Menu Join now Search

American Idol’s Top Ten Scandals

These days, we're used to TV shows being discussed online ad nauseam—think "The Bachelor," "Breaking Bad," and "Game of Thrones." But in 2002, when "American Idol" debuted in the U.S., it was one of the only shows to spark any real online chatter, likely because of its propensity for controversy. Here, in order of appearance, are the ten greatest scandals of "Idol"'s first decade.

Joe Seer / Shutterstock

In 2002, reality TV hadn't boomed and online streaming didn't exist, but the Internet had already awakened the 24-hour news cycle. And the media were ravenous for stories. "American Idol" filled that void. For many years, the scandals and controversies of the entertainment juggernaut were everywhere and everyone cared. But in the last five years, "Idol" has fallen from the limelight, overtaken by it's many successors: "The Voice," "The X Factor," "America's Got Talent," etc. And now, fifteen seasons after its historic premier, "American Idol" has been cancelled. Still, "Idol"'s legacy is undeniable. Take a minute to look back at the many scandals of "Idol"'s first ten years.

10. Justin Talks Back
When "Pop Idol" debuted in the U.K., judge Simon Cowell quickly became the man the nation loved to hate and contestants who argued with him were applauded. This was not the case in the U.S., at least not in the beginning. So when season 1 frontrunner Justin Guarini snapped at Cowell after some harsh critique, it shocked everyone. Even though his retort was relatively mild—“I want see what the audience thinks"—the media jumped all over it.

9. Kelly's Professional Past
Every year, some contestant is found to be a little less amateur than viewers would've like. In general, this stems from a general misunderstanding of "Idol" rules. Contestants are not, as producers explain each year, required to be amateurs. The rules only demand that contestants not be under any current contract when they join the show. But in many cases "Idol"’s audiences are more Catholic than the pope—so to speak—and have expectations of the singers above the formal requirements. So when it was revealed that Kelly Clarkson—portrayed as a down-to-earth Texan tomboy—had not only lived in Hollywood but had also recorded music with A-list producers, the press cried foul. In the end, Kelly proved so likable that the accusations never really held her back.

8. Frenchie's XXX Video
It is not uncommon for risque photos of contestants to surface, but when videos of early season two frontrunner Frenchie Davis came to light, producers were forced to react. Ultimately the nature of the videos—a sex act performed upon a beverage container on a site entitled “Daddy’s Little Girl”—proved too hot for "Idol" and Frenchie became the first public disqualification in the show’s history. 

7. WANTED: Corey Clark
Just a couple months after Idol’s first disqualification, the show eliminated yet another contestant. It came to light that sleepy-eyed bad boy Corey Clark was wanted in his home state of Kansas for assaulting a police officer and battery. Clark was given a chance to explain on the air before he was sent home to face the music (he ultimately pleaded no contest and was sentenced to six months probation). Getting one last moment on the Idol stage did little, however, to assuage Clark’s sense of injustice at being disqualified. He left the Idol-dom, but would come back to haunt it again years later, when he would provoke the mother of all "Idol" scandals.

6. Clay Aiken Cheated?
Accusations of voter fraud would become the permanent part of all "American Idol" finales, but a rare Seacrest flub in season two got the ball rolling. Twice in the final show, Seacrest misstated the gap between Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken, saying first that out of 24 million votes cast, only 13,000 separated them. Later, he attempted to correct that statement, clarifying that the winner had won with 50.28 percent of the vote—which would add up to a number some ten times larger than the previously stated 13,000. The following day, Fox felt compelled to put out a statement explaining that Ruben had in fact won by 130,000 votes. But it was too late; a thousand conspiracy theories had been launched and to this day, many Claymates believe their hero was cheated of his rightful crown.

5. Corey Clark, Part 2
Beaten but not bowed, Corey Clark returned to "Idol." In 2005, he gave an interview on ABC’s Primetime Live claiming that he'd had an affair with judge Paula Abdul while on "Idol." He played a voice mail message supposedly from Abdul, in which she seemed to tell him to their relationship quiet. While pundits believed Fox would have to dump its star to remain credible, but "Idol" stood by its gal, denying Clark’s charges. Ultimately, the media narrative turned against ABC, accusing them of trying to damage a rival show, and Paula came out relatively unscathed, but it was a very close call.

4. Sanjaya Sticks Around
Every year, there's one contestant that makes everyone wonder, how does this no-talent survive? But none more so than season 6’s Sanjaya Malakar, who seems to openly mock the hallowed stage. Looking for an explanation for Sanjaya’s longevity, the press turned to a heretofore little known site called "Vote For the Worst," which led an anti-"Idol" movement, encouraging haters to support the least talented contestants. Early in the season, the site had thrown its weight behind Sanjaya, as had radio host Howard Stern. Sanjaya only made it to seventh place, but not before becoming the show’s permanent anti-hero.

3. David Hernandez Breaks the Gay/Straight Barrier
When evidence emerged that season 7’s David Hernandez had worked as a gay stripper, "Idol" had it's first encounter with the question of sexual orientation. Many wondered whether the family-friendly show could afford to keep Hernandez on. In the end, the scandal turned out to be a non-event. "Idol" let viewers decide, and they kept Hernandez around for another week.

2. Paula and the Performance that Wasn’t
Since its earliest days, Paula’s tongue-tied "ditziness" was one the show’s great subplots. However, in season 7, when she critiqued a performance that had not yet occurred, it seemed like something worse was afoot. Speculation varied from on-air substance abuse to accusations that the producers were fixing the contest. Paula later explained that a last-second change of format had led to the confusion. The show, again, stood by its judge.

1. Cell Phone Gate
Since Clay Aiken's defeat, nothing has sparked as many conspiracies theories as Adam Lambert’s season 8 loss to Kris Allen. Lambert’s fanatical following believed that "Idol" sponsor AT&T had handed out special phones at "Kris-boosting" parties in Arkansas that allowed recipents to place huge numbers of calls. There is no evidence that supports the votes were enough to influence the outcome of an election where tens of millions of votes were tallied, but the Glamberts joined the ranks of "Idol"'s permanently aggrieved.

More You'll Love

Close