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‘American Idol’ embraces its inner bully

Simon is more cruel, GLAAD expresses concern and viewers keep watching
/ Source: The Associated Press

Considering it’s the biggest kid on the block, “American Idol” is becoming quite the bully.

Fox’s talent contest regularly has made an art of mocking the untalented who expose their dreams of stardom on TV, but the show’s fifth year has the stench of a mean season.

Vulnerable contestants are coming in for more ridicule; bounced contestants are unleashing more extended and expletive-laden attacks on the judges and, we are warned, the future will demonstrate how vicious singers can be when they really want to win.

“We now have contestants who will not let anything get in their way of victory,” host Ryan Seacrest told The Associated Press before the show returned. “Some contestants have thrown each other under the bus this season.”

Much is at stake. Producers Fremantle Media North America and 19 Entertainment, who again have delivered the No. 1-rated show to Fox (last week’s premiere drew a record 35.5 million viewers), are under pressure to keep the format a lucrative draw.

Would-be idols know this game can be about more than fleeting fame: It may be 15 seconds or it may be big album sales and a shot at a lasting career, as with “Since U Been Gone” hitmaker Kelly Clarkson.

“Shows have to reinvent themselves to stay fresh and invigorated for all these years,” said analyst Shari Anne Brill of New York-based Carat USA.

Now with extra venomIn the past, “American Idol” (airing Tuesday and Wednesday) upped the age for contestants to 28 and divided the finalists evenly between men and women. This year, it’s trying a little anti-tenderness.

Weight and sexuality are favorite targets, as in previous seasons and just like around the typical school yard. But there is new venom in everybody’s blood, and emotional fragility be damned.

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In last week’s Chicago audition, a heavyset woman with an exceptional voice got a thumbs-up from the judges — and then chief provocateur Simon Cowell suggested the show might consider a bigger stage.

This especially cheap insult came from a man who also knows how to wittily target the performance, not the person. He once compared a singer to a “waiter in a ghastly Spanish nightclub” and said a yodeled song was “a cross between a rodeo and ‘La Cage Aux Folles.”’

Also in Chicago, a man with a high-pitched voice got Cowell’s brutal career advice: Shave your beard and try wearing a dress.

In the Denver audition, Randy Jackson couldn’t hide his surprise that a slightly built, long-haired contestant was male, not female.

“Wow,” Jackson said. When the young man said he intended to sing Whitney Houston’s “Queen of the Night,” Jackson responded with a second “wow.”

“Atrocious. Confused,” was Cowell’s post-performance comment.

Jackson’s reaction seemed spontaneous and not unkind. After he was dismissed by the judges, the tearful contestant said Jackson “was just trying to make it all better.”

Cut and print it; that’s the kind of humiliation that sells.

Homophobic ‘Idol’?Cowell and host Ryan Seacrest are known for their faintly gay-mocking banter, but the limits have become so stretched that the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation contacted Fox to voice concerns over the show’s treatment of “sexual orientation and gender expression.”

“The real offense here was in the producer’s decision to add insult to injury by turning a contestant’s gender expression into the butt of a joke,” spokesman Damon Romine said in a statement posted on the group’s Web site.

On Tuesday, GLAAD said it has started what it hopes will be a productive, ongoing conversation with Fox. The network declined comment.

While the series ultimately becomes about choosing the audience’s favorite performer, the producers have decided to focus the audition segment on “the best of the worst” as well as the truly talented, analyst Brill said.

That puts the judges in the nearly inevitable position of offering smart-aleck comments, such as when Cowell toyed with a highly tanned, fashion-challenged young woman and her mother.

The snarky tone was carried over onto Fox’s official “American Idol” Web site, in which a columnist questioned the mom and daughter’s intelligence, saying, “I haven’t seen such vacant stares this side of a mannequin.”

Blaming Cowell for taking the bait or Jackson’s discomfort with the contestant of uncertain gender is akin to making actors take the fall for their scripted lines; the producers lead them into the scene and the result is predictable.

The Hung factorIn 2004, following the unlikely celebration of spectacularly off-key William Hung, Cowell expressed uneasiness with spotlighting the untalented.

“When you celebrate awfulness it puts you in a slightly uncomfortable position,” Cowell said then, adding he was nervous “that we’re going to get people coming on the show next year that want to be bad.”


“American Idol” producers were unavailable for comment Tuesday.

However, when it comes to the show’s bluntness about contestants, heavy or otherwise, that’s simply reality, said Peggy Howell, spokeswoman for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance.

“We’re burying our head in the sand if we try to pretend people don’t have those attitudes and think and say those things,” said Howell.

And when it’s showcased on “American Idol,” that’s entertainment — or so the ratings say.

“The audience has not shied away yet,” said analyst Bill Carroll of Katz Television. “But it’s early in the game.”