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Rodney HoRodney Ho

Ryan Seacrest gets nostalgic as final ‘American Idol’ season bows January 6

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Ryan Seacrest in 2002 and Ryan Seacrest in 2015. CREDIT: Fox

Ryan Seacrest in 2002 at age 27 and Ryan Seacrest in 2015, now 41. CREDIT: Fox

By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally filed Monday, January 4, 2016

When Ryan Seacrest joined Fox’s “American Idol” on June 12, 2002 as a co host, he figured it was simply an opportunity to be on prime-time TV for the first time, even if it was just a summer fill-in reality show.

“I was just hoping it would be a show that wouldn’t get cancelled immediately,” said Seacrest in a phone interview last month in advance of the show’s 15th and final season beginning Wednesday at 8. “I just looked at it as a great step in my career. If it worked or didn’t work, at least it was on my resume.”

He naturally had no clue “American Idol’ wouldn’t merely be a great mark on his resume but become the most popular show of the decade. He had no idea the show would generate superstars such as Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. He had no inkling it would turn cranky Simon Cowell into a household name.

My very first profile of Seacrest back in July, 2002.

He also had no conception he’d be able to leverage the power of “Idol” into his own production company (and hatch the Kardashian reality show universe), take over for his mentor Dick Clark on New Year’s Eve, and replace Casey Kasem as the radio countdown man. Fortune estimates his earnings last year at a whopping $60 million.

In 2002, the Dunwoody High School graduate had been in Hollywood for eight years, trying to move up the entertainment food chain. He’d been an afternoon host at a top 40 station in Los Angeles for seven years and had tried his hand hosting various short-lived cable TV shows (e.g. “Gladiators 2000,” “Wild Animal Games”). He also did some weekend work for “Extra.”

Oddly, when “Idol” producers approached him in 2002, they wanted him as a judge. But he knew his core strengths and asked to be a host instead. They already had Brian Dunkleman in mind but decided to pair them up. The two got along fine, Seacrest said, but Dunkleman wasn’t comfortable and dropped out after the first season.

Seacrest quickly showed off his skills guiding a fast-paced, live show. His only regret? Those frosted blonde tips. “At the time, I thought it was a good idea,” he said. “Looking back, not so much. What the hell was I thinking?”

Still, he was gratified that the “Idol” chemistry between him and the judges worked so well. And he loved how the show for the first time revealed the behind-the-scenes audition process for the first time. Plus, there was the idea that a coffee shop employee or a small-town youth pastor could be plucked out of obscurity to become a huge star.

“You see people in their hometowns doing their jobs,” he said. “Then you have the lightning-in-the-bottle combo of Randy [Jackson], Paula [Abdul] and Simon. And then it was a live. It was like a sitcom. There was so much funny stuff. We didn’t even know we were being funny. It was the sum of all those parts.”

In the second episode airing Thursday, there’s a lovely Seacrest montage featuring fans of his over the years, including Bikini Girl. It’s already up on YouTube:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kgJTiYB_G-4&feature=youtu.be

Voting for the contestants also tied fans to the show in a way that no previous show had been able to capture. At first, people could only vote by phone, which became a point of contention season two when fans of Clay Aiken complained about excessive busy signals before he lost to Ruben Studdard. Texting was soon added. “I remember having to show people on air how to text,” he said. Now, voting is primarily done online, a process aped by many other shows.

As “Idol” lost its mojo in recent seasons, the original judges left, replaced by the current trio of Jennifer Lopez, Harry Connick Jr. and Keith Urban. But there has been one constant: Seacrest.

“I never finished a season thinking, ‘Gosh, I don’t want to do this anymore. I’m bored with it.’ I never felt that. I always look forward to doing the show. I’ve always loved hosting it. It never felt right to say goodbye or walk away.”

Although the show is ending, Seacrest is psyched that they will have an official farewell season. “I’m excited to re-live some of these great memories. It’s been such a great part of my life.”

And while season 15 opens in Atlanta, his hometown, he wasn’t able to make it due to scheduling issues. “It’s been tough to fit in,” he said, given his crazy work schedule outside of “Idol.” But he has never missed a live show and doesn’t expect to do so this year either.

“Idol” – with ratings that now lag behind those of “The Voice,” “Dancing With the Stars” and “Survivor” – will have a much shortened season. Fox will likely air the series finale in early April instead of mid-May.

“They’ll still be a beginning, middle and end,” Seacrest said. “Each week will be special to us.”

Seacrest said his best memories are from the early years teasing Cowell. “I never imagined a man’s pants could be so high above their belly button,” he said. And that first finale between Justin Guarini and Clarkson is still seared in his brain. “I’ve really had so much fun on the show,” he said.

Will he be able to stay composed when he names the 15th and final winner, the confetti flies down and the credits roll? “I don’t think so,” he said. “I’m a pretty easy crier.”

TV PREVIEW

“American Idol,” 8 p.m. Wednesday, Fox