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American Idol finale retrospective: Winners and judges look back

Paula, Ryan, Carrie, Ruben and more revisit the reality show that changed everything

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Fox; Sam Jones/Fox; Jason Merritt/FilmMagic for Fox Television Network

Kelly, Carrie, Simon, Paula, Fantasia — by just one name, we know who they are, what they do, and where they came from: That beast of reality television, that prototypically patriotic hour of regular folks reaching for their music dreams, American Idol.

On Thursday, the cultural phenomenon signs off once and for all, after 15 seasons, 14 years, 13 EW covers, 11 judges, and an insane ballpark viewership that you could probably throw in the low billions and not be far off. Along its way to the top of the zeitgeist (and its eventual return towards the bottom of it), the show minted global superstars and one-hit wonders; sparked a modern avalanche of live talent shows, celebrity judging panels, and viral videos before there was a place to share them; and united a nation every week at the watercooler.

RELATED: Extended Q&As ||| Ruben Studdard ||| Ryan Seacrest ||| Harry Connick Jr. ||| Randy Jackson ||| Adam Lambert ||| Paula Abdul 12 

Before Idol’s final winner is crowned, we wrangled up a few of the series’ most unforgettable voices — and Taylor Hicks! — to share their fondest memories from almost two decades of television history. This is the show that changed everything. This is the story of how. This … is American Idol.

ON THE BEGINNING

RYAN SEACREST, host: I remember the firsts of everything — the “first” of getting the job, the “first” of not knowing how to do it, trying to learn how to do live TV while we’re doing live TV. I remember the firsts of meeting Simon and Paula and Randy. I remember the first finale, where it was a big deal but on a much different budget than it became two years later.

PAULA ABDUL, judge: A year and a half before American Idol started I got a call from my music attorney saying, “There’s this TV show [in the U.K.] and all the kids are auditioning and singing ‘Spinning Around,’ ” a song I co-wrote. I asked what the show was about, and I ended up speaking to one of the producers. She started telling me about the show, and how there was a panel of judges and two unbelievably outspoken rude guys called Simon Cowell and Pete Waterman and she told me the way they auditioned, that they say to these poor kids’ faces that they suck, that they’re awful. I went, “Oh my God. Well, in Hollywood they say that stuff behind your back.” And she goes, “That’s the big difference here.”

ON SIMON, PAULA & RANDY

ABDUL: It was the perfect storm. It was the perfect recipe [with] just the right ingredients from each one of us, and with Ryan and Bryan [Dunkelman] at the beginning, it worked. You really didn’t know how the chemistry was going to work with all of us, and I think because we all had different points of view, it was a dysfunctional family. I knew what it felt like to have an annoying brother. There were a few times when we really couldn’t stand each other — well, not with Randy, we got along. But Simon would push buttons and I would push buttons back but at the end of the day, we’d laugh.

ON AUDITIONS

ABDUL: At the very beginning, its one of those things where you don’t want to laugh when it’s embarrassingly bad. It was a real exercise in poker face — how can you do poker face when the guy to the left of you is saying things that are absolutely horrible and you have Randy to the right holding sheets of paper over his face and his shoulders are going up and down laughing? It was horrible. I felt terrible for those kids. I would try to maintain composure in the midst of absurdity. There were completely, brilliantly delusional ones, equally matched with diamonds. When you think about the first season, like total stand outs like Kelly and Justin, Tamyra Grey, Christina Christian, EJay …There was never a shortage of incredible voices and raw talent. We were always able to find it.

RUBEN STUDDARD, winner, season 2: I watched maybe two episodes the season prior and I only watched because my mom was really into Tamyra Grey. But I was in a jazz band and I thought we were too cool for stuff like that. One of my background singers decided she wanted to audition, months after Kelly has won, and she asked me if I would go with her. We slept outside on the ground like everybody else did back in those first couple of years, and I remember deciding to audition when the producer kicked me in the morning and said, “Hey, are you auditioning?” And I was like, “Yeah. Why not?”

CARRIE UNDERWOOD, winner, season 4: The most important performance was my very first audition … not the one that was in front of “the judges.” I’m talking about the first one. The one that we had driven seven hours and waited eight hours for in that stadium in St. Louis. The one that over 7,000 people auditioning that day wanted to have. Somehow, after all the other auditions that the producers heard that day, the ones at the table that I sang to decided to give me a chance. They decided to give me a piece of paper that said I would move on to the next round.

CHRIS DAUGHTRY, 4th place, season 5: Everything was so new and uncertain. Nerve-wracking and exciting at the same time. It was a big, rigorous process out there in the stadium. There’s nine to ten thousand people not knowing how the hell I’m going to stand out compared to the rest.

ADAM LAMBERT, runner-up, season 8: After I had completed the first two rounds of auditions for the producers, I had to quit my job in order to move on. That was my income, my health insurance. It was a big risk. So when it came time to go in front of Simon and Paula and Randy and Kara [DioGuardi], it was in the back of my head: “If this doesn’t work out, you’re screwed.”

KRIS ALLEN, winner, season 8: I remember just putting blinders on. You see so many talented people get cut, so it was like, “If I make it further, awesome,” but I wasn’t banking on Idol to have a career. I didn’t have one in the first place. I really had nothing to lose. If I was to [audition] now, I would do worse — I would worry more. I was just in that point of life where I didn’t have a worry in the world.

[pagebreak]

ON THE RISE IN POP CULTURE

SEACREST: You could tell the show was taking off and at a significant pace and level, and that’s when it became really fun to do. I would do the show with the whole gang and then Randy and Simon and I would go grab a bite to eat after every show, and we’d hang out on the weekends. As much fun as we had on the show together, that’s the way we were like when we weren’t on the show. That’s what made it fun.

ABDUL: There are so many crazy things that would happen for us in airports, going out to eat. It’s hard for us to even put into perspective that there was a period of time that 30-plus million people tuned in, sometimes three times a week. It changed the trajectory of all of our lives and of television.

STUDDARD: It was pandemonium. I think after Kelly won, everybody was hungry for that thing that made her who she was. I think people were apprehensive that first season, but when we came along, it was like, “Okay, we’re in.” It was weird coming to the show and seeing, at any given time, everybody you’ve ever seen on television would be in the audience watching you with their kids. I remember how crazy it was driving up to the CBS lot where they tape the show and seeing people wrapped around the block waiting for tickets to get into the show. And they keep us in such a bubble that you can’t really understand until one day, you roll the window down. Folks just went crazy.

DAUGHTRY: We had just finished up one of the group numbers and I’m suddenly standing a foot away from Prince. I’m just like, “Holy s—, there’s Prince.” And I remember I held out my hand and was like, “It’s such an honor to meet you.” I just probably made sounds, actually.

ABDUL: Many people named their dogs and cats Simon, Paula, and Randy. I know that for a fact. The craziest thing that ever happened was this whole movement called Saula, which were telenovelas about Simon and Paula. Millions and millions of [fans] of Simon and Paula, that did these novels and full-on screenplays. There are all these Saula sites dedicated to Simon and I arguing, in love, living happily ever after.

SEACREST: I always found it interesting how complete strangers would come up to me and talk to me as a best friend, as somebody that they could show their passion about a contestant to. They could say, “I can’t believe so-and-so was eliminated. I can’t believe Chris Daughtry left last night. Would you please tell Fantasia I’m the biggest fan?” Across the country there was a true connection and almost this bonded friendship.

ON WINNERS & RUNNER-UPS

HARRY CONNICK JR., judge: You have to give it up for Kelly Clarkson. The fact that such a huge superstar won it that first year and made such an immediate connection with the world made people want to tune in and see if it would happen again. I did, and people that I know did. I think that’s why it’s been such a success.

STUDDARD: Kelly and I, I don’t think we could really detach ourselves as just artists from the show until maybe Carrie Underwood’s season, because we were always coming back. When Fantasia was on, Kelly and I were coming back. We all did an Idol Christmas special like three years in a row. And then there was American Juniors, so we were always on that set. There really wasn’t any life away from Idol because we were always around it. But it was good because it always kept you present in people’s faces. To me, there is no downside to being associated with American Idol.

UNDERWOOD: The moment that my name was called on the finale show … what an incredible moment! There was so much excitement and so many nerves in the air. It seemed like my entire life had led up to that very night. And when my name was called, it was the happiest moment of my life up to that point. That moment truly changed my life forever. Everything that has happened in the past ten-plus years has been because of that moment.

TAYLOR HICKS, winner, season 5: The show changed my life forever. I went from playing small venues in the Southeast to Southeast Asia. In a nutshell, that’s what it does for your career.

SCOTTY McCREARY, winner, season 10: Idol is a huge platform. It’s not a career, however. You have to get out there after the show and try to find your way and make the best music you can. But it definitely is the biggest platform out there in the world for getting your name out and your music out.

SEACREST: It did get emotional for me, for sure. You get to know the contestants. You look at somebody every week in the eye and you’ve got to tell them they’ve made it or they haven’t made it … that’s never something that you become immune to. Those last few moments before we would come back to see who the winner was going to be, I would always try and look at those contestants fairly. Even if I knew some of the results, I didn’t want them to be able to tell or me to telegraph in any way who was going to make it through.

LAMBERT: Getting right down to the final three, I knew I had so many opportunities that were going to open up for me. And at the same time, I’ve watched the show and I’ve seen that people can win or not win and that can be it for them — the show can be sort of their high point forever. Kris [Allen] won and I was happy for him. I’d already been told by the powers that be that they wanted to sign me to a major label and I got my wish. I knew I was going to make an album whether or not I won.

DAUGHTRY: The night that it all ended for me was crazy. I remember Hugh Jackman being in the dressing room waiting to say hi after. That was kind of like my consolation prize, I guess.[pagebreak]

ON SHOW SHAKE-UPS

SEACREST: Every time a new judge came in and there was a panel shift, it was a turn for the show.

ABDUL: The truth is, it was time for me to leave. I look at the president, who can’t stay in office more than eight years. I’ve never had the same job for eight years. I felt that there were changes happening, and it didn’t feel like the same show. And the show did change when I left. I would say to Simon, “You know, the show ended when I left. You were still there for almost two more years.” He’d say, “Oh, shut up.” But it’s true!

SEACREST: I remember when Jennifer first came on board, she and Randy and Steven [Tyler] and I got together and started talking. She had been such a fan and had seen every year, every episode. It was if she had been a judge already.

JENNIFER LOPEZ: When they asked me to do it, it was a big decision, you know? I was advised not to by a lot of people in my life — they just didn’t think it was the right thing for my career. I looked at it as something that I could contribute [to], because I had been in the music business for so long and it was something that would be fun for me to do at that time in my life. I had just had my kids, so it was nice to be home instead of touring all the time. It fit into my life perfectly, and I felt like it would be a good thing. And it was a great thing.

KEITH URBAN: I’ll miss the camaraderie between Harry, J. Lo, and Ryan, and the behind the scenes people. There’s a real family vibe at Idol. That’s the heart and soul of this show, and what it has when it’s at its best and most simple.

SEACREST: [The Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj era] was not a blur. There was plenty of action on the show that year. I relish in the uncertainty that this show could be. You would think that we plan out each and every bit, but we don’t. We really don’t know which direction it’s going to go, and I’m not so sure people were aware of that. Everything that the judges and I say is spontaneous. None of it’s scripted. When Simon and I would spar back and forth live, none of that was premeditated. It was literally all unfolding at the time, and that’s what made it so exciting.

ON LEGACY

UNDERWOOD: Idol changed television forever. For the first time, fans were given a choice of who they wanted to hear on the radio. They related to the contestants on the show. It was the ultimate Cinderella story.

ABDUL: The show gave so much hope that you, too, can achieve a dream. We were very lucky to have Clive Davis at the label, and really understanding how to harness the platform that this TV show had. And I take a lot of pride in the fact that there were legitimate ground-breaking careers that launched from it.

STUDDARD: You could see its impact on the music industry as a whole. I could just take my season as an example: You have four people from one season of one television show that had No. 1 singles. You had two people that had multi-platinum albums. And you can go season upon season of that show where that is a tangible reality, that other shows haven’t been able to copy.

LAMBERT: I think as a show it will always be remembered as this sort of amazing television and music event. The show came along in a time when our country needed some hope — it was right after 9/11. It was very inspiring for people to come together and root for the underdog, for a regular person.

SEACREST: I’ll tell you what I saw a lot of: As we were doing the show, it really defined a family program. A lot of parents would tell me it’s the only thing the kids would sit and do with them. And as I hosted the show, that was always in my mind: that this is a mainstream show that has people getting together.

DAUGHTRY: You would go to work the next day and everyone was talking about it when you got there. People were so invested emotionally in it. I don’t think I’ve heard that kind of passionate discussion about any of the other shows or their contestants.

LOPEZ: I’ll miss the people. From the very beginning, when I started the show, I was floored by what a well-oiled machine it was. The fun they had with it and how much everybody loved being there … it really felt like a family. Everybody looked out for each other. Once you were in that family, you were part of that family, and we were going to protect each other.

ALLEN: We all keep in touch as much as we can. If you were on that show, you support other people who were on the show because there’s the commonality of what we’ve done, how we got into the business. There’s only a big handful of people now that really know what that’s like.

SEACREST: There’s no reason to highlight your hair. I don’t think that was necessary. For some reason I thought that was a good idea at the time.

Additional reporting by Eric Renner Brown; Dana Rose Falcone; C. Molly Smith; Mary Sollosi; Gillian Telling; Nina Terrero

A version of this story originally appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1408–1409, here.