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'X Factor': What the 'American Idol' Alums Think of Simon Cowell's New Show

Among the 12 million viewers watching are a few dozen who know better than anyone what the "X Factor" contestants are experiencing. We tracked down some beloved "Idol" grads, including season 5 winner Taylor Hicks and season 3 diva La Toya London, for their take on Fox's freshman show.

American Idol X-Factor Contestants Split - P 2011

Among the 12 million viewers who are watching The X Factor every week is a select group of people who know better than anyone what the contestants on the freshman series are experiencing: the American Idol alumni, who have gone through a very similar experience themselves. (According to an insider, a few Idol grads even tried out for X Factor this year, among them: season 6's Lakisha Jones and Haley Scarnato and season 7's David Hernandez.) 

What do the Idols like about X Factor and what do they hate? What were their expectations for the new Fox show and what do they think of the judges they know personally, Simon Cowell and Paula Abdul? The Hollywood Reporter polled a number of former finalists to see what they thought of the newest talent competition series on the block and discovered that Idols have a wide range of opinions.

Says season 5 winner Taylor Hicks: “Anytime there is a show on TV that gives an opportunity for undiscovered talent to come out and have a shot at showing their talents, I'm all for it. The X Factor does just that.” Season 7’s Michael Johns says that after more than a month on the air, the show has “gradually found its footing,” but that in the beginning “the auditions, boot camp and group numbers all felt like Idol, even with a live audience.” Season 3 finalist Jon Peter Lewis offers that “it’s a more hip version of what American Idol used to be” but also adds, that “X Factor always seemed like Simon Cowell’s middle finger to the producers of Idol and an excuse to make money off of himself and for himself, rather than someone else.”

OK, so not everyone who’s been through a version of Cowell’s boot camp has warm, fuzzy feelings about what many consider Idol, the sequel, but from their perspective, they have some fascinating observations. Read on…

The Hollywood Reporter: Now that X Factor has launched, is the show what you expected?

Taylor Hicks (Season 5, winner): “It is what I expected, which is basically American Idol with a few minor changes. And I did notice that Simon's a bit nicer -- it’s his show, ha! But with that said, the show is definitely in its first season, and is still finding itself."

La Toya London (Season 3, 4th place): “It’s not what I expected. I thought it was going to be full of contestants that could do everything but perform miracles. However, to my surprise it's about discovering great raw vocal ability.”

Michael Johns (Season 7, 8th place): “Since I’ve followed the X Factor in the UK, I sort of knew what was coming.  So yes, it was pretty much what I expected. Simon is always over-the-top with his production."

Elliott Yamin (Season 5, 3rd place): “I didn’t really expect much. It feels like network TV is becoming over-saturated with these type of shows. And if they’re not truly different, what’s going to keep someone engaged?”

Scott MacIntyre (Season 8, 8th place): “I actually expected it to be a little more cut-throat.”

Brandon Rogers (Season 6, 12th place): “I expected it to be over the top and it seems to be living up to at least that.”

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THR: What do you like about X Factor U.S.?

Didi Benami (Season 9, 10th place): “I like that the judges are working with the kids and mentoring them, unlike on Idol. I think that is a great setup and it has to be more appealing for the contestants to know that there is someone gunning for you on the judging panel. It also makes for less confusion in a time where there is so much that’s new and unlike anything you've ever done before." 

Nick Mitchell (Season 8, Top 36): “It’s like a Broadway show turned into a big Las Vegas production. X Factor has taken a formula that has worked forever -- Star Search, Idol, America’s Got Talent -- and just trumped all that with its production. To have the auditions on an arena stage is insane. The beginning rounds of X Factor are on the level of other shows' finales! And I love how there is no age limit! Comedy, television, movies award people of a "certain age" all the time. It's nice to see someone in their 40's getting their time to shine! Go Stacy Francis, love you!”

Hicks: “I really like the fact that there's no age limit, because as Susan Boyle proved, it doesn't really matter how old you are or what you look like.  And I enjoy the lighting of the X Factor stage. I think it’s the best-lit set of all primetime reality talent shows, which can also cover up the fact that you can't sing and is a subtle way to keep someone on the show as well. The production of each performance is great.”

Yamin: “I don’t love the show, to be honest, but I do like and appreciate that it gives talented folks -- who otherwise wouldn’t have an opportunity to showcase their talents -- a platform to get in front of a national audience.”

Johns: “After all the glitz and glamour, it is really about the talent. You can throw as much money behind a show, but if you don't have great singers with chemistry, the audience doesn't care. X Factor has some truly great voices and I'm loving the little rapper dude [Astro] and the Joe Cocker guy [Josh Krajcik]. So good!”

Jackie Tohn (Season 8, Top 36): "The curly-haired burrito slinger who sings like Ray Lamontagne meets Michael Bolton [Josh Krajcik]. And that awesome 14-year-old blonde girl [Drew Ryniewicz] is amazing, too."

Jon Peter Lewis (Season 3, 8th place): “I like that there are fewer restrictions on musical acts. That seems more real to me.”

Rogers: “I like the grandness of it all.  It's just as fun and exhilarating as all the rest of the vocal competitions -- but on steroids. And it really feels like they want to find an actual pop star... or at least convince the public that their choices are pop stars. And the performers are given every opportunity to prove that by singing in front of huge crowds, with dancers, lights, and all the accoutrements of a major pop star." 

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THR: What don’t you like about it?

Rogers: “The grandness of it all [laughs]. Sometimes it feels like they're trying too hard.  Some of the weak contestant choices that were made revealed themselves fairly early as gimmicks. I mean, Dexter Haygood over great voices like James Kenney? Please. That choice is symptomatic of the decision to choose "story" over talent on multiple occasions.” 

London: “It can be a bit dramatic and drawn out. However, I understand the reason for it -- viewers get emotionally involved, and what better way to capture the hearts of people?”

Hicks: “I wish there was more interaction with live music instruments – it’s the musician in me. But it seems X Factor is grooming an artist for top 40 radio. In my American opinion, I think one British personality will do. Simon Cowell has an ego for at least 100 British personalities that seem to be on American television now.”

Yamin: “The show seems to focus more on the backstories of the contestants than their talent and sometimes comes off as cheesy, scripted or lacking substance.”

Lewis: “It’s the nature of reality singing shows in general that I don’t like. It’s just not a very good musical experience. When concerts are made into contests, performers turn into politicians.”

MacIntyre: “The singers’ voices and background music seem to be over-produced at times, almost to the point where you can’t hear the talent.”

Tohn: "That shows like this systematically get rid of my favorites. I like the weird, artsy ones and they're always the first to go. And if by some miracle they do last a hot minute, America gets rid of them by leaning milquetoast. Also, the whole group section of the show isn't my favorite. I would rather have seen eight other super-talented people get through. But that's just me. Never was a huge girl group or boy band fan, but i get it. People love groups. 

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THR: Your thoughts on the judges, especially Simon and Paula and what it’s like to see them on a different show…

Hicks: “Honestly there are too many judges on prime time now. I can't keep up with them all! But I do enjoy seeing Simon and Paula together -- "The new Sonny and Cher." But my heart will always be with American Idol and I think any of these talent shows will always be considered some kind of Idol knock off." 

Crystal Bowersox (season 9, runner-up): “Simon is an authentic person, he says it like it is.  He looks for passion and drive and authenticity. He's not afraid to voice his opinion on something whether it's wrong or it's right.  It's what he believes and I respect that. I'm very much a similar person but just a little nicer about it. To each his own, but I like him for it.”

Rogers: “As a whole, I think the choice of judges are very strong. Paula is sweet as always, and she seems much more together than she was on Idol.  Simon, on the other hand, seems to have tempered himself a bit while in the presence of another fire-brand in LA Reid. They seem to trade off on who's going to be the "mean one.” Also, you can sometimes see that Simon feels the weight of his decision to bring the show to America. He knows that he has a lot riding on this and it may have humbled him (albeit slightly). Nicole Scherzinger is sweet and feisty which is an exciting combination to watch. They all seem have a point of view that comes from a knowledgeable place."  

Johns: “I'm not in love with all the judges chemistry. Something is a little off there. I can't put my finger on it but it's not happening for me. But I love Paula, she has the best heart.  Seeing her and Simon back together is nice. Wish they flirted a little more, which was always a favorite of mine [laughs].” 

Mitchell: “Simon and Paula could have chemistry on Idol,X Factor, a prison cell, surgery... chemistry is chemistry and they have it! I think they are the Regis and Kathy Lee of reality television, or the Oprah and Gayle plus a little sexual tension. But I’m glad the public is finally seeing the real Simon Cowell – he has a heart of gold and true kindness.”

Benami: “I like seeing Simon and Paula on a show together again, I think the on- camera chemistry they have is really something, and it seems to have only grown after their time on Idol. I love Paula, so I'm glad that she gets to do this again because she's a sweetheart and is always positive, supportive, and really good for this sort of show.  And I think Simon tends to be a lot nicer (as all of the judges are) off-camera than on.”

MacIntyre: “For some reason it reminds me of American Idol… Oh wait, they were my judges, too! I’m glad America is getting to see Simon’s kinder, gentler side.  Wish he would’ve been like that on my season of Idol.“

London: “I love the fact that Paula is on the show with Simon. She's continuing to do what she loves to do and that's helping people's dreams come true. All of the judges are great professionals. I think Simon built a certified team.”

Tohn: "I enjoy Paula and I enjoy Simon. I don't feel like they are on a different show. The transition was seamless to me. LA Reid is obviously a game-changer, so his opinion is gold. And Nicole? Nicole is pretty. And she is a really, really good singer." 

Lewis: “It’s good to see Simon and Paula again -- especially Simon. He’s as much a part of the success story of reality singing as the singers themselves.”

Keep up with the Idols: 

Taylor Hicks (Twitter: @TaylorRHicks; Facebook: TaylorRHicks)
Michael Johns (Twitter: @michael_johns; Website: http://michaeljohnsonline.com/)
Brandon Rogers (Twitter @brandonrogersla; Also check out Brandon's band So & So)
La Toya London (Twitter: @latoyaLondon; Website: http://latoyalondon.com/)
Didi Benami (Twitter: @DidiBenami; Website: http://www.officialdidibenami.com)
Jon Peter Lewis (Twitter: @JonPeterLewis; Website: http://www.jonpeterlewis.com/)
Crystal Bowersox (Twitter: @crystalbowersox; Facebook: CrystalBowersox; Website: http://www.crystalbowersox.com/)
Scott MacIntyre (Twitter: @ScottDMacIntyre; Website: http://www.scottmacintyre.com/
Elliott Yamin (Twitter: @ElliottYamin; Website: http://www.officialelliottyamin.com/)
Jackie Tohn (Twitter: @JackieTohn; Website: www.jackietohn.com)

And for those Idol Worshipers living in the L.A. area, both Brandon Rogers and Elliott Yamin are playing local shows this month. Head to their respective Twitter or website for details.