As the cultural behemoth American Idol nears its anticipated end, EW asked several of the key players from the reality juggernaut’s 15-season run to revisit the firsts: those first jitters, first auditions, first eliminations, and first realizations in the early days that Idol was something much bigger than just a showcase for frosted tips.
Ryan Seacrest has presided over the proceedings on the Fox reality series since its launch in 2002 (back when he shared the hosting gig with one Brian Dunkleman, whose legacy has since been lost to the punchlines of the early oughts). In chatting with EW, Seacrest lauded the show’s major legacies – notably, its ability to unite families nationwide during the Idol heyday – but the mega-producer also shared a few key revelations about parts of the Idol DNA that didn’t always translate to the screen.
This… is Ryan Seacrest talking about American Idol.
“There were a handful of things that just became organic, including the way we start the show,” says Seacrest, launching into a bone-chilling recitation of his signature salutation, “This… is American Idol!” The way Seacrest tells it, an accidental genesis morphed the phrase into a lingering, elongated push to commercial breaks during late-in-the-season eliminations. “It just sort of happened and we stuck to it for several years. We had several shows over the course of the series where we were doing things before the results, and it became slightly comical that we were pushing everything to after the break… ’after the break.’ And I just started changing the cadence of it a little bit, I guess. Now if I say that to people, they get it.”
Remember all those battles between Simon and Paula? Harry Connick Jr. quarreling with mouthy contestants? That five-star slice of diva sirloin shared by Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj? Despite pervasive belief that it can’t all possibly be real, Seacrest insists otherwise. “Even though it was the number one show for so long, you would think that we plan out each and every bit. Well, we don’t,” he maintains. “We make sure that the show’s going to look okay, but we really don’t know which direction it’s going to go, and I’m not so sure people were aware of that. Everything that the judges and I say is spontaneous. None of it’s scripted. When Simon and I would spar back and forth live, none of that was premeditated. It was literally all unfolding at the time.” Even the disastrous Mariah-Nicki year? “That’s certainly not a blur. There was plenty of action on the show that year, and I relish, a bit, in the uncertainty that the show could be.”
WANT MORE EW?Subscribe now to keep up with the latest in movies, television and music.
After Kelly Clarkson was crowned, Idol’s next five seasons were a whirlwind of life at the height of pop culture (hitting peak viewership in seasons five and six, a.k.a. the Taylor Hicks-Jordin Sparks years). Seacrest says it didn’t add to the pressure – instead, it only helped bond the people riding the roller coaster. “You could tell the show was taking off and at a significant pace and level, and that’s when it became really fun to do,” he says. “I would do the show with the whole gang and then Randy and Simon and I would go grab a bite to eat after every show, and we’d hang out on the weekends. That was a really special time. As much fun as it looks like we had on the show together doing the things that we were doing, that’s the way we were like when we weren’t on the show.”
Seacrest’s decade-and-a-half tenure ushered in a breed of reality host (seen nowadays in compassionate emcees like Cat Deeley and Carson Daly) who actually seem to care about the contestants they chuck off – and really, you can’t eliminate 401 semi-finalists on live television without shedding at least a few tears along the way. “It did get emotional for me, for sure,” he says. “You get to know the contestants. Once we get down to the finales every season, those were big deals. We want to celebrate each of those contestants in the finale, but those would be tough. You look at somebody every week in the eye and you’ve got to tell them they’ve made it or they haven’t made it. That’s never something that I take lightly and never something that you become immune to.”
Over time, Seacrest says he managed to find a way to grapple with the emotions or, at the very least, leave them on the stage. “In those last few commercial seconds before we came back from break, when the nation would be watching to see who made it through, in those last moments you have a chance to look at the contestants, and I would always try and look at them fairly. Even if I knew some of the results at that point, I didn’t want them to be able to tell or me to telegraph in any way who was going to make it through. I consciously made an effort to say almost similar exact things to each of them.”
Seacrest never missed an Idol finale, but he says one of his standout moments in 15 seasons was a close-call right before the season two finale wherein he crowned Ruben Studdard over Clay Aiken. “I remember that like it was yesterday,” he recalls. “I remember being at rehearsal at the Gibson Amphitheatre, and I had the flu that night. I remember laying in the dressing room before we had to go out and do the show, coughing, honestly wondering if I was going to make it. I did, barely.”
“There’s no reason to highlight your hair,” says Seacrest. “I don’t think that was necessary. For some reason, I thought that was a good idea at the time.”
The series finale of American Idol airs April 7 on Fox. Stick with EW.com for more retrospectives from Idol’s key players!
A version of this story originally appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1408–1409, on newsstands Friday or available for purchase here.