Simon Cowell, Demi Lovato, Kelly Rowland, and Paulina Rubio judge the first crop of wail-abees

By Annie Barrett
September 12, 2013 at 12:50 AM EDT
Ray Mickshaw/Fox
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The U.S. X Factor has never been good, but tonight’s relatively benign hour-long premiere suggested season 3 might not be terrible. Sure, we haven’t put out a Leona Lewis or a One Direction, but our X Factor doesn’t have to suck, right? New judges, yo! Simon Cowell grimacing and barking at contestants “Do you work?” before leaning back in his self-satisfied bubble of nonchalance! Demi Lovato is still there! This can work, this time. Maybe. There’s a chance.

I BELIEVE!

He is real.

Meet Destiny’s Child member and Grammy-winning solo artist Kelly Rowland and Mexican pop princess/fingerless glove enthusiast Paulina Rubio — two energetic sentient creatures who have thrillingly replaced season 2’s judge-robots, L.A. Reid and Britney Spears. We didn’t see too many antics from them tonight — but the new ladies, along with seasoned veteran Demi Lovato, looked awake, alert, and ready to work for their massive paychecks. It’s a huge improvement already.

Let’s get right to the contestants — because it’s supposed to be about them, right? — who made it through to the next round because they weren’t so peet-chee — “you know, like an apple, a peach,” explained Paulina Rubio. What?

Carlito Olivero, 23: The Chicago native wants people to recognize him and go, “Hey, that’s the guy who makes the best frappucinos in all of Los Angeles!” You know, if this could somehow be proven, Carlito would not even need The X Factor to become a bona fide wealthy and famous man. He should open up a 24-7 drive-thru frappe hut on Santa Monica Blvd. The guy’s usually had six shots of espresso by 5 a.m. He is clearly willing to work for it! Maybe he should get in touch with Britney.

His voice started out shaky, but the compelling thing about Carlito’s performance was the way he directly engaged the crowd after sauntering past the judges with nary a pleading-for-initial-acceptance glance. He has that winning combination of friendliness and confidence that can take someone truly far in life, or at least to behind the barista counter instead of teetering desperately in front of it. Zero caffeine in one’s system is a sign of the weak, and Carlito is a star. Just look at him, practically lording his noggin over Simon Cowell’s in this expertly arranged shot!

And then just like that, the star alignment of the century had ended.

“Enough. Enough, now,” said Simon Cowell, actually.

The judges all dug Carlito’s way. “There’s no one around like you at the moment,” said Simon, while Demi said the young earringed man reminded her of a cross between Mexican singer Frankie J and American fictional character Trey Songz. “We are witnessing a star,” Kelly Rowland confirmed. Paulina Rubio was also there. And Carlito was through. Four yeses!

“They’re gonna serve [coffee] to me from now on!” exclaimed the triumphant, sweaty youth. Eww. Can we delete that?

NEXT: A 54-year-old young lady and two sex partners Lilly McCloud, 54: Damn! Lady looked to be in her early 30s, maybe, from far away. She’s a mother of three and grandmother of seven with a giant afro and a purple comb. Really all you need in life — but Lilly’s decided now is her time to strive for more. I was instantly swept up in her rendition of CeCe Winans’ “Alabaster Box,” a religious tune foreign to me and, Kelly Rowland guessed, the rest of the audience. “The fact that you sang a song people didn’t know and made them feel that….?” Kelly trailed off.

Lilly definitely has the vocal power and gracious humility to go far on this stage of fakery and laser fields. Her singing was so mature and fully realized — “like listening to someone like Gladys Knight,” offered Simon. That one was a freebie. “You ripped my heart out of my chest,” claimed Demi Lovato, pants on fire, no blood in sight. “I feel like I’m listening to Whitney. Maybe your time wasn’t supposed to happen until now.”

Meanwhile, Paulina’s contributions will apparently be subtitled on occasion:

Hurray! Three yeses and a si! Leather pants with one floral garter patch for everyone!

“I would take the Over 25s in a heartbeat. I would be all my money on this girl.” Oh Demi, don’t say that! All your money?

No more “teens” and “young adults” this season, by the way. We’re back to Boys, Girls, Over 25s, and Groups.

Alex Kinsey, 21, and Sierra Dayton, 22: The crew went to great lengths to show the romantic chemistry between these two before they went onstage, when really a 30-second snippet of their twisted take on Britney Spears’ “Toxic” was all we needed. I was so worried they wouldn’t be able to sing at all, as they seemed much more intent on establishing themselves as a unit of “us” than as professionals of any sort (vocalists, kissing models, etc.). “You like being onstage with me?” Alex gently cooed to his sex partner. Enough with the foreplay, you guys, just do it already.

They were good! I couldn’t tell if Sierra’s “do they really like us? DO THEY?” mugging was an act, but I guess not? I so desperately want to believe it was real. Like Santa! Santa and Sierra. In a sort of reverse-Gotye and Kimbra situation, Sierra carried most of the song and Alex chimed in to support her and offer his own lead verse near the end. Her voice had a much stronger “establishing twang” between the two, a twang which could get annoying. But their harmonies were nice and hey, Kelly and Demi agreed they were “very sexy.”

Sierra’s embarrassment comes across as endearing, for now at least. She couldn’t believe anyone was cheering, while sex partner Alex was like “Well yeah, duh. You’re a hot girl acting vulnerable.” Simon called them “actually both cool and quirky.” Liar Lovato claimed to have chills all up and down her legs, while gesturing to her arms.

“Just holding hands, it inspired me,” drooled Paulina in English. “I believe in you guys. I believe in love.” Wait, is that Paula Abdul under all that hair? What a shakeup!

Simon toasted Alex and Sierra with his water, a girl in the audience made a hand-heart, and the sex partners were on their way.

NEXT: ‘I think you’re lit-ruh-lly extraordinary’ Rion Paige, 13: “I have this hand condition…they’re curved differently because of my joints. I’m almost permanently blind in my right eye,” began Rion, who is very physically cute but has this constant gush of positive energy that could become tiresome — CHILD STAR on overdrive. I hate to say that right away. I am such an old grinch, honestly. But I could not get down with loving all up on this girl just because her hands don’t work and she has gorgeous fluffy, blonde hair and the will to live. I’m just not sure her voice is all that great! But she’s certainly a pro performer already. She’s got a bunch of recent live performances up on YouTube.

“Ever since I was little, I would find a way to get to a microphone,” explained Rion in a voiceover as some of her fellow female auditioners poured water into her mouth. “Music helps me be able to explain my feelings.” Aggggggh, it all seemed so staged! This isn’t the desert!

The judges all raved about Rion — “I think you’re lit-ruh-lly extraordinary,” Simon said — but the raves had little to do with her sultry take on Carrie Underwood’s “Blown Away.” Demi: “I cannot believe the struggles that you’ve had and how positive you are. Everyone in this room can learn something from you.” (I just did: I need to take a wind machine with me wherever I go, starting now.) “Music heals everything and I’m honored to live this with you,” said Paulina. They’re already living together. Is that normal?

Simon laid it on especially thick for Rion, calling her “the easiest yes I have ever given anyone in my life.” I feel like Simon’s worldview spans a bubble of a few feet and is cloaked in a green-tinted, nutrient-rich smoothie haze. So all of his superlatives make sense, just to him, right at that moment. History has no place in that bubble. What countless other seasons of judging reality singing competitions? What baby? Who are these three random women sitting next to him? No worries! It is allllllll good. Gulp.

“I’m gonna remember this audition for a long time,” Simon said, mapping out the next few seconds or so within the bubble before poof! They disappeared. “In every single way, Rion, you are a beautiful person.”

We didn’t see too many huge losers right out of the gate: Sally Hessnice, 55, was the lone delusional old bat of the hour with her “Greatest Love of All” delivered in a creepy baby doll voice. A hairdresser in Miami mauled Simon with kisses, temporarily penetrating the green nutrient bubble — but he loved it, so all was well.

Coming up in Thursday’s second episode: More hand-hearts, more Whitney wail-abees, and a tie-dyed rainbow monster rapping “Baby Got Back.” Are you in? For at least one more night?

Remember: The winner of $1 million could be anyone.

Anyone.

Follow @EWAnnieBarrett

Episode Recaps

Simon Cowell, Demi Lovato, Kelly Rowland, and Paulina Rubio judge Season 3.
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