Through the years, talent competitions have been broadcast over the airwaves with much success. Before TV was even a glimmer in the public eye there was Major Bowes Amateur Hour, a radio staple from 1934 through 1946. When TV was born, so was Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour, which took to the air in 1947.
Fast forward to 2004 and American Idol, which took the concept of the talent competition and blew it into monstrous proportions. Author Richard Rushfield covered the show for the Los Angeles Times starting from season six, where he conducted thousands of hours of interviews with the cast and crew, and delved deeper inside the Idol world than any journalist had before. In his new book, American Idol: The Untold Story, he recounts the show’s history, starting with the years before it became a television giant through today.
The pre-Idol history is a must-read for anyone remotely interested in how American Idol became the major success it is. Rushfield begins the journey with a mini biography of Simon Fuller, the mastermind behind the Spice Girls and the man who first envisioned the audition based singing competition. Then we meet Nigel Lythgoe, executive producer of the U.K. show Popstars, the vehicle that started it all. From there the book focuses on American Idol: its contestants, cast and crew, scandals, rivalries and mishaps. The stories are at times heartbreaking, other times comical, but they’re never dull. The interviews with Simon Cowell and other major players in the Idol canon give credibility to the story Rushfield tells.
Despite the book’s glitzy dust jacket and its bombastic title, Rushfield’s tome is anything but a cheap tabloid shot at a proven element. Yes, he does tell tabloid-like tales such as the Justin Guarini, Tamyra Gray, Kelly Clarkson romantic triangle of season one. But what could have been a sordid story becomes an unfettered account of how a cad played with the hearts of two of his fellow contestants without either one of them realizing it.
Simon Cowell comes across not so much as a villain as an astute, opinionated music executive who made a few bad life choices at the start. Through a mix of luck and savvy, he overcame his troubles to transform himself into more than just a judge of a talent contest. He became an iconic presence who defined the show.
Rushfield embraces the controversial aspects of Idol: from conspiracy theories to Cowell’s love/hate relationship with Paula Abdul, and a surprisingly touching chapter on Brian Dunkelman, the original Idol co-host who cared too much about the contestants’ feelings for his own good.
Paula Abdul’s time on the show was rife with controversy, which Rushfield discusses in detail. He also notes that when she left, her $1.9 million salary was overshadowed by Cowell’s $39 million take home pay. Needless to say, she was a bitter woman at the end of her run.
For Idol fans who want to read a no nonsense, tell-all account of the show that contains none of the tabloid trappings you’d associate with a book of this kind, Richard Rushfield’s American Idol: The Untold Story is highly recommended.
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