Where the former American Idol judges are today

When American Idol made its debut in 2002, who knew the TV singing competition would change the face of American television? Based on a British format called Pop Idol, the show introduced a brilliantly simple concept: wannabe singers auditioned for a panel of judges, who would offer their opinions on each performance. Meanwhile, viewers watching would vote for their favorites until a champion was crowned.

During the course of 15 seasons on the Fox network, the show launched bona fide idols such as Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Adam Lambert, and more. Idol also made stars of its original judges: acerbic British music executive Simon Cowell and musician/producer Randy Jackson, both unknowns to the American viewing audience, and Paula Abdul, the trio’s sole celebrity — albeit one whose career had peaked more than a decade earlier. 

Since its launch, a lot of people wound up sitting behind the Idol judging table during its original Fox run, ranging from a beloved talk show host to some of the biggest names in the music biz. With the show resurrected on a different network with new judging trio Katy Perry, Luke Bryan, and Lionel Richie, read on to catch up on where the former American Idol judges are today. 

Simon Cowell is a contest-making machine

Simon Cowell had a lot to do with the early popularity of American Idol, his withering critiques earning him the nickname “Mr. Nasty.” By the time he left the show in 2010, he was a massive TV star with a larger plan in place. American Idol and predecessor Pop Idol were created by Spice Girls manager Simon Fuller, with Cowell essentially a hired gun. Seeing that the real money came from owning a show, in 2004, he launched his own singing contest in Britain, The X Factor, a singing contest that mimicked the Idol format, with Cowell as lead judge. The U.K. success of The X Factor propelled him to create a new talent contest for NBC, America’s Got Talent, launching in 2006 and spawning a U.K. version, Britain’s Got Talent, in 2007. 

With AGT an instant success, Cowell was eager to bring The X Factor to American television. Fox executives, however, knew they had a good thing going and paid him big bucks to stay with Idol. When his lucrative contract expired in 2010, Cowell left a gig that reportedly paid him $22,000 a minute so he could shop around The X Factor. Fox ultimately picked up the show in 2011. Sadly, weak ratings led to The X Factor’s cancellation in 2014 after three seasons — with Cowell then becoming a judge on AGT, joining the show in 2015.

Randy Jackson reunited with Journey

While Randy Jackson was hardly a household name prior to American Idol, he was well-known in the music biz as a sought-after studio musician and producer who’d worked with artists as diverse as Madonna and Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia. Meanwhile, fans of Journey may have remembered that he played bass for the rock band for a few years in the 1980s. When Jackson left Idol in 2013, he wasn’t gone for long; he returned the following season to replace music producer Jimmy Iovine as an in-house mentor before exiting for good in 2014. 

While still on Idol, Jackson served as executive producer of TV’s Randy Jackson Presents America’s Best Dance Crew, which ran from 2008 until 2012, and was revived in 2015. In 2017, reported Variety, he opened Starwood Studios, a complex housing recording facilities, a live broadcast room and a 3,800-square-foot dance floor that was suitable for television production. 

In May 2020, a radically slimmed-down Jackson reunited with Journey, performing a socially distanced version of their hit “Don’t Stop Believin'” for UNICEF’s Won’t Stop benefit. Meanwhile, Journey guitarist Neil Schon confirmed on Twitter that Jackson had officially rejoined the band, tweeting that “the Big Dawg is our new Bass player again.”

Paula Abdul returned to the singing stage after 25 years

Viewers may have enjoyed American Idol judge Paula Abdul’s wacky antics over the years, but there was apparently much drama behind the scenes.

In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Abdul revealed she’d attempted to quit eight times before finally parting ways with Idol in 2009 when contract negotiations stalled. Still, Idol‘s popularity had placed Abdul back on Hollywood’s radar, offering her an array of new opportunities. Among these: the 2007 reality show Hey Paula (canceled after a single season and scathing reviews) and 2009’s Rah! Paula Abdul’s Cheerleading Bowl

Abdul went on to serve as judge and exec producer of 2011 CBS dance competition Live to Dance, canceled after seven episodes. Later that year, she joined Simon Cowell as a judge for the launch of Fox’s The X Factor, but exited after just one season. In 2015, Abdul joined the judging panel of So You Think You Can Dance, but announced via Twitter in 2017 that she wouldn’t be returning — because she was joining New Kids on the Block and Boyz II Men for the nostalgia-loaded Total Package tour. Marking Abdul’s return to the stage after a 25-year absence, she embarked on a solo tour the following year, making headlines by falling off the stage during one performance.

Kara DioGuardi spoke out about her American Idol firing

When she was tapped to be American Idol‘s fourth judge in season eight, Kara DioGuardi was a wildly successful songwriter of hits for such artists as Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani, Céline Dion and more. After just two seasons with the show, she was reportedly fired in 2010.

After her Idol exit, DioGuardi became head judge on Bravo singer-songwriter competition Platinum Hit, canceled in 2011 after its debut season. That same year saw her make her Broadway debut, playing Roxie Hart in Chicago, and release her memoir, Helluva High Note; Surviving Life, Love and American Idol. She went on to teach a songwriting course at Boston’s Berklee College of Music in 2012, “Hitmaking with Kara DioGuardi,” where pop star Charlie Puth was one of her students.

In her book, DioGuardi revealed her firing from Idol came as a shock. No one even gave me a heads-up that my job was in jeopardy,” she wrote in her book. “In fact, just two weeks before I was speaking to an executive producer about the upcoming season’s schedule … Lucky for me, the janitorial closet they called my dressing room had long been disassembled, so no walk down the corridors with my personal effects in hand was necessary.”

Ellen DeGeneres wasn't cut out for American Idol

After Paula Abdul left American Idol in 2009, producers hired daytime talk show queen Ellen DeGeneres. Reviews of her performance, however, were mixed, and she left the show after a single season. “[It] didn’t feel like the right fit for me,” she told Rolling Stone of her departure.

Years later, DeGeneres admitted she simply wasn’t cut out to criticize performers. Initially, she conceived her role on the show would be as a glorified fan who would “represent those people at home that have opinions,” she told The Howard Stern Show (via The Wrap.) But then I just thought … I can’t break this person’s heart. Let somebody else do that.” 

Since leaving Idol after the 2010 season, DeGeneres’ daytime show maintained its popularity (although a precipitous ratings slide in June 2020 led producers to refute rumors of imminent cancellation). Meanwhile, career-high points since her Idol exit include: reprising the role of forgetful fish Dory in the 2016 Finding Nemo sequel Finding Dory; receiving the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in 2012; hosting the Oscars in 2014 (she previously hosted in 2007); hosted Ellen’s Design Challenge for HGTV in 2015; and, in 2017, launching her NBC game show Ellen’s Game of Games, which was renewed for a fourth season in 2020.

Steven Tyler both 'loved' and 'hated' American Idol

When judges Ellen DeGeneres and Simon Cowell both departed after the ninth season, American Idol producers brought in Jennifer Lopez and Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler. The chemistry between the two proved to be both odd and entertaining; however, as The Boston Globe pointed out, neither could muster up the Simon Cowell-level meanness viewers had come to expect.

Tyler left after two seasons, issuing a statement in 2012 announcing his decision “to let go of my mistress American Idol before she boils my rabbit.” In a subsequent interview with Rolling Stone, he admitted that he both “loved it and hated it. It was a great job, I sat next to J.Lo and I made a ton of money.” What he didn’t enjoy, he explained, was that producers “wanted me to take the piss out of the kids and I don’t have that in me. That’s not what I’m about.”

After exiting Idol, Tyler returned to Aerosmith, embarking on their successful Global Warming tour, and in 2016 released his first-ever solo country album, We’re All Somebody from Somewhere. He again reunited with Aerosmith for a 2017 “farewell tour” that extended to 2019, at which point the band embarked on its first Las Vegas residency, Aerosmith: Deuces Are Wild

American Idol revitalized Jennifer Lopez's career

Joining the American Idol judging team in 2011, Jennifer Lopez stuck around for two seasons before her exit in 2012. After one season away from the show, Lopez returned in 2013, sticking around for the show’s final three seasons on Fox until the series left the network with much fanfare in 2016. 

In a 2019 interview with Variety, Lopez described her Idol experience as “a big turning point in my career. Everybody was like, ‘Don’t do this. Your career will be over, and they won’t offer you any movies. They’ll think you’re a joke as an artist.’ And I was like, ‘The truth is, I’m not getting offered a whole bunch of movies, so what are they not going to offer me?'”

As it turned out, the decision to join American Idol proved to be a savvy one that revitalized her career. Since that finale, Lopez has starred in the NBC police drama Shades of Blue (airing from 2016-2018), launched the TV dance competition World of Dance (serving as both judge and executive producer) and starred in feature film Hustlers, earning Lopez critical acclaim and her first-ever Screen Actors Guild Award nomination. 

Mariah Carey has a Christmas gift that just keeps on giving

After the 2012 departures of Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler, American Idol producers returned to their strategy of bringing big-name music stars to the judging table. Returning to the four-judge format of the Kara DioGuardi years, the show made three new hires: rapper Nicki Minaj, country singer Keith Urban, and pop diva Mariah Carey, joining sole remaining judge Randy Jackson. Despite the stars’ bank-busting salaries (reportedly a combined $36 million), ratings nosedived.

A scandal erupted when TMZ obtained a behind-the-scenes recording of Carey and Minaj hurling vicious barbs at each other, with Carey dissing Minaj as “a three-year-old” while Minaj threatened, “I’m gonna knock you out.” Nobody was surprised when neither returned for a second season. 

While Carey may have described her Idol seasons as “bleak” and “the worst experience of my life,” her music career continued to soar. In addition to joining The Voice as a key advisor during the 2018 season, she released her album Caution that same year. In 2019, she recorded the single “In the Mix,” the theme song for ABC sitcom Mixed-ish. Also, in 2019, her 2004 holiday single “All I Want for Christmas is You” hit No. 1 for the first time — 25 years after its release.

Nicki Minaj has been climbing the charts with hits

Unlike Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj had nothing but good things to say about her single season on American IdolMy experience was great! It was a blessing,” Minaj told E! News a few months after she left. “I had a wonderful time and I learned a lot about myself; I learned a lot about the world’s perception of me… It was really inspiring, and I got a chance to see kids fulfill their dreams and be part of that. No complaints whatsoever!”

Since then, Minaj co-starred with Cameron Diaz in the 2014 comedy The Other Woman and released her third studio album The Pinkprint, with the music video for the single “Anaconda” setting a new Vevo record when it received 16.9 million views in 24 hours.  

In 2018, Minaj released her fourth album, Queen, and appeared on the Little Mix hit “Woman Like Me.” The following year saw Minaj make a special guest appearance during Ariana Grande’s Coachella set (although the performance was marred by sound problems), and then release her new solo single “Megatron.” She then teamed up with Doja Cat for “Say So” in May 2020, which became her first No. 1 single, and “Trollz” the following month, a collaboration with Tekashi 6ix9ine that also hit No. 1. 

Keith Urban gained a 'broader audience' thanks to American Idol

When Keith Urban joined American Idol alongside Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey, he proved to be an island of stability in an otherwise turbulent season, and he was brought back for season 13 (the format returned to three judges, with Randy Jackson spending what would be his final season on the show as an in-house mentor instead of a judge). The rest of the judging panel consisted of Jennifer Lopez, returning after a one-year absence, and newcomer Harry Connick Jr. This judging lineup stayed intact for the show’s final three seasons.

The visibility from appearing on American Idol broadened Urban’s fanbase. As he said in an interview with ShowbizJunkies, he began experiencing “a much broader audience, and particularly at our concerts.”

After the original Idol ended in 2015, Urban recorded his 2018 album Graffiti U, and embarked on a world tour that launched that summer. The following year he released the single “We Were,” headlined the halftime show for the Canadian Football League’s Grey Cup game in Calgary, and then released a new single “Polaroid” in 2020. Urban was to have made his debut as host of the 2020 CMA Awards that April, but the ceremony was canceled due to the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. 

Harry Connick Jr. received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame

After serving as a mentor in season 12, actor/crooner Harry Connick Jr. joined Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban behind the judging table, where he remained for the show’s final three seasons on Fox. “I’m really honored to have been a part of it in the small way that I have,” Connick told Entertainment Weekly of that final season, while critics praised him for bringing humor to the show.

Post-Idol, Connick launched his own daytime talk show, Harry, which ran for two seasons until its cancellation in 2018. Meanwhile, Connick also guest-starred in NBC’s revival of Will & Grace, reprising his role as Dr. Leo Markus, the ex-husband of the sitcom’s titular Grace (Debra Messing). 

He capped off 2019 by receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in October. On hand to help him celebrate were actress Renee Zellweger (his co-star in the 2009 big-screen comedy New in Town) and American Idol producer Trish Kinane. Later that month, Connick headed to New York City to premiere a new Broadway show, Harry Connick, Jr. — A Celebration of Cole Porter. In an odd bit of serendipity, reported NBC Los Angeles, his Walk of Fame star was placed next to that of none other than Cole Porter.

Brian Dunkleman made a bizarre career move

In addition to all of the show’s iconic judges, viewers of American Idol‘s debut season will recall there were originally two hosts, Ryan Seacrest and Brian Dunkleman. The chemistry between top-40 radio guy Seacrest and Dunkleman, a standup comedian, was nonexistent. When the first season became a massive hit, Dunkleman made the puzzling decision to quit — arguably one of the worst career moves in television history.

In a 2019 interview with GQ, however, Dunkleman revealed that had he not quit, he would have been fired — something he didn’t know at the time. It wasn’t until years later that he’d learned producers had already decided to go with just one host, “and obviously I wasn’t the one. They told me that I quit before they could deliver the news. I didn’t know that. Did I have my suspicions? Did I see the writing on the wall? Of course I did. I’m not stupid.”

Dunkleman made headlines in 2019 when TMZ revealed he was making ends meet by driving for Uber, earning about $800 a week. Is Dunkleman bitter about Idol? He admitted to GQ that the “most annoying” aspect of the experience “is people reminding me of how wealthy Ryan Seacrest is. I know.”

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