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On June 11, 2002, American Idol premiered its first season on Fox — crowning champion Kelly Clarkson, igniting the reality competition show genre and breaking new technological ground as co-host Ryan Seacrest taught America how to text in their votes. Times change. Reality competitions litter the dial — on broadcast and streaming — but none even dream of luring the 38 million viewers Idol once drew. But the show that long led the pack has remained a relative constant. As the singing show returns Feb. 27 for season 20 (and its fifth on second home ABC), judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan once again lead the search for the country’s next star.
“I think Idol’s success and why it is still thriving is because it’s rooted in something real,” says Rob Mills, Walt Disney TV’s executive vp unscripted and alternative entertainment. “The people who compete become massive stars and better musicians, and that’s a real dream coming true. I also think Luke, Lionel, Katy and Ryan are examples of people who have all lived that dream.”
Ahead of Idol’s big return, its trio of judges reflect on past highlights, industry evolutions and the next 20.
What sold you on joining this new ABC iteration and now sticking around for five seasons?
KATY PERRY That it was going to be like a rebirth and get back to the real talent and get back to giving constructive criticism — or starting that trend — because that’s what we do. I would say that we all have checked some boxes in our careers, and it just felt like it was the right time. We admire each other in our different fields and look to each other to get advice for different contestants. And we get along really well.
LUKE BRYAN With me, it was a really interesting thing to go try TV. I was a country music singer that was working, working, working, doing 200 shows a year, and [now I get to] spend a lot of time on TV and be able to really make a difference in these kids’ lives.
What was your relationship to the show in the 15 seasons before you were judges?
PERRY I’ve always been a huge Kelly Clarkson fan. And I always loved the audition process and Hollywood Week, because it’s survival of the fittest.
LIONEL RICHIE Mine started with [2003 winner] Ruben [Studdard], going way back. I was a touring artist, so I didn’t really lock in because I was always on the road — but I’d see it in a hotel room and pick it up here and there. As time went on, [original judge] Simon [Cowell] and I became very good friends. Simon said, “Would you like to stop by for a minute?” And I did. I met Ryan for the first time. And then segue to now, I never in a million years would think that I would be sitting here talking about, “OK, kid, now you need to raise your voice a little more and you need to get your personality together.” But the point is, we have the knowledge. You wake up one morning and realize we know exactly where you are because we were there.
Do you have a favorite moment or contestant from these past five years on the show?
BRYAN [Season 17 runner-up] Alejandro Aranda, for me.
RICHIE Alejandro for me, guaranteed. I realized at that moment, when Alejandro showed up, that we were now actually attracting artists — singers are singers, but this guy showed up as a personality. We segued from just being a karaoke show to where we have artists who bring their own style, their own flavor.
PERRY And Chayce [Beckham], the gentleman that won last season, the forklift driver — these kids that have talent and come in real humble and just do the hard work. When they start to get to that top 10, they’re like, “Wow, this is wild, our whole lives are changing.” And his whole life is changing even right now. [He is signed to 19 Recordings in partnership with BBR Music Group/Wheelhouse Records and is touring this year.]
How has what you look for in a contestant changed over time?
PERRY Our standards just naturally get a little bit higher each time, which is great, because I think the outside world trusts us each season a little bit more. You have people coming from Juilliard and Berklee College of Music, and they’re insane artists and they’re trusting us to launch on this platform. It used to be like, “OK, go your own way or do the American Idol way.” And now it’s like, “Well, do both.” Use all of the power of social media, plus the power of primetime television and the general public — and not just your small fan base or whatever you’re cultivating. Smash it together, and that’s when you’re going to get the most exposure that you want.
BRYAN The beauty of us is we’re not in it for us — we’re in it for these kids. It’s a really special thing to be in the room when something truly special walks in because when we’re Lionel’s age, we’ll be able to look back … (Laughs.)
RICHIE From my standpoint, I have never enjoyed a period of my career more than right now because I have never cried more in public than I’ve ever done on this show. At this stage of your life, you think, “OK, I’ve been through everything. I’ve experienced everything. Nothing can rock me.” And these kids come in one by one and take me out.
With so many reality competition shows on TV, why do you think Idol has stood the test of time?
PERRY Because name one person that’s come off of another competition show. Can you name any other contestant and/or remember any of them? And I think we can name almost 10 bona fide stars who are household names who are in the industry, creating change and [getting] nominations and Oscars and Grammys.
Twenty seasons in, where do you see the show going from here?
RICHIE If I can get another 20, I’m the most excited guy on the panel. If you could do a two-hour show and forget what age you are and forget what year it is and just know that you’re having the greatest time of your life every time you go out, you could live forever as far as I’m concerned. I could do another 25, 30 more years with American Idol, and I’d be very happy with myself.
PERRY As long as we’re continuing to create superstars, I’ll be here.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in the Feb. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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