'American Idol' Begins: When Kelly Clarkson Wasn't Even on the Radar & More Season 1 Memories

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Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini on the "American Idol" finale on Sept. 4, 2002 at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, Calif.

Producers were certain Justin Guarini or Tamyra Gray would win.

Randy Jackson will never forget his first day of work on American Idol.

“We were all at the Hollywood Athletic Club, and a guy walked into the room for the very first audition. I’m thinking, 'This is going to be cool.' He did his thing, and I said, ‘Hey man, it was all right. You did pretty good.’ Paula goes next and she says, ‘You’ve got something. I don’t know if it’s exactly what we’re looking for.’ Then it’s Simon’s turn, and he says, ‘That was the most horrible piece of crap I’ve ever heard.’ Paula and I look at each other and I say, ‘Oh my God, where in the hell are we? This is gonna be a crazy show!’”

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If Randy and Paula had only known. There was no way they could have guessed at that moment they were working on a TV series that would produce more than 70 artists who would reach the Billboard charts and sell millions of records all over the world, dominate the Nielsen ratings for years on end and be a touchstone of pop culture for a decade and beyond.

The American Idol story didn’t begin that memorable day in Hollywood. There is a prologue that took place in New Zealand in 1999, where the TV series Popstars produced the hit group TrueBliss. They topped their national charts in May of that year. The series was licensed to Australia, where a vacationing British television executive was fascinated by an episode.

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“I was visiting my son Simon and he suggested I watch the program,” says Nigel Lythgoe, who was controller of entertainment and comedy for London Weekend Television at the time. “I was astounded that they were showing the audition process. The honesty, the harshness and the cruelty appealed to me. We stayed an extra week to watch the next episode.”

Nigel bought the format for the U.K. in January 2000, and by July, a British edition of Popstars was in production. He wanted a tough judge and asked Jonathan King, a popular TV personality and music executive, to fill that role. King had legal problems and couldn’t take the job, so Nigel turned to another person in the music business. “I knew Simon Cowell had charisma and was pretty honest and he was television-friendly.” Just as production of the first episode was to begin, Simon dropped out and a network executive asked Nigel to take Simon’s place. Thus was born “Nasty Nigel,” the judge the British public loved to hate.

After one season of Popstars, Nigel took off to produce and direct the first season of the British version of Survivor. He was on a remote island when he received a phone call from the man who founded the company that managed Eurythmics and Spice Girls. Simon Fuller told Lythgoe about a new series he was going to produce for ITV’s rival, the BBC. “He said it was called My Idol and the public was going to vote,” says Nigel, who immediately called ITV to warn them that this new show might cut into the success of Popstars. ITV’s Claudia Rosencrantz made a pre-emptive strike and bought My Idol before the BBC could make a deal. Fuller delivered the news to Nigel and asked him to join his company, 19 Entertainment. He also mentioned that he had recruited Simon Cowell to be a judge.

The two hands-on executive producers of Pop Idol, Nigel Lythgoe and Ken Warwick, were finding their way with the show in its early production days when a 17-year-old boy named Gareth Gates showed up to audition. “He walked in and it took him literally one minute to say his name,” says Warwick. “He was a gorgeous guy with an incredible stutter. But he opened his mouth and sang like a dream. There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.” Warwick describes it as the pivotal moment when the producers knew they had to include those emotional moments to show the contestants’ personal histories, and the exact instant they knew Pop Idol was going to be a smash.

It was. Gates went into the final in February 2002 with 23-year-old Will Young. Gates was named runner-up and Young took the title. His debut single, “Evergreen,” became the fastest-selling single in U.K. history and was the best-selling single in the U.K. for the entire decade.

But even before the first episode of Pop Idol aired, Fuller and Lythgoe were talking to production companies in the United States about an American version. It wasn’t going over well, especially when the Brits explained the concept of showing bad auditions and having a judge tell contestants they were terrible. “Every network turned it down,” says Lythgoe. Undaunted, Fuller, Cowell and one other Simon (Jones, from the Fremantle production company that was partnered with 19 on Pop Idol) visited the U.S. to meet personally with network programming heads, including Mike Darnell at Fox. Although the network had originally passed, Darnell agreed to give the franchise a try with a seven-episode order that was expanded to nine. Rupert Murdoch, founder and CEO of News Corporation, the parent of Fox, insisted on not Americanizing the British format, so Lythgoe and Warwick were imported to the U.S. to share executive producer duties.

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Lythgoe asked Fremantle to give him a list of musicians, producers and music industry names, and from that list he interviewed Randy Jackson. “Speaking with him, I found Randy to be very warm. We almost had Paula Abdul come over to England to be a judge on Pop Idol and I always wanted her. I loved her and thought she would be good because she’d been through it.”

With the judges panel complete, a host was needed. Guided by the template of Pop Idol, Lythgoe and Warwick were looking for two hosts, to follow in the footsteps of presenters Ant and Dec, who met when they were 13-year-old actors on a British children’s program, Byker Grove. After a career in pop music as their TV characters PJ and Duncan, they became popular TV hosts in the U.K.

“Coming from LAX to Fox for a meeting, I heard Ryan Seacrest on the radio,” Lythgoe remembers. “I knew him from hosting the kids’ version of Gladiators. He was a bright, good-looking lad and I needed somebody who could handle live television. We’d already chosen this comedic guy named Brian Dunkleman who was quite witty and smart.”

With judges and hosts in place, auditions began in Los Angeles and continued in New York, Chicago, Dallas, Seattle, Atlanta and Miami. In some cities, the turnout was very small -- not a surprise for a TV show that was unknown in America. “The numbers were nothing like what they are now,” confirms Warwick, “but it was good enough. We got Kelly Clarkson out of it, didn’t we?! There were fewer people, but the talent level was a bit higher because no one had ever done it before.”

AJ Gil was 17 when he saw commercials on Fox for American Idol auditions. He told his mother it would be a good opportunity, but she had to work the next morning and said she couldn’t take him. The next day, she woke him up and said, “Let’s get ready. Let’s go and audition.” Gil arrived at the Seattle auditions at 9 a.m. and was almost the last person to try out, just after 6 p.m. He remembers about 700 people showing up that day and that it was a nerve-racking experience. He didn’t have a song in mind when he arrived so he chose one he had performed in school: “The Star-Spangled Banner.” It was a good choice; he made it through all of the preliminary rounds, was sent to Hollywood by Simon, Randy and Paula, and ended up in the top 10, finishing eighth for the season.

On the East Coast of the U.S., a real estate agent in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, was home doing some ironing when she saw the same commercial for Idol auditions. Kathy Pepino Guarini told her son Justin to check out the website. “It was just this little site and some of the links didn’t work,” Justin Guarini recalls. “I printed out a contract, signed my life away and went to New York. I got in line at 5:30 in the morning at the Millennium Hotel. I had a book to read, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and it was freezing. Four hours later, Justin thought to himself, “This is taking forever. I’m so cold right now. I’m tired. I just might go.” But he didn’t. “I’m glad I stayed,” he confesses.

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When he finally appeared before the show’s producers, he sang Smokey Robinson and the Miracles’ “Who’s Loving You” (Justin was more familiar with the Jackson 5 version). “Before we walked in, I was holding this girl’s hand because she was so nervous. I was nervous too and my palms were sweaty.” That didn’t bother the judges, who ultimately told Justin he was going to Hollywood. That forced a decision, since he had been cast in the chorus of The Lion King on Broadway. “I told the [Broadway] show’s producers I had to go to California and could they give me a week. They said they needed an answer right then. I said, ‘I’m going to stick with this American Idol thing.’”

Justin had never been to California, but in short order he was at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium for Hollywood Week. He was most impressed that he was in the building where Michael Jackson first did the Moonwalk, on the Motown 25th Anniversary TV special in 1983. Just before the judges made their final decisions about who would move forward, Justin found himself walking down the aisle of the theater. “I stopped and thought to myself, ‘I’m going to do this,’ and I broke down and cried. Something hit me and I knew I had a shot at this. And it was something that I always wanted. It meant a lot to me.”

After the Hollywood Week cull, 30 contestants were placed into three semifinal groups of 10 each, with three people from each group moving into the top 10, which would be completed by one wild-card selection. From the first group, Tamyra Gray, Jim Verraros and Ryan Starr were voted into the top 10. From group two, AJ Gil, Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini won the vote to become finalists. And from the third group, Nikki McKibbin, EJay Day and Christina Christian were elected. RJ Helton was also in group three, and was chosen from five semifinalists to be the wild card.

While all 10 had demonstrated talent and personality, the producers were certain they knew who the top two would be. “Justin Guarini and Tamyra Gray -- we all said right from the beginning -- those two. Tamyra was going to win,” says Lythgoe. “Kelly didn’t come through. The only thing that stood out was her humor. It was only when we got into the top 10 that all of a sudden, [when Kelly sang] people would stand there open-mouthed.”

Even though the girl from Burleson, Texas, demonstrated her sense of humor by switching places with Randy during her audition, when she walked out on the set for the first time, Randy leaned over to Paula and said, “Who is that? Who is she?” Vocal coach Debra Byrd explains, “They didn’t remember her. Kelly later said that was her fault. She had changed her look and her hair. But she just wasn’t on their radar.”

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Byrd remembers the moment she thought Kelly was a contender for the crown. Clarkson was recording “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the Capitol Records’ studios in Hollywood. “Kelly is such a soprano, she couldn’t sing lower at that time than a middle C,” says Byrd. Kelly complained that the key was too low and pulled Byrd into a side room. “She jumped up two octaves into Mariah Carey or Minnie Riperton territory and asked me if I would do that. In a heartbeat I would!” Kelly talked to her mother for a second opinion, and she concurred with Byrd, who asked Kelly why she wasn’t sure. “Because I don’t want to be compared to Mariah Carey” was the answer. Byrd replied, “No one else in this building can do that except you. That’s why I would do it.”

On the day of the live broadcast, Kelly hadn’t decided if she would attempt the notes or not. “Kelly wanted to do a flurry of notes. I said, ‘Hit one note and come back down.’ She did and it was a pivotal performance for her. It put her on the map,” says Byrd.

While Kelly had cemented her reputation with Aretha Franklin songs (including “Respect”), she set the bar even higher on Big Band Week, a theme she had been anticipating from the start since it was featured on Pop Idol. Every Sunday night, music supervisor Susan Slamer trekked up to the mansion where the contestants were living to introduce the upcoming theme and play songs for them.

“Before I even started to play music, Kelly said, ‘I want to sing “Stuff Like That There.”’ And I said, ‘From the film For the Boys?’ and she screamed, ‘You know it?’ and that was it,” Slamer recalls. “It was her first choice, her only choice. What made that performance so special was Kelly’s mannerisms. It’s the little dance moves, the little twist of the head that made that so special for me. And it’s a song that isn’t widely known or easy to sing. That was a special moment of the show.”

If you're looking for the most outstanding performance of season 1, it would be a toss-up between Kelly’s “Stuff Like That There” and Tamyra Gray’s rendition of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “A House Is Not a Home.” Gray only knew the Luther Vandross remake, not the Dionne Warwick original.

“Tamyra wanted to do Luther’s version, which is a million times slower,” Byrd remembers. With one minute and 20 seconds allotted for every performance, Byrd told Tamyra she could not do the unhurried Vandross arrangement. “We had to mix the two, make it a hybrid with Dionne’s tempo but Luther’s inflection. Tamyra was heartbroken. She was not happy at all because she loved Luther’s version. I had to tap-dance a lot to get her to mix the versions because she hated the fact that she couldn’t get all of Luther’s in. I had to make it palatable for her and that was a huge struggle.”

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Byrd’s battle was worth it. “That was one of those moments where you are awestruck at someone’s absolute star power,” says Slamer. “The entire package, from what she wore to the way she walked onstage to her complete and utter professional delivery, it gave us goosebumps. Everybody in the house was moved. The judges were stunned, and I do think it’s one of those rare moments when you realize a star is born.”

With Gray’s star shining bright and Guarini maintaining his status as front-runner and Clarkson impressing judges and audiences alike, it seemed like the season’s top three names were etched in stone -- until the night the top four sang and Gray stumbled with Patti LaBelle’s “New Attitude.” A mere 24 hours later, Gray was shockingly gone, eliminated by the votes of viewers whose memories of “A House Is Not a Home” must have been incredibly short. Nikki McKibbin joined Justin and Kelly in the top three but only lasted one more frame. On Sept. 3, 2002, it was Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini competing for the title of American Idol.

“It was a tumultuous time,” Justin admits. “We had just come back from visits to our hometowns and it was brutal. We had to rehearse for the finale, record both songs for whoever wins, do press, and we were exhausted. So we just buckled down.” Justin and Kelly both sang “A Moment Like This” and “Before Your Love,” the songs that would comprise the winner’s single.

 “‘A Moment Like This’ is one of the most difficult songs I’ve ever had to sing,” Guarini declares. “No conspiracy theory; it was written before anyone knew I going to be part of the finale. It’s just not written for someone who does what I do. I struggled and struggled with it in the studio. ‘Before Your Love’ was better for me. There was a point after the finale when I was with Kelly and I said, ‘Baby, I did everything, but you’re going to win tomorrow night. I love you.’”

The following night, while Kelly was singing, Guarini was backstage with Lythgoe. “I told him if I win, he was going to have to hire more security. He asked why and I said, 'Because there’s going to be a riot. You hear what she’s doing?’ It was so obvious it was her moment. Then I walked out onstage and we were just there with one another. We had been through this entire experience together and had shared a lot. I’ll never forget looking into her eyes and just waiting. There were 30 million people watching plus all the people in the Kodak Theatre, but we might as well have been alone onstage. I held Kelly’s hand while Ryan was dragging it out, thinking, ‘Please don’t let it be me,’ and then I heard, ‘Kelly Clarkson’ and the floodgates opened. All that hard work and finally we were done! It was an amazing moment. There were pyrotechnics and a backup choir and confetti all around. We walked offstage and Tamyra was there. We just said, ‘We did it.’ It was a really sweet moment between the three of us and we said, ‘All right, here we go,’ and we walked out of the Kodak.”