The former judge shares her regrets, favorite memories, and more ahead of the series' final bow
If you could snag a few minutes with former American Idol judge Paula Abdul, what would you ask? Ahead of the singing competition’s upcoming finale, EW snapped up the chance to ask Abdul our burning questions, and she didn’t hold back with her responses. Here, Abdul — one of the show’s original judges — reflects on Idol‘s legacy, her time on the panel, and reveals her wildest memories.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I think what most of us remember from the early Idol days were the crazy auditions. Did you ever grow to feel comfortable during the process of auditioning contestants?
PAULA ABDUL: At the very beginning, it’s one of those things where you don’t want to laugh when it’s embarrassingly bad. It was like a real exercise in poker face. But how can you do poker face when the guy to the left of you [Simon] is continuously saying things that are absolutely horrible, and then you have Randy to the right that’s holding sheets of paper over his face and his shoulders are going up and down laughing? It was horrible. There was so much going on. And by the way, I was the only one who was an artist and understood what it was like to be putting yourself out there. But the crazy thing was, it started becoming like, “Are are these people being serious? They’re really delusional. This is embarrassing.” And then they’re talking back to you.
What do you remember most about your first day on the judges’ panel?
A few years ago, this man came up to me and introduced himself and said, “I was your sound guy on your first day at work at American Idol.” And I said, “Oh wow. I feel bad, I must have quit a few times.” And he said “Eight. You quit eight times.”
I felt terrible for those kids. I would try to maintain composure in the midst of absurdity and they were completely delusional, like brilliantly delusional. But there was never a shortage of really incredible voices and raw talent. We were always able to find it, and that’s what was so exciting.
What did you grow to love most about the show?
What I loved about it was that it brought families together. It didn’t matter what your socioeconomic background was. It brought the community together, even in the workplace. And the talent, when the talent came in and let us know we were watching something truly unique and special. To this day, we’re one of the only shows that has been able to successfully launch multiplatinum careers and to have contestants go on to win awards, from Grammys to AMAs to BAFTAS to Oscars, you name it.
Do you have a favorite season?
I have incredible memories of each season, I really do. Every single season was special. Some seasons were stronger than others because of the diversity of the contestants, but still, there was incredible individual, unique talent right there. And even if they weren’t strong in the vocal area, they were strong in their presence. Season after season, they were all different.
What was the most difficult part about your time on the show?
Well, there was one thing that Simon told me. He said, “Being you is overrated.” I couldn’t even react. He said, “You can’t care as much as you do.” And I said, “I can’t not care as much as I do. I am who I am.” It’s true. If I could tune down that receptor of feeling energy and wanting to help and wanting to really, really want [contestants] to leave that stage a better version of themselves each time, it would have been a little easier for me. But that’s who I am. I cared. Because I was the artist fighting for the artist. It meant something. At the end of the day, I wanted them to leave the stage bigger and better and with more grace and dignity and elegance than they approached it the first time. I think that it would have been easier if I had grown up with brothers, because being the only girl was just crazy. It’s live reality television, but you can forget that you’re living everything live in the moment. It’s not staged, it’s not planned, except when they went out of their way to tease me and cause trouble for me. [Laughs] That was planned. They had fun with me. They had lots of fun at my expense.
What led to your decision to leave the show?
The truth is, it was time for me to leave. I’d never had the same job for eight years. I felt that there were changes happening, and it didn’t feel like the same show. I needed to go back and do things I wanted to do, and being in that contract with the show didn’t allow me to do many things. It was a bold decision to make, but I will always have tremendous gratitude because it was a tremendous experience for me. I was a big part of history. 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!
Will you appear on the American Idol series finale?
I know they’re trying to figure out what the three of us will do. I’m sure we’ll do something that will be trouble-making.
A version of this story originally appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1408–1409, on newsstands Friday or available for purchase here.