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American Idolatry and Its Double Standards

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This article is part of a series in celebration of a new, dynamic voice in Black America: the NUBIANO Exchange. Brace yourself for the NUBIANO experience. 

  by Kemi James

Something disturbed me a few weeks back while watching the new American Bandstand – easily disguised as American Idol. The panel of judges (Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell) had to endure the cacophony of a particular weak link among the female contestants. Among the future divas was one Antonella Barba, a current student at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., who croaked her little heart out, singing the 1998 Aerosmith hit, “I Don’t Want to Miss A Thing.”

As she made her final, forgettable note, Humpty Dumpty (Jackson), Loopy (Abdul), and the Grinch (Cowell) evaluated her suicide-committing rendition of the previously mentioned song. Jackson, the newer, darker Simon Cowell (always with a “yo” here and a “dawg” there), pretty much listened to Barba’s voice and didn’t like it one bit. Miss Abdul, famous for being the cop-out among the three arbiters, told Miss Barba 1) she’s pretty, 2) the song “choice” was not good and 3) she sounds just like her – a cute face with no tonal quality whatsoever.

Then, America’s star grump from across the Atlantic bashed Barba’s performance. Surprisingly, in a weird twist of fate, he followed that dismissal, possibly saving the 20-year-old from elimination, by adding that she is an attractive girl and voters would place that in her favor.

Beauty over talent? Noooo! Not again!

Cowell was right: On Thursday night, Barba wasn’t kicked off the island, er, stage, as host Dick Clark, ahem, Ryan Seacrest booted off two other hopefuls whose performances were slightly better than Barba’s own. Harmless, right? Barba did nothing wrong, right? This is the land of opportunity, a country which gave its popular vote to Al Gore in 2000, without glaring spots of fault, right?


Here’s the problem: on a show like American Idol, no one is really concerned about Barba’s singing – or those of any stick-thin Barbie, for that matter. It’s all about prejudice and the image bias that reeks through Western society, just as heavily as racial bias. It is not to say every female contestant, before this sixth installment, sailed through sounding and looking like Beyoncé or Britney Spears, but some have gone on the penultimate rounds, like Fantasia Barrino in Season 3, with a fine church lilt and a very curvaceous figure.

There were other “thick girls” who were gone too soon, who seemingly didn’t fit the societal image of beauty – like recent Oscar-winning, supporting actress Jennifer Hudson, who was told by Cowell that her time was up, a fourth runner-up as a result.

Pictures of Barba in her birthday suit, in various positions and poses of debauchery, had allegedly appeared on the Internet, file sharing of her going all over the States worse than when Napster was a free-for-all back in the late 1990s. Some members of the media suggested that Barba be kicked off the remaining group of 20 post-haste. After all, wasn’t this the same production company that had sent previous contestants home for bad behavior, those with criminal records? Did the producers of shows like this and So You Think That You Can Dance? not have Frenchie Davis, a former Howard University student and contestant during the early parts of the show in 2003, packing after it was discovered there were similarly questionable pictures of her on an adult web site?

A statement from Fox reads, “[they] don’t comment on the personal lives of our show participants.” Nigel Lythgoe, one of the aforementioned mega-producers, speculated in Entertainment Weekly magazine that her friends placed those pictures online, not she. Even the school she attends is looking the other way, trying not to get its hands dirty.

Whether the removal of Frenchie Davis or the stand-pat approach of keeping Antonella Barba was okay or not, once a woman or man is in a compromising position and his or her body is captured (or altered to resemble or enhance that same image) on the Web, even if that person is featured on a nationally televised stage in a more positive, trouble-free manner, there is a problem. The overall image that American Idol wants to project is not a squeaky-clean one, but one not involved in racy photos – making the the winner head towards a career-declining spin of twists and turns à la Lindsay Lohan.

The producers of this popular show on Fox should not make one black contestant (beautiful and voluptuous and very talented) look bad, even if she had done something immoral and risqué, and after that, turn the other cheek, keeping the “personal” matters of another contestant, a young white woman, who is considered stunning (but not nearly as gifted as her fellow female counterparts) hush-hush! Although some of the pornographic evidence has been reported to be a hoax, her image remains to be seen around the world in scenes of pleasure and poor behavior, without clothes – something lacking a musical or uplifting stance.

Regardless of the speculation behind this brouhaha, this is a very unfair handling of the case and it should not be allowed. Yet it’s not a complete shock, seeing how passé producers in general have been in the past with certain contestants on TV shows (think: Tara Conner, Miss USA, pardoned by Donald Trump). However unfortunate for some, everyone is not able to skate over their transgressions without being reprimanded.


"American Idol Down to 12; Antonella Barba Eliminated."  TransWorldNews.  March 9, 2007.

"Frenchie Davis: "Idol" Double Standard?"  The ShowBuzz | CBS Interactive.  March 6, 2007.

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About Clayton Perry

  • Fortunately, Antonella was kicked off the following week. I get what you’re saying, but here’s what you’re missing:

    1. People are voted off based on phone calls, and that’s what Simon meant. He often says that people *should* vote based on singing ability, but they *do* vote based on other things.

    2. The explicit photos were not actually Antonella, but a pseudo-lookalike. (You mention this in your article, but it bears remembering on the next point.)

    3. Frenchie Davis had been paid to appear in nude bondage photos, and specifically failed to disclose that on the comprehensive paperwork all contestants fill out. Antonella had private non-nude photos leaked by a slimy ex-boyfriend. Private photos wouldn’t be expected to leak, and wouldn’t need to be disclosed on paperwork. Frenchie lied, Antonella didn’t. Worlds apart.

    4. And honestly, it’s been a couple of years. It’s *possible* they wouldn’t boot Frenchie in 2007, either. Maybe. The show evolves.

    5. Two of the three leading contestants this year are large (by popular standards) black women. The judges give them nothing but praise. I think Simon has a serious crush on Melinda, actually.

    So overall, I don’t know that your thesis is supported, but it is interesting to note that people’s voting patterns definitely seem to have a racial factor sometimes.

  • One more I forgot: After Jennifer Hudson recently said that Simon Cowell had been mean to her, someone assembled all the video footage of Simon talking to Jennifer from her season of AI. She was wrong — Simon had said almost all good things about her. Raving praise, in fact, including saying that he thought she absolutely deserved to be the American Idol. ‘Twas the phone voters that blew it, not Simon.

    Bottom line: AI is skewed in all sorts of ways, but once the final whatever hit the stage, it’s entirely and completely up to whomever dials those phone numbers, and AI has a track record of putting through good singers of all colors and all shapes and all sizes.

    If Melinda, LaKisha, or Blake don’t win this year, well, then, I’ll take it all back and AI sucks. 🙂