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Paula Abdul does. Simon Cowell can make fun of her all he wants, but even he must know the truth about Paula – she really does care, and in the context of this show, she’s doing what she can to prove it.

I had almost walked past Abdul, who had shown up rather unexpectedly at a non-Fox, non-Idol party this past January. No one had really noticed her, and she wasn’t mobbed as she usually is at these events, so I figured now was the time to ask her about a few of my growing Idol concerns. To her credit, she didn’t get uncomfortable because the questions weren’t easy; she seemed to welcome the discussion.

When I asked how terrible singers got as far as the finals –although I put it much more diplomatically then that -- she was honest in accessing a process that might very well be contributing to what we are hearing now. “When we get to the call backs and making it to Hollywood, we would be the first to admit it’s a four-day intense process of elimination to go to 250 out of 50,000 last year, and now it’s out of 100,000 this year, and then we have to narrow that down to 32,” she told me. “It’s inevitable that we let great ones go through the cracks. We try not to, but we have to eliminate so many. There are ones that do really well at the auditions by fluke on that day…and then we go ‘What happened, where is your greatness now?’”

As an example, I asked her about Jasmine Trias, the sweet 17-year-old from Hawaii who had done so well in the preliminary rounds last year, perhaps so memorable because her downward spiral in the finals was so painful to watch. “Towards the end I think she was exhausted,” Abdul said. “Everyone thinks it’s so easy, but it’s so difficult. These kids sleep maybe 4 hours a night, they are up at the crack of dawn, they are out of that house before 8 and they are working, and they don’t get to bed before midnight. I think it’s overwhelming for these younger kids and I think towards the end, it wore on them. When it gets down to the end, it’s make it or break it time, and …for Jasmine, her best moments were early on in the competition.”

And, said Abdul, it’s not only about the pressure we can see, “She was not only dealing with her own pressure, but she’s got family pressure. She was a minor, so she had school on top of [everything else].”

More life experience was one of the reasons why Abdul was a big proponent of raising the age limit for contestants from 24 to 28 this season. “If you want kids to sing about heartbreak, and if you want contestants who really know what it’s like to live-breathe-eat- drink-sleep and have their life depend on whether or they are going to get a recording deal, the age limit had to go up.”

So what does happen to the kids after they are eliminated? Does anyone stay in touch with them? “Yes,” said Abdul, and from the look on her face, I could see I was striking a chord. “I am like their surrogate mother. It’s been heartbreaking for me, because a lot of the kids…are thrown to the wolves, their lives are turned upside down. They become uber famous and they can’t go back to being a Wal-Mart cashier.”

So what does she tell them? “It’s tougher than you can even imagine,” Abdul admitted. “It’s been very tough for me…and that’s the thing that stinks about this kind of television show, because it’s a television show, first and foremost…It’s not about caring or worrying about what happens afterwards.”

If there is no psychological help offered to them – and I feel stupid even asking about this, is there any outlet for these kids after they are eliminated? “Hopefully, [it’s] my words of advice that help and my friendship with them,” Abdul replied. “I don’t take it on, but I happen to be a person that they count on, and I don’t turn my back on them.” And then she added: “I really appreciate the fact that it’s worrying you, because believe me, every day and every night it worries me.”

But Abdul doesn’t just put the onus on American Idol for this situation. “It’s a lot of these shows [that ] take people out of their simple lives and thrust them into overnight success and then it’s over, and then nobody cares, and then what?”

Good question, Paula. Then what? She looks me squarely in the eye and says: “You hope and pray that [as a contestant] you’ve had a good upbringing, you’ve got solid family and solid friends, you have your head on right, and you can live to laugh about things.” And then she added: “You have to have a proper perspective [so] you don’t take any of this stuff seriously.” / Issue 44 - September 2018
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