2002 flashback: My first profile of Ryan Seacrest three weeks after ‘Idol’ debuted

Ryan Seacrest bestowing the first "American Idol" crown in August, 2002 to Kelly Clarkson over Justin Guarini. CREDIT: Fox

Ryan Seacrest bestowing the first “American Idol” crown in August, 2002 to Kelly Clarkson over Justin Guarini. CREDIT: Fox

I began covering “American Idol” when it debuted June 12, 2002 for the AJC. It quickly became a hit and I’ve been at it ever since, including a specific “Idol” blog from 2004 to 2011. And since the co host Ryan Seacrest was a Dunwoody High School graduate, I decided to do a profile on him soon after. I am fairly certain this was the first profile ever written about Seacrest.

And here is the story I wrote after interviewing him last month more than 13 years later.

By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally filed July 3, 2002

As co-host of the surprise Fox TV summer hit “American Idol, ” former Atlantan Ryan Seacrest massages the egos of a roomful of stars-in-training. But Seacrest‘s own star is on the rise — and he’s got a National Enquirer story to prove it.

The 1993 Dunwoody High School graduate began his media career sneaking into Star 94’s radio studios as a high school sophomore, working his way into a three-year DJ gig at Atlanta’s biggest Top 40 station. He parlayed that into a series of radio and TV jobs in Los Angeles, leading to his current “Idol” role.

Seacrest, 27, plays the upbeat, supportive camp counselor for nervous contestants, who are otherwise subject to biting commentary from a panel of judges. As the straight man, he balances the dry, wry asides of his co-host, comedian Brian Dunkleman.

“Idol” co-executive producer Nigel Lythgoe said he liked Seacrest‘s DJ-honed ability to improvise, a useful skill since much of the show’s remaining run will be live.

That may come in helpful as well with resident “Idol” curmudgeon, British record producer Simon Cowell, who has been abusing Seacrest almost as much as he has the less-talented performers. During the June 26 live show, Seacrest interrupted Cowell’s conversation with a contestant and Cowell shot him down: “Ryan, grown-ups are speaking here.” The day before, Cowell mocked Seacrest‘s wide-lapel shirt, wondering if it was inspired by “Saturday Night Fever.”

Seacrest has taken the teasing in stride — so far. “Simon hates everything I wear, ” he said. “If he says something again, I’ll have to say, ‘Why do you keep checking me out?’ ”

Seacrest‘s affinity for the spotlight goes back to his elementary school days.

“Instead of playing with G.I. Joes or cowboys and Indians, he’d always have a little microphone and do shows in the house, ” recalls his mom, Connie Seacrest, who now resides in Sandy Springs with his dad Gary, an attorney.

With a Radio Shack mixer, he made tapes for friends.

At age 16, during the days when Paula Abdul and Color Me Badd ruled the airwaves, he ingratiated himself with Star 94 (WSTR-FM) nighttime disc jockey Tom Sullivan, who gave the persistent song-request caller a tour of the studios. Sullivan, who had started his own radio career at 18, let Seacrest hang out every evening, taking calls and learning radio production while occasionally doing homework.

“He was a quick study, ” Sullivan said. “I loved his enthusiasm.”

For months, Sullivan hid Seacrest‘s presence from Star management. But on Labor Day weekend in 1991, Sullivan fell ill and handed the teen the mike. “We thought the boss was out of town, ” Seacrest recalled.

Nope. Sullivan’s boss Tony Novia heard Seacrest on the air and quickly took Sullivan to task. But Novia ended up liking Seacrest‘s preternaturally mature sound and let him do weekend overnight shifts.

Seacrest‘s mom at first would call him at 4 a.m. to make sure he didn’t fall asleep on the job. He thrived and became Star’s primary substitute for three years. “I wasn’t supposed to talk about being in high school,” Seacrest said.

After a brief stint at the University of Georgia, Seacrest got an offer to host a kid’s version of “American Gladiators,” a syndicated game show featuring spandex-heavy superheroes with names like Nitro and Siren. He packed his Honda Prelude in 1995 and headed to Hollywood.

“Gladiators” soon got axed, but he landed a full-time DJ job at Los Angeles’ Star 98.7, which is similar to Star 94 in format. He also nabbed a succession of TV spots, including guest stints on the now-canceled E! comedy show “Talk Soup” and as weekend correspondent for “Extra.”

Those turned out to be warm-ups for his breakout role on the twice-weekly “Idol, ” which is drawing strong ratings from younger audiences, regularly landing in the top 20 since its debut last month.

Based on the chatter on the “Idol” message boards, Seacrest is either deadly dull (“Yawn fest, ” one complains) or swoon-worthy (“You are possibly the world’s hottest male . . . please marry me!”).

Nonetheless, his growing celebrity status was recently confirmed by the National Enquirer story tying him romantically with dancer-singer Abdul, an “Idol” judge.

“I had no idea I’ve been dating her for a month!” he said, amused by a rumor that places him on the pop culture radar screen.

 


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