My 20 favorite moments covering ‘American Idol’

Randy Jackson stopped by the AJC in 2012. He held a VHS tape of an original "Idol" episode from 2002.

Randy Jackson stopped by the AJC in 2012. He held a VHS tape of an original “Idol” episode from 2002.

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

I know, I know. I’ve been on an “American Idol” listicle binge lately but given how little time we have left, why not? (And yes, more are coming with less than 100 hours to go before it’s over!)

I’ve been covering “Idol” since it began in June, 2002. I’ve interviewed dozens of “Idol” finalists in person and by phone, attended numerous auditions and seen 12 of the 14 “Idol” tours. On top of that, I’ve caught numerous “Idol” alum concerts and events. I made just a single trip to see “Idol” itself in Los Angeles season three when Diana DeGarmo made the finals in 2004. This past December, I happened to be in L.A. and caught some of the showcase auditions, getting my first look at likely finalists La’Porsha Renae and Trent Harmon.

The Hollywood Reporter just included me in a retrospective of the show with memories and opinions from various writers who have covered the show the past 14 years.

My picks for the 25 most successful “Idol” alums

The 10 craziest “Idol” moments ever

And great news! Phillip Philips will show up for the series finale after all, meaning all the winners will be represented, including a pre-taped Kelly Clarkson!

Here are my 20 most memorable moments covering “Idol” first hand, in chronological order. This is through the misty haze of nostalgia. Unfortunately, the AJC online archives are spotty and I couldn’t find photos or videos for everything.

Tamyra Gray cut early

June, 2002: First interview for “Idol.” – I was in New York City with my godson in June, 2002 and I recall the Fox publicists hooking me up with one of the “Idol” semifinalists from Atlanta to talk to. I was literally on a sidewalk in NYC jotting notes down while doing that very first interview. Unfortunately, I can’t recall who it was. There were at least a half dozen Atlantans that year who made the semifinals. I ultimately talked to EJay Day, Kelli Glover, R.J. Helton, Melanie Sanders, Tamyra Gray or Christopher Aaron. The heavily prevalence of locals is what drew me into the show in the first place.

Fall, 2002: Hanging with contestants in downtown Atlanta late at night. I didn’t go to the first auditions in Atlanta in April, 2002 because I wasn’t asked. And the entertainment staff was busy covering Music Midtown anyway. But the second one in downtown Atlanta at AmericasMart was all mine. The crowds were huge and the buzz was palpable. Thousands of people snaked downtown blocks overnight with sleeping bags, food and friends. Spontaneous singing erupted. Fox affiliate cameras caught the action. This was great for “Idol” but terrible for the singers, who were not well rested for auditions. “Idol” was truly a big deal. By season five, “Idol” would do away with these “tent cities,” giving people wristbands ahead of time so they’d arrive at 6 a.m. in the morning – in time for the morning news.

October, 2002: Watching auditions live. At Callanwolde Fine Arts Center, Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell were taping season 2 auditions and Fox PR let me in on the action. Paula Abdul was out for some reason. I actually got to go inside the studio, wedge myself between cameras and watch Simon and Randy break down a handful of singers for about 20 to 30 minutes. This was the only time in 15 seasons I got this opportunity. I don’t recall seeing anyone who ultimately made it on the TV screen but it was exhilarating to be inside. Later, I talked to Simon outside during a break, the only time I met him in person, asking him silly questions he was only too game to answer. (I’ve since spoken to him a couple of times one on one by phone.)

May, 2004: Meeting Clay Aiken’s dog. In 2004, I flew out to L.A. to see if Diana DeGarmo would beat Fantasia. I stopped by 19 Entertainment offices and guess who was there at the same time? Clay Aiken and his dog Raleigh! I only said hi to Clay but didn’t have the nerve to ask him for an on-the-spot interview. Clearly, this was not a place where he expected to be confronted by a journalist. But I did get to pet his dog, who was adorable.

William Hung was such a big deal in 2004, the Atlanta Motor Speedway gave him a press conference. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/ rho@ajc.com

William Hung was such a big deal in 2004, the Atlanta Motor Speedway gave him a press conference. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/ rho@ajc.com

July, 2004: William Hung at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Proving how big a show “Idol” was at the time, Hung became a star for a brief shining moment for being so godawful. I watched him butcher “She Bangs” before thousands of cheering race-car fans and he was paid $7,000 for the honor. He was proof positive how ridiculously big the show had gotten and I was going to ride this gravy train for as long as I could.

Fall, 2004: Watching Fantasia sing “I Believe” in a Macy’s. Unlike Hung, Fantasia was and still is the real deal. She was doing some sort of Macy’s promotion at Lenox and I recall being in the basement with her watching her sing on a tiny stage before several hundred fans. What amazed me is she sang her victory song “I Believe,” and then teared up for real – at a department store. Her change ofcircumstance from poor single mom to huge star was still overwhelming to her. I got teary eyed myself. I have since seen her in “The Color Purple” and in concert at the Fox.

Spring, 2005: Meeting Jennifer Hudson for the first time. Hudson, a season 3 finalist, was carted out to Mall of Georgia with two season 4 contestants Nikko Smith and Jessica Sierra. I spoke with all three. Nikko and Jessica were pleasant. Jennifer was morose. This was before “Dreamgirls” was on the horizon. At this point, she was probably wondering why she was at this lame event and not doing something more important. Oddly, at the time, “Idol” prohibited current contestants from singing so Jennifer was able to dominate the stage. I recall her doing an amazing rendition of “Weekend in New England” again. I also recall Julia DeMato floating in the audience hoping people would notice her and say hi. I didn’t see that happen. (I had taken photos at this event but they appear to be gone, probably stuck on a dead computer.)

Fall, 2006: Paris Bennett wears sunglasses indoors. After season 5 was over and former Atlantan Paris Bennett was trying to ride the wave of her fifth place finish, she met me at Noodle in Midtown. Unfortunately, she was being a petulant teen. She came in late, donning sunglasses indoors, and didn’t even bother eating lunch, when it was supposed to be a lunch meeting. She acted like she was Whitney Houston and this wasn’t something she even wanted to do. I came away thinking she hadn’t earned this type of attitude at all. Her publicist later apologized for her behavior. Soon enough, she disappeared into the fame ether. (Her Instagram account has a relatively modest 6,000 followers.)

Thanksgiving, 2006: The big hug of George Huff. The opposite of Paris Bennett was George Huff, who has 11,800 Instagram followers in comparison. The exuberant season three fifth place finalist was performing Christmas tunes at Lenox for its annual tree-lighting ceremony on Thanksgiving with Third Day. I recall talking to him in the tour bus and he was sweet as punch. After we were done, he hugged me like we were best of friends. I really really hoped he could turn “Idol” into something bigger. In 2011, I saw him singing backup for Hudson, who finished seventh that year. I’m not sure what he’s up to now but I hope he’s well.

Kelly Clarkson Rodney Ho

January 30, 2008: Kelly Clarkson in Q100 studios. I have never talked to Clarkson one on one. She has never needed to talk to me. But the Bert Show was kind enough to invite me in when Clarkson came by, knowing that I’m the “Idol” guy. I sat in and watched her charm everyone. I then grabbed a quick photo with her. A photo op is the best I’ll probably ever get.

Kellie PIckler showed up at Etowah High School on June 17, 2008 after she held a contest where this particular school texted 500K to win a contest.

Kellie Pickler showed up at Etowah High School on June 17, 2008 after she held a contest where this particular school texted 500K to win a contest.

September, 2008: Getting booted from Jennifer Hudson’s green room. You regulars know this story well. This was after her Oscar for “Dreamgirls” but before Hudson joined Weight Watchers. The “Spotlight” album was coming out and the cover showed an obviously thinned-out Photoshopped photo of Hudson. I was at a V-103-sponsored album release party at Atlanta Underground and had clearance to talk to Hudson in the green room. Minutes before her arrival, I was told I wasn’t allowed to ask her about her album cover. I protested and ended up on the phone with a label publicist, arguing with her in vain. Moments later, I was “disinvited” from the green room. I was able to at least watch her concert but it was disconcerting. I try not to do interviews when restrictions are placed on me. It’s unseemly.

May, 2009: Anoop Desai pops up at Amos Lee concert at Variety Playhouse. He was the sixth place finisher that year, season 8. He had been eliminated already and I recall tracking the show while at the Variety Playhouse. (My wife is a huge Amos Lee fan.) We actually ran into Anoop before the concert started and said some kind words. Then surprise! At the end of the concert, Amos had Anoop join him in a cover of “Crazy Love.” Unfortunately, he has disappeared off the radar based on his social media feeds.

November, 2010: Katharine McPhee sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to a little kid at Children’s Healthcare: Just capturing this was so sweet. This was just before she nabbed her lead role on NBC’s “Smash,” then CBS’s “Scorpion.”

Michael Johns with me in 2008.

Michael Johns with me in 2008.

November, 2011: Michael Johns at Tin Roof Cantina. The late great Michael Johns passed away a couple of years ago but hopefully “American Idol” will give him some love in their retrospective Tuesday. He spent his formative years in Atlanta after high school learning to sing at clubs in Buckhead Village in the early 2000s. He created plenty of close friends here and for years after “Idol,” he’d come back and sing at Tin Roof Cantina for nostalgia’s sake. Five years ago, I went to check him out and he was having a blast. Sadly, that’s the last time I ever talked to him.

bo bice vertical wrapping

January, 2013: Hanging with Bo Bice and Vanessa Olivarez at Sugarloaf Mills AMC theaters. “Idol” was nervous. “The Voice” was stealing the show’s thunder. So the producers thought it would be a great idea to hire Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey for their star power. Little did they know (or maybe they did know) the two wouldn’t get along and become a circus sideshow. But they thought it was a good idea to debut the first episode in theaters across the country with a satellite press conference as well. And to juice things up even more, former “Idols” showing up as well. In this case, they brought Cumming resident Bo Bice and former Atlantan Vanessa Olivarez from season two. It was delightful to hang with both of them. (I will be posting a recent interview with Bice soon.)

Rodney Ho Ryan Seacrest

July, 2013: Ryan Seacrest works his magic with the crowd. The show was already going downhill but there was a decent crowd at Gwinnett Arena that summer. Seacrest did some interviews, then introduced the crowd. He is known as one-take Ryan and indeed, he seems to get it right the first time every time. That day, I watched him do his job with awe. He makes a tough job look so easy. Three years earlier, I had the only real quality time with Seacrest at the Ronald McDonald House in Decatur. He was for once, not running somewhere so my wife and I got to just hang out with him and shoot the breeze.

Big Ron from season 14 tried again season 15 but he never showed up on screen. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/ rho@ajc.com

Big Ron from season 14 tried again season 15 but he never showed up on screen. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/ rho@ajc.com

July, 2015: Athens auditions. With the show nearing the finish line, I decided to drive up to Athens and check out the talent for the very last time during the bus tour portion. There was very little media there and Clark Beckham was floating around encouraging contestants. What I enjoyed most was my ability to watch the initial audition process unfettered. I did for a couple of hours.  It was fascinating to get that type of access, which reflected the show’s lowered profile.

September, 2015: Kelly Clarkson, pregnant and powerful at Lakewood. I’ve seen Kelly perform seven or eight times in all sorts of different venues, from Centennial Olympic Park to Cobb Energy Centre to Fox Theatre to the Loft. I liked her every time. But I have to give her props for soldering through this particular concert in such discomfort. We as audience members could barely tell but she was suffering so much, she cancelled the rest of her tour. In other words, we were the last folks to see her live in concert before the second baby. Very cool.

September, 2015: Carrie Underwood CMT Instant Jam. Just a few days after Kelly Clarkson, I got to see Carrie in a tiny venue: Variety Playhouse. CMT gave away tickets at Atlantic Station and she performed 10 songs with grace and power. Sure, she can’t ad lib but she can perform. I unfortunately missed her most recent tour stop at Infinite Arena (formerly Gwinnett) but my colleague Melissa Ruggieri gave her raves.

Carrie Underwood played her latest single "Smoke Break" with a guitar. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/ rho@ajc.com

Carrie Underwood played her latest single “Smoke Break” with a guitar. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/ rho@ajc.com

September 2015: Final Atlanta auditions with JLo, Harry Connick Jr. and Keith Urban. On a Sunday morning at the W Hotel in Midtown, Fox 5’s Paul Milliken and I were the only media to cover the auditions. The vibe was casual and mellow. Paul and I were able to get one on one time with each judge. Heck, as HCJ was talking to me, Keith butted in because he was just hanging out:

 

 

 

 


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