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'American Idol' Premiere: The Top 5 Moments

From Steven Tyler hitting on jailbait contestants to a show-stopping performance from standout David Leathers Jr., the 11th season opened with some especially buzz-worthy vignettes.

American Idol Season 11 Premiere - H 2012
Michael Becker/FOX

"Where Were YOU When it all started?" is the question Ryan Seacrest had for all of us last night.

I actually had to stop and think about that for a minute. Ten years ago, it was the summer of 2002. That's right, American Idol started as a sleepy summer program -- something to get us through until all the real shows debuted in the fall.

But then, something happened: the Kelly Clarkson/Justin Guarini showdown just before Labor Day weekend. I remember because I know exactly where I was: in Los Angeles on vacation, and by the time the show moved its finale to the Kodak Theatre, I was no better than the rest of America. I made my husband run with me to the theater and we waited until American Idol let out. I hugged Guarini's father. I stalked Tori Spelling as she made her way out of the venue, reporters yelling that all-important question: "Tori, who do you think will win?" She flipped her hair in that fabulous Tori way, and said, “I love them both!”

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So began a love affair with the little show that could, from that very first season which Clarkson referred to as “Ghetto Idol" to the Fox series' 11th year, now underway. (Idol alum Nikki McKibbin, second-runner up in 2002, told me about the "Since U Been Gone" singer's then-nickname for the show.)

We were reminded of Idol's staying power and influence Wednesday night, with a twist: footage of this year’s contestants tuning in when they were merely preschoolers. There have been many imitators -- we now have The Voice, and ex-judges Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul on X Factor --  but this is the original, with our dawg Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez, and Steven Tyler.

How we missed them: Tyler's ever-present critique of “beautiful." Lopez's fabulous hair. Those Jackson-isms, like “dude.” This is our first love. THIS is American Idol.

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Our journey began last night in Savannah, Georgia (with seaon-10 finalist Lauren Alaina's song “Georgia Peaches” prominently showcased). There were so many moments to choose from: there was the Seacrest lookalike, Shaun Kraisman, who came off like a game-show host as he aped Seacrest’s signature lines (“Dim the lights”), and couldn’t sing a lick. There was Tyler cutting off Lopez, declaring to a contestant “you’re in” before she quipped that she, in fact, hadn’t voted (oops).  West African Mawuena Kodjo provided comic relief with his awful Rascal Flatts cover. (Really, Idol? Subtitles? He was speaking English).

Those antics aside, here are my top five moments from our first night of auditions:

  1. Tyler hits on teenagers: Ladies, erase those recent pictures we saw of the Aerosmith singer on the beach from your memories. According to each and every contestant, Tyler is smoking hot! As one mother put it, he’s sensitive and hot, and her daughter loves his “big 10-inch record." One girl claimed he was going to be her “future ex-husband,” and it seems like Tyler's derriere is getting a lot of play this season. However, one father -- former St. Louis Cardinals left hander Joe Magrane -- did not seem amused. The baseball dad, who pitched for the Cardinals in the 1987 World Series, came into the judges' room to shake hands following daughter Shannon's audition -- when he asked Tyler how he was enjoying Savannah, the rocker responded: "It's hot, humid and happening, just like your daughter." I was sure Magrone would bean Tyler in the head, but all was forgiven when Shannon was put through to the Hollywood round following a confident performance.
  2. David Leathers Jr. sings Michael Jackson. At first, I thought he was being cocky, telling us that he beat Scotty McCreery in a local contest years ago. Then he sang. Leathers has the chops to back up his bravado, and looks much younger than his 17 years. That voice, however. It was impressive that when Lopez challenged him to conjure a Jackson song and Leathers delivered something other than “ABC.” He gave a pitch-perfect performance of “Never Can Say Goodbye,” and earned his golden ticket.
  3. Gabby Carruba, Tap Dance Idol. The 16-year old from Connecticut can’t seem to figure out if she’s a better fit for American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance. But the girl can sing: her version of Maroon 5’s “Sunday Morning” put Tyler into a trance, scoring her a pass to Hollywood.
  4. Amy Brumfield, Tent Girl.  The 24-year-old, who hails from Tennessee, had the sob story of the night: she lives in a tent. The woods are her bathroom, she cooks by a fire and her boyfriend’s mother helped put together her Idol audition outfit. When she sang Alicia Keys' “Superwoman,” it was hard not to root for her. Lopez even coined a new word to describe her -- “Hipsy." Hippy/Gypsy, get it? She got through.
  5. Could we have another country showdown this year? Flip a coin on two auditions: Phillip Phillips, the guitar-playing good old boy from Georgia (see video below), and Lauren Mink, who auditioned with a Gwyneth Paltrow song, “Country Strong.” Mink reminds me of Carrie Underwood with a dash of Brooke White’s genial charm (she works with special needs adults, and seems like a generally decent person), while Phillips has the Scotty factor (he makes similar guitar faces). But, boy, was his take on Jackson’s Thriller pretty killer. I’d keep an eye on these two and see if they make it through to the finals.

It does seem like we have a lot of country artists coming through, but this was Georgia. Thursday we have Pittsburgh and several more cities to go before we find our next Adam Lambert or James Durbin, right? What were your favorite moments, Idol worshippers?