- “American Idol” contestants told Insider the most surprising things they learned while on the show.
- Some contestants recalled feeling “out of body” during live performances and their finales.
- One winner said that in order to preserve his voice, his vocal cords were sprayed with adrenaline.
There’s a lot more to being on “American Idol” than what you see on TV.
Ahead of the Fox-ABC show’s 20th anniversary, Insider asked winners and finalists to share things that surprised them about being on the singing competition.
Early ‘Idol’ contestants were given a wardrobe budget and later ones worked with a stylist
Season-one runner-up Justin Guarini said that there was a “nature of collaboration” between contestants and crew members when it came to the outfits they wore on stage when the show aired in 2002.
Season-seven “Idol” winner David Cook said he was “floored by the fact” that he was allowed to pick his own wardrobe when he competed in 2008.
“The idea of having $100 to $200 on an outfit for your performance was like, ‘Oh my God, how am I possibly going to spend all this?'” Cook recalled. “And then you go shopping in LA and you’re like, ‘Oh, that’s how I’m going to spend all of it.'”
Jena Irene Asciutto, the “Idol” runner-up in 2014, said singers were paired with stylists on her season but that didn’t mean their outfits were always perfect.
Asciutto, who was 17 at the time of filming, said she remembers the season-13 stylists “were so incredibly talented” but “boxed in by what the executive producers saw for each contestant.” For instance, Asciutto said she didn’t appreciate how producers kept picking outfits that “accentuated” parts of her body that made her uncomfortable.
“I think looking back on that, I would totally have wanted to change some things around and have the final say so,” Asciutto recalled.
‘Idol’ contestants can vote for each other
Season-nine runner-up Crystal Bowersox said she would take time to vote for each contestant when the live shows aired.
“During the voting time, I would always go and place one vote for every single contestant other than myself, at least one,” she told Insider.
A few singers auditioned without ever watching the show
Though many contestants grew up cheering for their favorite “Idol” singers, a few told Insider that they went into their auditions knowing little about the series.
“I went through the show having never really watched the show,” said season-five winner Taylor Hicks. But he believes his experience on the show was made “even more special” by the fact that the camera crew captured his “pure and honest reactions.”
Season-six runner-up Blake Lewis said he wasn’t planning to try out for “Idol” until he spontaneously decided to join a friend in the audition line.
“My friend called me out of the blue to be in line with him,” Lewis recalled. “He says, ‘What are you doing at 5 a.m.?'”
After he made it through to Hollywood Week, Lewis said he reached out to his childhood friends and “grilled them” on their “Idol” knowledge.
He added, “I’m like, ‘What is this show about? What am I getting myself into?'”
Sudden fame from the show was disorienting for a lot of finalists
“I went from complete obscurity to not being able to walk down the street at that time,” said Bowersox, who competed in 2010.
Season-six finalist Melinda Doolittle said that she became a hermit for “at least two years” after her time on the show.
“You could not walk more than 10 feet without getting stopped or people wanting pictures and wanting to talk to you,” Doolittle recalled.
Some “Idol” contestants said that the attention could border on stalking at times. Hicks recalled that a paparazzo followed him in a helicopter for “about two weeks” after competing on the show.
“I had a bodyguard for six months, it was very intense for me,” Hicks said. “It’s very scary when you get let out to pasture, as I like to say.”
According to contestants, security can be pretty tight on and off set
Some contestants on earlier “Idol” seasons said producers kept a close eye on the singers in order to contend with fans and crowds of reporters.
“I would run away from security and try to go find hiding spots because we were supposed to stay in a bubble and always have a security guard with us. I couldn’t stand it,” Bowersox told Insider.
Lewis said he would often sneak out with his roommates and ask the security guard stationed outside their apartment to look the other way.
Doolittle recalled that there were “security risks” involved with filming “Idol,” but she was always upfront about asking producers for time away.
She said that a friend “would literally drive me around in his car just so I could practice because in the apartments you couldn’t really sing that loud.”
Season-three runner-up Diana DeGarmo, who was 16 years old when she competed, said there were security measures in place including contestant curfews, a staff of security guards, and limited mobility to and from set.
Some contestants had an ‘out of body’ experience during the final rounds
Caleb Lee Hutchinson, who placed second on season 16, said he “disassociated” at a certain point during the finale.
“Honestly, I looked back at that footage and I don’t see anything behind those eyes, that dude is just up there,” Hutchinson said.
“When we did the performances I got to sing with Joe Cocker,” Bowersox said of her finale experience. “I don’t remember being in my body for those moments … it’s hard to remember it even from my own perspective.”
Season-18 winner Just Sam said that she experienced a similar feeling when she found out she would progress to the finale episode.
“I literally felt like, ‘I am asleep,'” Just Sam said. “‘I must be in a coma and somebody has not woken me up yet.'”
Some winners and runner-ups won free cars as a part of the show’s sponsorship deals
Before “Idol” was picked up by ABC, the show had a long-running sponsorship deal with Ford in which some finalists received free cars.
After placing second on season 14, Clark Beckham said that he went into “negotiation mode” when it came to picking his car.
“I’m going to shoot as high as I possibly can,” Beckham recalled. “And if they say no, at least we work from there rather than not realizing I could have gotten more.”
Beckham said he went with a Ford 5-150 truck and “souped it up” as much as he could.
Bowersox said that her season’s winner, Lee DeWyze, went above budget on his car, which was good news for her.
“There was some kind of clause where they had to honor that for me,” Bowersox recalled. “So I picked a vehicle that was under that budget and ended up getting a check for the remaining amounts.”
Contestants said editing is everything on reality TV
Lewis said he “had to fight so hard” to be himself on the show and that a lot of what happened wasn’t what it seemed.
He said during his audition in front of the judges he was asked to beatbox and declined three times before he finally gave in. But Lewis said the footage was edited to make the situation seem different.
“The way they cut it — they made it seem like I was cocky,” Lewis said.
When season-six finalist Sanjaya Malakar auditioned for the show with his sister, Shyamali, he said he could feel producers pushing for a “sibling rivalry” angle and trying to coach certain reactions out of them.
“Essentially, it felt like they were feeling out whether or not my sister and I would be combative or a team,” he told Insider.
Asciutto said one waiver she signed included the show’s right to “piece footage” together as it pleased.
“You could be saying one thing, answering a question, or talking about a certain topic or situation, but they could string certain words or footage together to make it seem like you were saying something different,” she told Insider.
Choosing songs isn’t always straightforward
Season-15 runner-up A.S.E., formerly known as La’Porsha Renae, said that singers sometimes had less creative control than viewers may have thought.
Although producers often chose songs for contestants, A.S.E. said that she and a few others were “rebellious” on their season because they were “very adamant about what song choices we wanted to do and why we fought for our song choices.”
When A.S.E. chose to sing Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive,” she said that a crew member tried to feed her a line off-camera.
“She was like, ‘Just in case producers don’t choose that song and they say you can’t do it, say something like, I wish I could have done that song,'” A.S.E. recalled.
A.S.E. said she refused to say the line, thinking that if they didn’t have her saying it on camera she’d get to do the song.
“So you have to be smart and learn to maneuver,” she added.
Contestants’ vocal cords go through a lot and they take great measures to keep them going
Since singing for a prolonged period of time can put pressure on contestants’ vocal cords, Hicks said he would often camp out in the bathroom between rehearsals because it was the “most humidified place” on set.
“It was like I had a giant case of diarrhea the whole time, but actually it was just me trying to keep my voice,” Hicks said.
Season-13 winner Caleb Johnson said his voice “was blown out” right before the finale and he had to take drastic measures after conventional remedies, like drinking hot tea, didn’t work.
“… The reality was just, there was no time,” Johnson told Insider. “So they did this kind of unorthodox thing where they took a needle of adrenaline and would spray my vocal cords to basically make it come back.”
Finalists’ days are usually long and packed with rehearsing or shooting B-roll and commercials
Season-16 winner Maddie Poppe said Hollywood Week was “exhausting,” as the contestants had a 7 a.m. call time every day but she didn’t yet have access to wardrobe or hair and makeup.
“We eat breakfast, and then we go over and we get ready,” she said. “Then you’re at the Dolby Theatre shooting all day, but you don’t have hair and makeup, you don’t have a wardrobe.
Asciutto told Insider that there were days when “we were barely even in our hotel rooms” due to commitments like shooting B-roll or participating in commercials.
” … As the weeks went on and people were eliminated, the people left were responsible for filling that episode of time,” she recalled. “So we were needed for more things. And I think at like top eight was when we started doing Ford commercials every Sunday.”
A lot of recent contestants check social media and are pushed to use it — but it can be tough
A.S.E. recalled that during her time on the show, she faced a “whole whirlwind” as she navigated social media platforms.
She said the show’s social-media mentor often told her to post on Instagram and Facebook, but it was extra tough because she “wasn’t used to critique on such a massive level.”
Johnson even recalled a time when users didn’t believe in him on one of the show’s Twitter polls.
“It said, ‘Is Caleb going to make it into the watch shows?'” said Johnson. “And 80% of the Twitter poll said, ‘No,’ like it was like 80 to 20 and I was just laughing.”
He said it still cracks him up that the majority of voters on the poll didn’t think he’d make it far, especially since he won the whole season.
Representatives for Fox and ABC did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.