitely perceived.

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Looking back on the incident, which began as an impassioned disagreement over an audition, is not exactly a point of pride for any of the involved parties. When asked about the exchange, Carey says she has "yet to figure out" why the situation escalated as it did. "Sometimes things get heated for their own reasons," she evades, adding, "I don't think the panel has an issue." Minaj flat-out refuses to discuss it. (Worth noting: She also had a war of words with Tyler after he remarked that, as an Idol judge, Minaj "would have sent [Bob Dylan] to a cornfield"; the rapper interpreted the comment as racist and went on the offensive on Twitter, writing, "Why? black? rapper? what? go f-- yourself and worry about yourself babe. ... Lets [sic] make [Steven] a shirt that says 'No Coloreds Allowed' then escort him down 2 Barbara Walters so he can tell [her] how he was threatened w/guns.")

STORY: 'American Idol's' Nicki Minaj Fires Back at Steven Tyler Over 'Racist Comment'

Warwick says he was "quite surprised" at the Minaj-Carey altercation "and how it took off the way it did." The TV veteran, a friend of Lythgoe's going back to their childhood in Liverpool during the 1960s, found the tussle "unnerving," telling THR: "I'm a family man with three kids. If they acted like that, it would be, 'Upstairs to bed!' Personally, I'm not over the moon that it happened. But if you asked me, as a professional, is it good for the show? The answer would probably be yes."

It's precisely that school of thought that prompts Idol fans, pundits and casual viewers alike to wonder whether the production itself is responsible for leaking the fight. To that, Lythgoe, who is seen in the one-minute clip trying to defuse the situation, has a laugh. "I don't think I would've done it so far away from the beginning of the season," he says. "Plus, it was about the judges and not the contestants, and I'm totally against that. So, no."

For good measure, Lythgoe assures that, unlike Australia's broadcast of American Idol, which is playing up the "War of the Divas" storyline (see sidebar) in a promo, he has no plans to use the footage in advance of or during the season.

STORY: 'American Idol' Ugliness: Steven Tyler Apologizes to Nicki Minaj, Insists He's 'Not a Racist'

Further, since everyone who works on Idol has to sign a confidentiality agreement that states in plain language that any video or audio of the show is proprietary material, an internal investigation was launched and, while the culprit never was identified, the producers came to the conclusion that it was shot from a monitor most likely by a local day hire in Charlotte, N.C. It's a problem that persists even at Hollywood Week, where a production assistant abruptly was fired and tossed from the premises Dec. 15 for snapping a photo from the side of the stage.

Darnell downplays the media ruckus. "People were talking about the way Simon Cowell and Paula feuded for years," he says. "Let's be honest, big shows get people talking, so any little thing that happens becomes controversial." Asked whether he would want Cowell back on the Idol panel, Darnell hesitates before answering: "I love Simon. I think he is an incredible judge, and that's an interesting question, but I like where he's at on X Factor."

But fight or no fight, the point persists: Idol is a family show with a strong Southern voting block that is notoriously conservative; will its audience embrace an envelope-pushing rapper with a larger-than-life persona? Even Minaj herself admits that when prodded, "I am scary and intimidating. I definitely demand respect. I'm also a sweet person. I'm a loving person. But I don't want to be f--ed with."

STORY: Nicki Minaj in New 'American Idol' Promo: No One Comes Close to This Show (Video)

To that end, one needn't think back all that far -- to the 2012 Grammys, for instance, when Minaj presented an exorcism-themed performance of her song "Roman Holiday" after walking the red carpet wearing a fire-red cloak and accompanied by a pope lookalike, or to any of her videos -- to wonder: Would Minaj have to tone down her outre look to fit the Idol mold? "I could think of at least one other person that shows more cleavage and skin than me," jabs Minaj, clearly insulted by the insinuation and rolling her inchlong false lashes in the direction of the dressing room two doors down: Carey's. 

"The perception of Nicki is unfair, really," defends Warwick. "Everyone thought she was just a daft, half-educated rapper. But she has got a heart, and it's starting to show, along with her intelligence, which threw some of us as well. And her eloquence and her grasp of what's going on. I think she'll surprise a lot of people." (But it must be said that, according to Idol staffers, Minaj has been late to the set every day.)

STORY: Randy Jackson in New 'American Idol' Promo: 'We Are the Picasso' (Video)

On the days this reporter visited Idol's "Hollywood" set, everyone was -- no surprise -- on their best behavior and looked to be getting along famously. Minaj, seated on the far left (in a new twist, the judges change position daily so that the panel "doesn't become staid," explains Darnell) and wearing an unexpected pair of bright red fuzzy slippers with pom-poms along with her form-fitting outfit that seemed to match her own description of herself as sweet, caring, nurturing, smart and sassy, surveyed the final picks -- one a Muslim contestant who could easily double for a post-conversion Cat Stevens/Yusuf Islam and has been nicknamed (or "Nicki-named") "The Turbanator" (she refers to her favorites as "my darling"). In the final leg of a long journey that saw 100 contestants cut down to 40, she delivered a speech that was downright inspired.

As Warwick recalls: "Nicki said, 'You've seen the heartbreak of the kids who have been turned away today. … I've put it into perspective how much this meant to them. You are the lucky ones. You are the ones who are here. Don't throw it away. Don't treat it like it's not important. This is a rocket ship to stardom if you can ride the rocket.' She put it better than any script could have been written." (Asked whether he's seen Minaj and Carey interact at all, Warwick answers, "Not a great deal, no.")

STORY: New 'American Idol' Promo Puts Mariah Carey Front and Center (Video)

For her part, Carey, alongside Jackson, seems to be relishing the role of seasoned industry player, while Urban is described by the producers as the voice of "sanity" on the panel. Indeed, his take on why it's worth the judges' time to lead these wide-eyed hopefuls into the murky waters of the music business when albums no longer sell like they used to and, thanks to rampant piracy, singles and streams have yet to make up the difference, is as pragmatic as it comes. "The business is changing right now," says Urban. "And the beauty of it is that the power is going back to the artist -- they have far more creative control, more ability to get their art out and find their audience on their terms."

(Ever the dogged optimist, Jackson, 56, name-checks the year's top sellers: "Mumford & Sons is making noise selling 600,000 records the first week, Taylor Swift did 1.2 million, Adele is going on 25 million worldwide and eight Grammys. Success still happens.")

Adds Urban: "Plus, the likelihood of actually making money, strangely enough, is greater today than back when artists got enslaved into record company deals. But ultimately, it shouldn't be about fame or money. It should be your calling. This is what you do. You don't have a choice."

STORY: 'American Idol': Keith Urban on His 'Authentic' Judging Style

Lofty words to live by, but you could say the same of American Idol, which remains the network's shining jewel by sheer power of its numbers. There's not a question of whether the show should continue, it simply does. The goal at this juncture -- after 11 years, some 150 finalists, 10 judges and hundreds of thousands of auditions, not to mention those other shows nipping at Idol's heel (both Lythgoe and Warwick insist they never watch their rivals, even for homework's sake) -- is very much the same as it was back in 2002: to up the game.

"Competition does make you pay attention more," says Seacrest. "Whether it be these performers who are competing against each other, or us looking within our genre of television, it does make you get better. You're forced to improve."

Adds Jackson: "I believe in the process. I think there's at least three or four of these kids that have huge careers ahead of them who will go on until they decide to stop. I think we're the only show of its kind that can say that."

Twitter: @shirleyhalperin

For a daily dose of American Idol news, check out THR's Idol Worship blog.

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