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Book Review: 'American Idol: The Untold Story' Misses the Right Notes

“American Idol The Untold Story”
M Becker/American Idol 2009/Getty Images for Fox

Just in time for Season 10, a little history and a little insight and not enough numbers.

With all of American Idol’s make-or-break changes this season, it’s a good time for a thorough assessment of the talent show’s first decade. American Idol: The Untold Story, by former Los Angeles Times and current Daily Beast writer Richard Rushfield, mostly tells the story from the perspective of Simon Fuller and Nigel Lythgoe, the show’s creators, and Simon Cowell, its most famous judge. Rushfield is a longtime Idol authority, but it is hard to tell whom this slim, shiny book is meant for: It’s not flashy and photo-filled enough to be bait for core fans --  who already know many of the stories here -- and it’s not hefty enough to be the deep business dig the phenomenon deserves.

The first half is dedicated to the genius of the big three.  Each is presented as a precocious hustler with a golden ear: Fuller as the Spice Girls svengali, Lythgoe as the man who discovered Idol’s forerunner Popstars in New Zealand and Cowell as the lowbrow genius behind TV/music crossover hit albums by Teletubbies and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.

There’s no surprise in the Cowell that Rushfield presents, but he does bring him to life -- by turns brilliant and exasperating, self-serving and disarmingly honest. Rushfield sums him up well: “If ever a person could be prepared for fame and all that came with it, it was Simon Cowell. … For 20 years, Simon Cowell had been involved in every aspect of the shadowy business of creating stars. … He had seen how the magical alchemy could transform people into stars, and he had seen how it could go wrong.”

The book is not Fox-authorized, which may explain why the show’s other well-known personalities play only supporting roles. Paula Abdul is a wacky sparring partner, and Ryan Seacrest is Robin to Cowell’s Batman. Nevermind Randy Jackson; he gets less space than Season 1 co-host Brian Dunkleman, who receives a sympathetic retelling of the personal and career collapse that followed his did-he-jump-or-was-he-pushed exit. Kara DioGuardi and Ellen DeGeneres get mere cameos.

There are juicy tidbits: how fellow contestants disliked Carrie Underwood; the hidden-in-plain-sight lyrics on Kelly Clarkson’s debut album about the love triangle among her, Justin Guarani and Tamyra Gray; the hangover that might have cost Bo Bice the title in Season 4. Some big stories get glossed over, notably Clay Aiken’s makeover and the noise about his sexuality.  

The most interesting chapter looks at the Idol "ministry" of Leesa Bellesi and her husband, Denny, the pastor of a California evangelical church. Leesa had a vision that God “called” her to minister Idol contestants, and she quickly befriended Season 5 runner-up Katharine McPhee, prayed with Abdul and became a regular backstage presence during Season 6. Which leads to a fascinating assessment of the importance of evangelical Christians to the show: Rushfield shows that religion has been an undercurrent from the Jeremiah 29:11 bracelets worn by McPhee and Season 6 winner Jordin Sparks to Danny Gokey singing "Jesus Take the Wheel" -- the only disappointment being the lack of ratings and demographic information.

The financial story is also neglected. We know how much Cowell and Abdul made but not much else. Cowell drew nearly $40 million in Season 8, Abdul a measly $1.8 million, and presumably Jackson does it for free because there is no mention of his salary. Beyond a few statistics about album sales, postseason Idol tour fees and a brief “Where are they now?” section, Rushfield provides few hard numbers, ignoring that the world of concert revenue, endorsements, spinoffs and iTunes downloads adds up to an estimated $7 billion industry and that Cowell’s salary represents a fraction of his overall take.

In the end, Rushfield leaves us with the Idol magic as he watches 16,000 line up for Season 10 auditions: "Somewhere in one of those crowds, lined up into the distance … may have stood the person who would change the show … and keep the dream alive for yet another generation of dreamers."      

Courtesy of Hyperion Books

By Richard Rushfield
Hyperion $24.99
288 pages