American Idol‘s ninth season begins tonight on Fox — look for PopWatch posts from yours truly right before and after the showx-, plus a full TV Watch recap on in the early morning — but today, the show’s fans are still buzzing about Simon Cowell’s announcement that he won’t return for season 10 in 2011. I picked up my special IdolPhone (covered in Ford, AT&T, and Coca-Cola logos) and reached out to five popular former contestants — Melinda Doolittle, Brooke White, Anoop Desai, Matt Giraud, and Megan Joy — and asked them two all-important questions: Can Idol survive without the notorious British judge, and how should the show proceed in looking for a person to fill Mr. Nasty’s chair? Here’s what they had to say:

Melinda Doolittle (third place, season 6): “You’re probably not going to like my answer: I have no idea. For me, Simon was my champion while on the show, he always had my back, and I’m a huge huge fan. And even when I don’t agree with the way he says things, I normally agree with what he says. So I’m wondering, how do you replace his wit, his sarcasm, and his non-filtering way of saying things? That’s what makes me nervous. You see so many shows try to copy the format, but they still can’t get a Simon. He’s so quick about it, especially on the live shows. I remember last season when [Idol‘s producers] were trying to cut back on time, and they only had two judges critique every performer. I was so upset because I didn’t know what Simon thought [for every other contestant]. I was like ‘Maybe they can do Randy and Simon, then Kara and Simon, then Paula and Simon. This is not working at all!’ The biggest quality a new judge will need is to have a business executive’s mind. That’s what [Simon] represented for us on the panel: ‘The bottom line is this doesn’t work, or this will make me some money.’ If Simon and Paula end up on X Factor, that might just get me. I would have killed to be mentored by one of the judges, mentored by Simon! Knowing me, I’ll probably have to watch both shows. I can’t give up on Idol, but X Factor is becoming more and more intriguing to me.”

Brooke White (fifth place, season 7): “I want to say yes [Idol can survive without Simon], but I think I have to say no. Because it’s not just Simon leaving. Paula’s leaving too. And it’s season 9 now. The intrinsic formula [is changing]. I wish it was about the contestants, but the truth is we get replaced every year, and people are used to that. But what they do have is a constant, and that’s the judges. There’s comfort knowing when they turn on the TV, these judges they trust can help them make a decision. That familiarity is going to be missing [in season 9 and even more so in season 10]. And initially, that will make people tune in out of curiosity. But will it have longevity? Will it stick? I don’t know. It’s almost like they have to come at Idol from a completely different angle, but the issue with that is that Simon is bringing a new show [to U.S. viewers] that’s a reinvention of American Idol! Yikes. I mean, it’s sad. But good things come to an end. I do know you’re not going to find a replacement, per se, for Simon — another meanie British man. He’s known for being right — which sometimes just kills me. Because it’s not about being nice, it’s about telling the truth. And on top of that, while Simon is a judge, he’s also a star. And as cheeseball as it sounds, he does have the X factor. With Idol, everyone has wondered: How long is it gonna last? And then for a lot of people, it lasted longer than expected. And now it’s like: How could it ever stop? It’s the biggest TV show in America, maybe the world. What would it be like if we didn’t have American Idol? But when you have powerful personalities and celebrities involved, you know eventually they’re going to want to do their own things. It’s like the boy-band phenomenon: It works for a time and it’s huge, and then people want to go spread their wings and become Justin Timberlake.”

Matt Giraud (fifth place, season 8 ): “No offense to Paula, ’cause I love her more than life, but it’s going to be harder to replace Simon than it is to replace Paula. People take his word as the final opinion. And a lot of people will find it confusing to not see Simon’s opinion on every performance. He has that blunt thing. People sometimes feel Randy and Kara sugarcoat it. And I don’t think they need another person to say, ‘Well, I liked your outfit.’ Believe it or not people often tune in for the judges more than the contestants. That’s why they get paid so much. [Laughs.]”

Anoop Desai (sixth place, season 8): “I think the show can survive without Simon. When the show first started it was a lot more dependent on that ‘Simon Cowell personality,’ and that’s still a big drawing point for the show. But it’s also come into its own as part of the American psyche. At its core, the show is still about talent being discovered, and America likes going on the journey with those people, regardless of who the judges are. So, yeah, every past contestant would like to think that Idol can go on without Simon. Having said that, of course, when you think American Idol, you think Simon Cowell. I have no idea of the effect it will have on the brand. Simon is a caricature of the mean judge [archetype]. Can they get someone to replace that viewpoint? Sure. Can that person do it as well as Simon has done it the last eight seasons? Probably not. Whoever replaces him will have to have a background in the music industry. That’s really what gives Simon his bite: He comes into this with the assumption of ‘I know what I’m talking about. I’ve made hits.’ It has to be someone bona fide, someone who can back up what they’re saying. Simon is insanely popular, too. Not only do people love to hate him, they just love him. Nine out of ten people you talk to will say, ‘He’s a jerk, but I agree with him most of the time.’ What Idol needs to be careful of is that it’s one thing to be mean, but it’s another thing to be mean and right. And that’s the genius of Simon Cowell is that he’s mean, but he’s right.”

Megan Joy (ninth place, season 8): “How I’m looking at it is that Idol as we know it is never going to be the same; it’s going to be two brand-new shows [Simon-free Idol and The X Factor] to love. It’ll be new and different and exciting. Idol without Simon and Paula, and all these new people, it can’t possibly be the exact same ever again. Definitely they shouldn’t try to create a ‘new Simon.’ It needs to be something original and fresh. It’d be silly to try to have a judge be like Simon, but I don’t know the key beyond that.”

Oh, and for all my American Idol coverage — season 9 and otherwise — follow me on Twitter @EWMichaelSlezak!