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Mariah vs. Nicki: Who Judged 'American Idol' Best?

Claws came out as the divas revealed their judging styles; one shines brighter than the other.

Nicki Minaj Vs. Mariah Carey Split - H 2013
Michael Becker/FOX

The Mariah Carey-Nicki Minaj feud grabbed headlines for months before Wednesday's American Idol premiere, when we finally got to see an official glimpse of the alleged beef that led Carey to complain to Barbara Walters that she feared for her safety.

Rumblings of the alpha divas' disdain for one other began during season 12's New York City auditions in September and continued with that infamous cell phone video from the North Carolina tryouts where Minaj was shown swearing up a storm at Carey in an apparent ego-driven dispute over a performance. The next day, Walters relayed on The View that Minaj was overheard saying she'd "shoot" Carey and that Carey had hired extra security to thwart a potential attack. (Minaj's response: "LmAooooooooooo.")

Some Idol watchers sniffed a PR stunt meant to drum up renewed interest in a series rapidly losing cultural relevance and plagued by the troublesome "White Guy With Guitar Curse," which has churned out a forgettable stream of blah male winners who failed to reach Kelly Clarkson/Carrie Underwood heights of stardom.

PHOTOS: Nicki Minaj, Mariah Carey Search for a Winner

"These are two very, very spirited, strong individual performers who have had a lot of success that aren’t shy about their opinion, regardless of what it might be about,” Ryan Seacrest said Wednesday on the Today show.

Later that night: The first footage rolled of Carey, Minaj and Keith Urban on the judges panel (check out THR's recap here), revealing Urban as the earnest, aw-shucks nice guy stuck between two pop stars engaged in a chilly battle to dominate the panel. The interaction between Carey and Minaj was less of a hair-pulling throwdown than passive-aggressive power struggle.

Sure, they exchanged superficial smiles but there was a visible tension as Carey -- the wholesome R&B queen bee -- watched her flamboyant rival steal the show. 

Brash, blunt and hilarious, Minaj addressed the aspiring Idols as if she were one of them. When a tone-deaf contender named James was given the thumbs-down after a spectacularly grating rendition of Justin Bieber's "One Less Lonely Girl," the "Starships" singer stood up to give him a kiss on the cheek to soften the blow, saying: "Believe me when I say that you are essential -- just not for this competition."

Meanwhile, Carey's advice was to try DJing -- not a bad idea, but one that seemed to come from left field. 

There were more Carey fans among the crop of wannabes. Minaj appeared annoyed at one singer's praise of Carey, making an exaggerated face caught on camera. Carey claimed dibs on giving feedback to said singer, 28-year-old Tenna Torres of Queens, and that clearly riled Minaj, who immediately began talking over Carey.

STORY: 'American Idol' Season 12 Premiere Recap

"Do you ever watch Mean Girls?" Randy Jackson, stirring the pot, asked another contestant who had no idea what he was talking about. Minaj laughed it off.

If Britney Spears (dearly departed from The X Factor) had joined Idol instead, then Carey could be the fun, crazy judge with a well-known Hello Kitty fetish. But with Minaj in the picture, spouting deliciously spontaneous bon mots such as "Your range is better than Mariah's!" to a hopeful with a screeching singing voice, Mimi seems uncertain about where she fits in on the panel. 

Known for her seemingly endless alter egos, it's ironic that Minaj has forged a strong and authentic identity while Carey -- the Grammy winner who famously went to rehab after a public meltdown and named one of her twins Moroccan -- is more reserved by comparison, letting her much-hyped frenemy dole out hugs along with Simon Cowell-esque attitude and decisiveness. ("Do we really have to hear another one?" Minaj shouted aloud after an auditioner begged to perform another song.)
More likely, Carey's uncharacteristic restraint is a result of the fact that she can't get in a word in edge-wise. And who could, with Minaj in the mix?
What Carey exudes in small bursts is Paula Abdul-like empathy, as when a cancer survivor with an amputated leg was not given a pass to Hollywood. "I feel for that kid," said Urban, while Carey seconded: "I do too." And she meant it.
If Carey wants to preserve her place on the throne, and there's no doubt that throne-preservation is something that's important to her, then she could do well to play up her natural warmth while de-bland-ifying her tepid commentary so as to not allow Minaj to hog all the spotlight. 
Promos for Thursday night's episode hint at a Carey-Minaj confrontation that may or may not shed insight on the backstage drama enveloping the pair. Those Idol producers are a cunning bunch, and most certainly knew that manufactured or real, sparks would fly between the eccentric music legend and the bold Billboard chart-topper, a la super-dramatic showdown between country star Rayna James and her thunder-stealer Juliette Barnes on TV's Nashville. (Not that Idol's diva fireworks are working wonders in the ratings department right out of the gate.)
Tell us, Idol Worshippers: who judged best last night? What can Mariah do to outshine Nicki? How is relatively "normal" Keith Urban going to get through this season in one piece?
Twitter: @ErinLCarlson
Email: erin.carlson@thr.com