Top 10 craziest moments from 15 years of ‘American Idol’

Sanjaya hair day

By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally filed Sunday, March 27, 2016

I’ve been proud of covering “American Idol” since it debuted in June 11, 2002. I’ve watched virtually every minute of it. (In the old days, I’d use a VCR to tape it if I was out. In fact, the very first “Idol” episodes of “Idol” were sent to me in that now outdated mode.)

This is the very first promo tape of "American Idol" Fox publicity sent out in June, 2002. The AJC TV writers wanted nothing to do with a silly summer replacement music competition show. With several Atlantans in the running, I decided to take it on. And 14 years later, here we are.

This is the very first promo tape of “American Idol” Fox publicity sent out in June, 2002. The AJC TV writers wanted nothing to do with a silly summer replacement music competition show. With several Atlantans in the running, I decided to take it on. And 14 years later, here we are.

In total, that’s almost 14 years of memories and 574 episodes to date, sifting through thousands of singing performances, many of which was “I’m Every Woman.”

So I’m sure I’ve forgotten most of it. (I think I have purposely forgotten season 12 entirely.) What sticks out the most? Here are 10 nuttiest moments that make me think of “Idol,” for better or worse. I am excluding best vocal performances for another list.

My top 25 picks for most successful “Idol” alums.

Please add your own in the comments section. There are dozens that will come up and I’d love to relive them, for better or worse!

Kelly Clarkson winning “American Idol.”  I was at a Star 94 screening finale party for “American Idol” at a Dave & Buster’s. I recall the moment she won, the confetti coming down and her emotions overcoming her as she sang “A Moment Like This.” I had no idea at the time, this show would become the biggest TV phenomenon of the 2000s and also help me get a full-time job covering TV at the AJC in 2005. (Yes, it’s all about me, right?)

Clay/Ruben phone voting controvesy.  In 2003, the only way to vote was to call. And therein lied a problem. When too many folks called to vote, you got a busy signal. Young people, that was a sound that happened when a phone call didn’t get through. It happened a lot. So much so that Clay Aiken fans felt they were ripped off during the finale because so many people had trouble getting through that they felt their voices weren’t fairly heard. Believe me. Those Aiken fans complain to this day. Producer Nigel Lythgoe later said Aiken was leading in votes for weeks leading to the final. What’s amusing now is hardly anybody I presume makes calls anymore to vote. For a time, texting took over. Now you can bundle 20 votes a time in multiple ways online. And Ryan Seacrest has long stopped announcing vote totals, which used to be tens of millions a week. Amusingly, when you watch the results, Aiken has a silly grin on his face staring at Ruben. Why? He had spied Ryan’s card and knew the results before everybody else.

Corey Clark, Frenchie Davis getting the boot off “Idol.” Corey Clark (or as we called him at the time “Sideshow Bob” from the Simpsons) had this smarmy vibe about him season two. He was eliminated in dramatic fashion on live TV from “Idol” due to an undisclosed police record. He later said it was mostly because he had a four-month affair with Paula Abdul, which she denied. He later sued “Idol” with others for racial discrimination, a case that went nowhere. Earlier, Frenchie Davis got cut after nude photos of her leaked on the Web, a quaint idea now in terms of hurting someone’s “fame” quotient before Kim Kardashian became a household name.

Three divas at the bottom season 3. The final 7 featured LaToya London, Fantasia and Jennifer Hudson in the bottom three after Barry Manilow night. (Yes, I recall that only because I loved Hudson’s version of “Weekend from New England.” Hudson was shockingly cut – and would later prove her worth in “Dreamgirls.” But at the time, people came out calling the show racist, including Sir Elton John. Yet, ultimately, Fantasia won. So there ya go. There were other shocking eliminations as well over the years, including Tamyra Gray dropped at No. 4 season 1, Chris Daughtry out at No. 4 season 4 and the late great Michael Johns at No. 8 season 7.  That latter elimination led to the judge’s “save” starting season nine.

Check the Hudson cut at the 3:15 point of this video:

William Hung. Another season 3 humdinger was William Hung, who sang “She Bangs” so badly, his version is probably better known to the American public than that of Ricky Martin. He is probably the most famous “bad” auditioner in the history of the show perhaps because his innocence superseded his cluelessness in terms of his lack of vocal talent. As a fellow Asian American, I cringed because he personified plenty of bad Asian stereotypes. He ultimately said he generated more than $1 million in record sales and concert appearances after the show ended, showing how powerful the show was at the time and how novelty can still work. I met him at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in 2004, several months after his initial appearance on the show. I couldn’t tell if he realized some folks were laughing at him, not with him. Not that he cared. He was paid $7,000 for his appearance. “I have a lot of fan support, ” he said to me. “Nobody can get 100 percent support.” He had no idea how long the gravy train would last. (It wouldn’t, of course.)  “I don’t know yet. It’s still good right now. This is an opportunity of a lifetime. No matter what, I’ll be happy.”

Sanjaya and Vote for the Worst. Vote for the Worst came to be around season three as a mockery of the show itself, giving love to the likes of John Stevens season three, Scott Savol season four and Taylor Hicks season five. But the site received massive press after supporting quirky Sanjaya season six. Howard Stern played up the Sanjaya phenomenon and encouraged people to vote for him, crediting the website’s advocacy. Sanjaya was a classic case of someone who wasn’t all that talented who inexplicably got enough votes to make it to the top 7 season six. It could never find a singer quite that absurd in subsequent years (Tim Urban anyone? Anyone?). How much influence the site ultimately had on votes? It was really impossible hard to say. Eventually, the site closed shop, about the time my “Idol” blog ended in 2011, when the show itself was losing steam.

Here is the day Sanjaya wore the faux hawk. ‘Nuf said.

Clay Aiken imitator gets a surprise. During the season 5 season finale, “Idol” held mock awards. It granted one to Michael Sandecki, who loved Clay so much, he tried his best to imitate him. “Idol” gave him the stage to sing “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” And credit to Clay: he showed up to surprise Michael. It went down as a genuinely funny moment during the show’s peak season.

Kara DioGuardi vs Bikini Girl. During season eight, Katrina Darrell showed up in a bikini to sing Mariah Carey. First-year judge Kara DioGuardi didn’t like what she did and sang a bit of it herself. Katrina proceeded to give her lip and say she didn’t do it as well. The other judges put her through anywhere. During the season finale, “Bikini Girl” as she was known by then, showed up with a couple of new assets (as noted by Ryan: “I was going to ask what’s new, but I know!”) and Kara showed up to try to outdo bikini girl in her own bikini. Cringe-worthy? Utterly. But memorable.

“Pants on the Ground” dude. Season 9 was a pretty lousy season but it did give us then 62-year-old General Larry Platt of Atlanta. He was obviously way too old to audition but the producers knew a good song when they heard it. “Pants on the ground/looking like a fool with your pants the ground!” Simon was impressed: “That song could be a hit.” Indeed, any “Idol” fan knows that song. Does anyone know what happened to him? I’d love to talk to him.

Mariah/Nicki sniping. In possibly the worst move ever on “Idol,” feeling pressure from “The Voice,” the producers chose to place both Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey as judges. Randy Jackson remained and poor Keith Urban was there as cannon fodder. Those two egos were way too big to be on the same stage. The powder-keg tension between them superseded the contestants. And they picked some of the cruddiest male singers ever.


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