Rolling Stone Exclusive: On The Sets of ‘American Idol’ in Hollywood
You watched it on Zee Café. Now here’s a rare glimpse of what goes behind the scenes in making the greatest reality show on television
It’s around noon and Studio 36 at Los Angeles’ CBS Television City is abuzz with usual activity. The production and creative crew, most of them dressed in black, are swiftly going about their business in the area, which is a labyrinth of stairs, corridors, makeup rooms, equipment coves and elevators. The long workday is about to begin and there’s chirp in the air — people are hollering out hellos across hallways, making small talk or fixing themselves some coffee. Everything looks absolutely normal till I spot the first signboard on a wall with the inimitable American Idol blue logo, a sight that instantly takes me back to all the thrilling episodes of the show I had been following so far on Zee Café. It is also the moment when the full force of what I am to shortly witness that day dawns on me.
The next instant I find myself led through a long hallway lined with racks and racks of outrageously shiny clothes. There’s tasseled dresses, sequined blazers and velvet pants all screaming for attention, and just when I overcome the temptation to graze my hands over an exquisite rhinestone jacket, I am led into a parlor and greeted with the sight of six very familiar faces. You know that feeling when you find yourself in the company of a stranger you follow closely on Instagram? When you know their favorite brand of shampoo, what they did last weekend and exactly what they were doing till about two minutes ago? When a part of you wants to immediately launch into discussing that opinion article they posted the other day but realize that hellos come first? That’s the stuff that was going on in my mind when I shook hands with the top six contestants of American Idol: Laci Kaye Booth, Wade Cota, Laine Hardy, Madison VanDenburg, Alejandro Aranda and Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon.
My many conversations with the #Top6 in the next hour confirmed a fact I was almost sure of after following their individual journeys from auditions to this stage – that it takes a lot more than just an enormous amount of talent to come this far. Despite their young age (Madison and Laine are still in their teens!) each one of the #Top6 exuded an attitude that placed collaboration over competition. None of them harbored dreams of being the next Idol just because they felt entitled to it – on the other hand, they admitted to having spent years honing their craft just to become eligible of that honor.
When I asked the 17-year-old Madison why she would make the ideal Idol, she said, “ I have put many, many years of my childhood doing music, and this is my passion – this is what I really want to do.” During our chat, the brilliant Alejandro, who in one of the previous episodes had expressed his love for the sitar, told me: “I would love to spend an entire year just figuring it out.” Wade, on his part, shared how the journey on the show had been emotional but fun. Having triumphed through a troubled childhood, Wade felt he had a purpose on the show – to offer strength to those in need. “I am helping a lot of people’s families. I have people messaging me saying they finally left that [abusive] relationship after watching my video.”
Given the inspiration that each of the #Top6 on the show carry, it would be fair to say that American Idol isn’t just selling a Hollywood dream – it is selling the idea of empowerment that young, talented folks need today.
The Dream Team: Woodstock + Showstoppers Special episode!
I was clearly lucky that I got a chance to witness a rather special episode of American Idol. Not only was it elimination round, but it was also one where the contestants sang their favorite songs from the legendary 1969 Woodstock festival as well as a gospel track prepared under the guidance of guest mentor, the renowned singer-songwriter Lauren Daigle.
A primetime reality show like American Idol can’t function without a dream team that ensures it looks every bit its glamorous part. From vocal training and stage lighting to thematic costumes and hairstyles, there’s not one element of showmaking that doesn’t command meticulous adherence to perfection on American Idol.
Vocal coach Adriana McPhee, who has been associated with the show for over three seasons, says it’s really about understanding a contestant’s voice and what they can do best. “It’s an intense process because it is very fast. When they come to us, we have to take the song, break it down, make an arrangement and then you’re on stage a few days later… But we’re so lucky that they come to us already so talented so we as vocal coaches take what they’re already doing and make them better.”
What is the biggest challenge in picking the perfect song and ensuring it hits the right chord? Adriana says, “Every single week you’re challenged to pick an extraordinary song and make the most of it – it’s a very high-pressure situation – and at the same time you want it to feel very natural and a reflection of the artist.”
There’s no denying that a big part of any global artist’s career trajectory involves experimenting with their looks. For tonight’s episode, the contestants have two wardrobe changes. The Woodstock section is all fringes and shimmer while the Showstoppers is understated opulence.
Laury Smith, the head of wardrobe on the show, says it’s important for the show to also visually chronicle the journey of the artist through the course of the contest. “With American Idol, we like to do a gradual change – you want to see the contestant evolve as artist… We have to have a clear vision of where they are going style wise, so we do moodboards and then start putting the looks together. At the beginning it’s more trial and error but at this point on the show, they are becoming who they want to be.”
Dean Banowetz, the head hair stylist on American Idol believes change is the constant in an artist’s creative life, “Look at Madonna, look at Cher – they all keep changing their look with their sound!” Ask him about how crafting a perfect look can also be an empowering thing for an artist, and he says, “As long as they look good, they feel better. And when they feel better, they’re more confident. This season, the contestants are really open to trying new things and I like to push it a little more each week… My motto is: It’s never done until it’s overdone! Because I want somebody to look at Laci’s hair and go: ‘Oh, I want that!’
The head of makeup Tonia Green adds it’s all about capturing an individual’s personality. “It’s not about making anybody into something they’re not. We like to keep it as authentic and unique to themselves but also step it up a little bit and put some glam for the stage,” says Tonia as she points toward Madison who is sitting in a chair next to us getting her makeup done.
“She came in wanting a smokey eye, and she’s a minor so we do have to take that in consideration and make sure it’s not too over the top. So this was our idea of meeting in the middle and getting something that is a little more than what she has done before but also not very overwhelming and different than who she is.”
And It’s Showtime!
It’s early evening and the atmosphere in Studio 36 is getting both exciting and anticipative. The dress rehearsal is done and the live show is about to start in less than an hour. There’s a sudden sense of urgency in the air that you can’t miss but back in the green room, the #Top6 — to my utter disbelief – are displaying a remarkable sense of calm. They’re casually chilling on the sofa, cracking a joke every now and then or walking about nibbling on a snack. It’s hard to imagine that these six young singers are in competition with each other for America’s most prestigious singing title. Looking at them, they could well be members of a band bonding backstage minutes before the show.
We are now seated for the show, which is populated with a most exuberant audience I have ever witnessed in my life. Everyone is dressed in spring colors and the show director is warming the crowd teaching hilarious dance moves and stretching exercises. But it isn’t until the familiar sound of the American Idol jingle plays on the PA with the massive logo on the backdrop that you realize you’re watching American Idol live in front of your eyes – the world’s greatest music reality show.
A few minutes before showtime, Ryan Seacrest makes an appearance on the stage and the crowd erupts in applause. Just when you’re wrapping your head around the ‘reality’ of the whole scene, the show begins and Seacrest invites the contestants on the stage. In just a few moments, when the three judges take to the stage, the audience completely loses it. And who wouldn’t! While Lionel Richie gets a colossal dose of nostalgic love from the crowd –some even hollering “All Night Long!”—Katy Perry and Luke Bryan literally cause a storm among the young and old in the audience. A group of three pre-teens sitting next to me are just unable to keep it together, giggling uncontrollably and shrieking out Katy’s name. Pictures are only allowed during the breaks of the live taping of the show, and it’s incredible the speed at which the multitude of phone camera pop up in sync every time a short break is announced.
The Woodstock section of the show kicks off with Laci’s rendition of Janis Joplin’s cult hit “To Love Somebody”. Her celestial voice, coupled with a most stunning onstage look, is enough to win the crowd over, including Katy who says, “First up – bigger the hair, closer to God!” The #Top6 go on to perform an impressive range of songs from the Woodstock repertoire, each adding their own character to iconic hits like “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane, (Alejandro), “With a Little Help From My Friends” (Wade), Joe Cocker’s “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” (Laine), “Piece Of My Heart” by Janis Joplin (Madison) and “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” (Jeremiah).
The Showstopper Section was another delight. Armed with a new look and new set of songs, the #Top6 showed everyone why they’re America’s chosen few. Some of the tracks that charmed everyone included “Johnny B Goode” by Chuck Berry (Laine Hardy), “Somewhere” by Barbra Streisand (Jermiah), Celine Dion’s “I Surrender” (Madison), among others.
The judges’ response to each of these performances echoed just the sentiment of the crowd – while Lionel was at his nurturing best, offering valuable tips and hacks, Katy and Luke minced no words in letting them know how good they were or how much they needed to improve.
The show culminated with a most tense, nail-biting elimination round. Now I have to say it’s one thing to watch a sequence like that on television but another experience altogether witnessing the event unfold in front of your eyes. The Top 4 that made the cut that night include Alejandro, Madison, Wade and Laine. But lo and behold, the judges decide to use the ‘Save option’ and guess what – Laci makes it through too.
Having spent time chatting with the contestants backstage before the show, it is hard not to feel invested in each of their performances, wanting each artist to give their best. It was hard to watch Jeremiah leave but then that’s what a reality show is.
It was also then that I realized that American Idol is so much more than just a TV show—while TRPs matter most, what also goes a long way in cementing the legacy of the serial is its genuine role in launching careers, honing raw talent and presenting to the world a superstar.
All photos courtesy of ‘American Idol.’