Here come the judges

Sure, it's about making a music icon, but fans really tune in for just four reasons

Ostensibly, Fox's "American Idol" is about the creation of a pop star from the ground up. But ever since its 2002 debut, what really brings viewers back and keeps the ratings high season after season is the promise of carping, criticism and perhaps some insight from the judges -- Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson -- plus the host, Ryan Seacrest. Without them, "Idol" might have become just another TV talent show, doomed to fail. As Jackson notes, "We're a real panel of experts on this show, not just judges. We really know what we're talking about." And audiences agree.

Simon Cowell

Back story: Although he's detoured into producing and running independent labels, Cowell has focused his talent on finding the next commercial big thing since the 1980s. In 2002, his S Records joined up with Columbia Records and Sony BMG, and thanks to early experience as a judge on the U.K.'s "Pop Idol," he was a natural fit for the American version.

Signature phrase: "I'm only being honest."

His song: Say what you will, but it seems difficult to imagine "American Idol" without Cowell and his acerbic, pointed critiques. Half of the country loves his honesty; the other half thinks he's cruel. (And many rejected contestants think that since he's not American, he shouldn't even be allowed to judge.) All of that rolls off of Cowell's back -- he knows exactly why he's there. "I'm actually only on this show for one reason, to be honest with you," he says. "I'm here to find somebody who can sell records. I'm looking for someone who's commercial."

"Idol" has enabled Cowell to branch off in multiple directions; he has created several new shows, including the U.K. series "The 'X' Factor," which nearly split him from "Idol" creator/executive producer Simon Fuller. The two ended up in litigation when Fuller claimed "Factor" was too much like "Idol," but a settlement has patched things up.

And that means he gets to stay on as the most polarizing element of the show, venting whatever comes to mind. "It's a more vocal version of what I'm like in real life," he says, adding that he's really saying aloud what most people are thinking. "Most people in the world are not as politically correct as people assume they are. This show reinforces that belief, and to be honest with you, that's a good thing. We're not drowning puppies on this show -- we're telling a bunch of people who want to be famous in five seconds that they're not going to be."

Fortunately, he says, there is an upside -- like when eventual "Idol" winner Carrie Underwood joined the show. "That's when it works," he says. "It was like she was the only one under a spotlight."

Randy Jackson

Back story: In his 20 years in the industry, Jackson has done just about everything: recorded, toured and performed with the likes of Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Madonna (to name just a few); worked in A&R at Columbia and MCA Records; and contributed to more than 1,000 gold and multiplatinum albums.

Signature phrase: "Keep it real, dawg!"

His song: When a contestant stormed out of an audition this season, shouting back at Randy, "What do you know? What did you ever do?" clearly, she hadn't done her homework. As a consummate behind-the-scenes man, Jackson might be front and slightly to stage right at the judges' table, but he's got a resume longer than almost anyone else in the industry. "With that kind of pedigree," he says, "plus having been an artist, you might be qualified to judge singing."

Qualifications aside, it was timing and who he knew that got Jackson on the show. He was leaving his A&R job with MCA, and one of show creator Simon Fuller's agents gave him a call. At first, Jackson says he was skeptical: "Music is always so corny on TV." But he trusted the agent, and when he heard Simon Cowell was onboard, he signed up.

And he's glad he did: The experience, he says, has been "very rewarding. Most record companies sign an artist and say to the public, 'This is what you like.' We're saying to the public, 'You tell us what you like.'"

What's been most surprising to Jackson, though, is becoming a public figure after so many years as a credit. For once, people are giving him their opinions, whether he likes it or not. "You'll be standing in line for something, and people will talk to you like you're their best friend, (like) you've known them 20 years," he laughs.

Paula Abdul

Back story: A former Laker girl, Abdul has won multiple MTV Awards, choreographed for artists like Janet Jackson and has released five albums that sold more than 30 million units around the world.

Signature phrase: "I loved it!"

Her song: It's a good thing Paula Abdul is sitting behind the judges' table, or the contestants who stand before it each week for criticism might spontaneously combust. As the "nice one" of the three judges, Abdul is relentlessly upbeat even when offering criticism, and the public loves her for it. "I'm the only one who comes from an artist's point of view," she explains. "Unless you've been up there and put yourself on the line, you never know what it's like."

Abdul had an "Idol" connection even before her accountant -- who overheard a conversation about interest in her joining the show -- put Fox executives in touch: A song Kylie Minogue took to No. 1 in England, "Spinning Around," was written by Abdul and became the most popular song for contestants to sing on the British version of the show, "Pop Idol." "That's a weird, cosmic thing that was meant to be," she says.

As for the show, she notes that it's a "great, well-oiled, train wreck -- nothing's scripted." That includes her weekly sparring with fellow judge Simon Cowell, whom she says once admitted in an interview to having a crush on her. "He would never confess it to me," she says. "And he said he denied every word of it later."

She's also turned out to be the main lightning rod of criticism outside the show, having been accused of having an affair with a contestant and of showing up at TV interviews in some sort of altered state. Nonsense, she says: "I don't do recreational drugs. I've never been drunk. I hate the accusations, and they're not true. It's always a downside when you lose your anonymity."

Fortunately, she's looking at the upside -- as usual -- having kicked off her own jewelry line a few years ago and recently taking it to QVC. Also on the docket: a fragrance, a cosmetics line and a clothing line.

None of that, however, takes a back seat to the show, which she says is really doing some good. "We go out there and find these kids who could sink or swim, and we have the knack of knowing that they're going to swim. It's exciting for me. We're there, and we're making sure that everyone gets a shot."

Ryan Seacrest

Back story: Having dreamed of being a DJ since he was a teenager, Seacrest landed a plum internship at one of Atlanta's top radio stations and never looked back. A detour into TV hosting jobs with ESPN, CNET and MTV laid the groundwork for the eventual merger of his two passions on "American Idol."

Signature phrase: "This is 'American Idol.'"

His song: Dick Clark is aging, and Rick Dees is fading, so America needed a new music host for all seasons. And up rose Seacrest, who seems to have hosting in his DNA. "I've mastered compartmentalization to the point where it's scary," he says. "You can be arguing with someone and in seconds have to switch to happy-go-lucky host, and that's scary sometimes."

If he's arguing with anyone these days, it's more than likely judge Simon Cowell, with whom he has a, well, combative relationship. Explains Seacrest: "We love what we do, but we're competitive about it. I always joke that when Simon makes a deal, he gets a copy for himself, a copy for his lawyer and a copy for me to read."

Initially contacted by "Idol" producers for a possible judge slot, Seacrest wowed them in the audition and was named one of two show hosts (Brian Dunkleman was jettisoned by Season 2). When he was hired, Seacrest had a handful of jobs, including a daily radio show in Los Angeles and occasional "Extra!" appearances for NBC. But "Idol" has helped him add to his bottom line in ways he never expected: Seacrest took over for Casey Kasem, hosting Premiere Radio Networks' "American Top 40" in 2004, and later that year, he also assumed morning radio duties -- replacing Dees.

He credits the show, of course. "It's been the engine to create opportunity to create other businesses, to move forward with some of the things I've always wanted to do."

As for that judge position, Seacrest says he's fine with making sure the on-air show runs smoothly. "Yeah, I bite my tongue every now and then when I see somebody sing, but really, the judges represent well what the public is looking for. They're not trying to find personal favorites; they're trying to find people they can market -- that they can sell to our audience."

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