As with any long-running reality show, American Idol was never entirely full of the warm fuzzies. A broad range of contestant and judge personalities, as well as technical issues and executive demands, have spurred many eyebrow-raising moments. Take a look back at some of the most memorable controversies and feuds in the singing competition’s history:
The adorable season 2 runner-up was the subject of controversy involving his Idol second place win. Aiken lost to Ruben Studdard by more than 130,000 votes, however, there were several fan accusations of improper calculations. It didn’t help that Ryan Seacrest had originally mentioned a 13,000 vote difference. Even though that still meant a loss for Clay, was it merely the host mis-reading zeroes, or something more dubious?
Frenchie Davis had the makings of a season 2 favorite given her spunky personality and striking rendition of Dreamgirls‘ “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.” Although she had disclosed having topless photos taken of her years before, the show still decided to let her go. This controversy became even more grievous when similar circumstances happened with season 6 contestant Antonella Barba.
Barba, however, wasn’t eliminated until the top 12, which was further than Davis had been allowed to rise, resulting in cries of hypocrisy and racism (Barba is white, Davis is black). Double standard accusations were also brought up in season 11, when judge Jennifer Lopez’s racy “Dance Again” video aired during the family-friendly show. Despite the controversy, Frenchie has since gone on to have an impressive musical career.
Season 2 also found another interesting character in Corey Clark. Clark at first claimed that he had been dismissed from the show for challenging contract terms and that producers lied about not knowing of his previous run-ins with the law.
Not content to put the experience behind him, he then later alleged he was let go because of a sexual affair with Paula Abdul. None of his claims were ever substantiated, and subsequent years haven’t proved too illustrious for the controversial contestant.
Paula Goodspeed, aka Sandra McIntyre, didn’t make it into season 5, but there was more to her unimpressive version of Tina Turner’s “Proud Mary” than off-key vocals. Creepily referring to herself as Paula Abdul’s “#1 fan,” she had actually been a long-time stalker of Abdul but was still allowed into auditions. Her obsession continued after the show and ended tragically in 2008 when she parked her car outside Abdul’s home and overdosed on drugs.
“White Guy with Guitar” Controversy
David Cook, Kris Allen, Lee DeWyze, Scott McCreery and Phillip Phillips were the American Idol winners for seasons 7 – 11, calling into question if it really was just talent or what critics called the “white guy with guitar” (WGWG) preference. Coincidence or not, Candice Glover, a black woman, won the next season. There wasn’t any doubt about her incredible voice, but conspiracy theorists still speculated whether it was the color of her skin rather than her talent that clinched her win.
Joanna Pacitti had more than just a minor resume of singing in bars and clubs when she made it through a couple of rounds for American Idol‘s 8th season. She had contributed songs to the Legally Blonde, Cadet Kelly, Nancy Drew and Bratz soundtracks, and was apparently close friends with two Idol executives. When this came to light, the show dismissed her.
With outstanding covers including Tears for Fears’ “Mad World,” Adam Lambert seemed poised to become the 8th winner of the show. He lost, however, to Kris Allen in a voting scandal dubbed “TextGate” by Jimmy Fallon.
According to the New York Daily News, AT&T “provided free text-messaging services at two fan parties in Arkansas for Allen supporters… but offered no such services for Lambert fans.”
Simon Cowell and Ellen DeGeneres
It’s no surprise that there wasn’t much love lost between Simon and Ellen when she joined the show as a judge during season 9. With his harshness and her gentle manners, the two constantly butted heads and the uncomfortable atmosphere it created was evident on screen. She has expressed regrets about being on the show, mostly stemming from having to critique contestants, and both she and Cowell left the show after the season concluded.
It’s been an Idol ritual for the year’s previous winner to be on stage at the next season’s finale. DeWyze, however, wasn’t there to pass on the title to season 10’s winner Scotty McCreery. Why? No one really knows, except for maybe executive Nigel Lythgoe, who claimed that DeWyze was invited but was “too shy” to be back on stage. Odd, given that Lee of course had to be in the spotlight numerous times to earn his own win. He did at least attend the show, though he stayed in the audience and wasn’t even acknowledged by host Ryan Seacrest.
Season 11 winner Phillips sued the show’s production company 19 Entertainment three years after his win. He lodged a number of complaints, including misguided profits and lack of creative control. It’s certainly not the first time recording contracts have been disputed, but this particular incident gained a lot of public attention and resulted in an out-of-court settlement.
Kerr didn’t make it to season 11’s Hollywood round, but she still caught the paparazzi’s attention when she was photographed cuddling up with then-married country star Jason Aldean. They blamed the incident on “poor judgment” and alcohol. However, after Aldean’s subsequent divorce, Brittany became his second wife in 2015.
Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj
Some say it was played up for the cameras. Others say it’s what happens when two divas are in the same room. Regardless, season 12 will always be remembered in part by the antics between judges Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj. With plenty of profanity and insults, alleged threats, and Carey’s increased security detail, the feud resulted in plenty of drama for viewers, contestants, and fellow judges Randy Jackson and Keith Urban.