VIDEO: Simon’s ‘Idol’ Legacy—His Best And Worst Calls

Erika Brooks Adickman | January 12, 2010 7:30 am

Simon Cowell may have just rendered the biggest judgment call of his career with his decision to bid farewell to American Idol. But what is his real legacy as a talent spotter? Before he calls in his manservants to ship his tight black shirts over to The X Factor, we decided to take a look back at Simon’s best — and worst — judgments on Idol. No question, he possesses keen insight. But maybe there’s also a reason the final voting is left up to America.

Without a doubt, Simon’s exit will mean that Fox has some enormous (platform-enhanced) shoes to fill. But Cowell has always been more than a frowny, cross-armed insult generator. A veteran music executive/talent scout, Simon has long cultivated a reputation as the shrewdest Idol judge, able to accurately forecast pop career success with an insider’s savvy. For all his eye rolls and snide remarks, however, he hasn’t always made the right calls. It’s time to rewind through his handling of past contestants and consider what he got right—and wrong.

Season 1 – Kelly Clarkson (winner)

Simon’s Call: Yay. Simon said Kelly’s “great.” He even hugs her after she scores a ticket to Hollywood (and this is after he had nine other female contestants exiting in tears before she performed).  But Kelly claims he didn’t remember her at the Pasadena audition, and that maybe she was just too “plain jane” for Simon.

Actual Outcome: She was a winner all right, but fans saw her as considerably more than a plain jane. Her first post-Idol album, Thankful, went platinum, and she’s since turned into a superstar, earning two Grammys along the way.

Season 1 – Justin Guarini (runner up)

Simon Call: Simon tells Justin, “This is the point that I’m going to admit that American talent is probably better than English talent. Occasionally privileged to hear someone who’s undiscovered with a voice like yours, and this is one of those moments. Amazing.”

Actual Outcome: We’ll table the debate on the U.S. vs. the U.K. for the moment, but Justin would go on to finish #2 on the show’s first season—not too shabby. But then (after he co-stars the contractually obligated film abomination that is From Justin to Kelly) he all but disappears. Blame an ill-timed album release, lack of a pop single, a stinker of a movie—whatever it was, Justin unfortunately peaked on Idol.

Season 2 – Ruben Studdard (winner)

Simon Call: “Very good voice.  Yes.”

Actual Outcome: Pretty unenthusiastic first impression of the man who went on to win Season 2 of American Idol. Ruben scored a hit single off his first album, Soulful, as well as a Grammy nomination, but his recording career petered out after that, with two less successful followup leading to his exit from his record label. (He has found some recent success as an actor in musical theater, including in a production of Ain’t Misbehavin’.)

Season 2 – Clay Aiken (runner up)

Simon Call: “Okay. Very good. You don’t look like a pop star, but you’ve got a great voice. So now what? Clay Aiken, we’ll see you in Hollywood.”

Actual Outcome: Oh, ye of little faith. Thankfully for Clay, the mass market can sometimes see greatness beneath the surface. While he may have come in second (by a mere 130,000 votes), Clay went on to debut at #1 on the Billboard chart with the highest-selling first album by an Idol alum to date. He has scored a number of subsequent hits (though he left the RCA label in 2008), generated some $28 million at the concert box office in his first five tours, and starred on Broadway in Spamalot.

Season 3 – Fantasia Barrino (winner)

Simon Call: “The girl’s got a great voice, it’s just, I always try and imagine people at this stage where you go throughout the competition. Because you have such a distinct voice, and at one point what is deemed an advantage will then possibly become a disadvantage. Because you are what you are.” Fantasia then followed up with her rendition of “Proud Mary” to which Simon said, “I actually think you’re one of the best we’ve ever had. That’s what I think.”

Actual Outcome: America was less on the fence about Fantasia. She not only went on to win Season 3 of American Idol, but was successful enough to drop her last name. She’s the first recording artist in history to debut at the number one spot with a debut single. Her debut album went platinum and earned a slew of Grammy nominations. She’s starred on Broadway in The Color Purple — but in recent years her personal struggles have overshadowed her career, with her attempted redemption the subject of a new VH1 reality show Fantasia for Real. What did he mean by “you are what you are” we wonder?

Season 3 – Diana DeGarmo (runner up)

Simon Call: “What’s the problem? Cause I know what the problem is… It’s the horrible routine. The cutesy routine you do with your songs.” He found Diana’s smile “quite irritating”, but he still gave her his vote for a ticket to Hollywood.

Actual Outcome: America was clearly less irritated by her super-sweetness and voted her runner up of Season 3. The stage proved to be the perfect home for DeGarmo’s “cutesy routine,” in fact: she’s found success in the touring productions of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and on Broadway as Penny Pingleton in Hairspray, and she can currently be seen in the off-Broadway production of The Toxic Avenger.

Season 4 – Carrie Underwood (winner)

Simon’s Call: “Very good. Stay good at what you’re doing.” Carrie’s performance also prompted Simon to say that he was surprised that Idol hadn’t yielded a strong country act yet. By coincidence(?), he declared in the top 11 finalists’ round that Carrie would not only win the season, but outsell any previous Idol winner.

Actual Outcome: Simon was right on both of those counts (though depending on the album cycle, the sales title belongs to either Carrie or Kelly). You probably also know who she’s engaged to, and all her diet and fitness tips too.

Season 4 – Bo Bice (runner up)

Simon’s Call: “Great great great great great. Definitely.”

Actual Outcome: While Bo was voted #2 by America, his version of the single “Inside Your Heaven” actually outsold Carrie Underwood’s. That’s where it seems Bo ran out of steam. His debut album, The Real Thing, struggled to even reach gold-level sales, and the RCA label dropped him before he could record a second. Maybe instead of “Great great great great. Definitely,” Simon should have said, “Good good good good good. Maybe.”

Season 5 – Taylor Hicks (winner)

Simon’s Call: “My problem is, and I’ve always said this, it is not just about the voice. And you prove that.” He disagreed completely with Paula and Randy. He did not think Taylor could be commercially successful. Simon explained that Taylor should be singing backgrounds, “not in the spotlight.” He warned Taylor that although Paula and Randy were giving him a ticket to Hollywood, “they will not put you in the final group to be judged by public.” Ouch!

Actual Outcome: Not just about the voice? Tell that to the “Soul Patrol,” Simon. Taylor went on to win Season 5, and Simon offered a rare admission—he had been wrong. And so much for not having the “look” Simon thought Hicks needed. People magazine named the gray-haired wonder the Hottest Bachelor of 2006. Hicks did struggle to sell albums, but he went on to play the role of Teen Angel in the Broadway production of a little musical called Grease. (Some spotlight, huh Simon?) Last year, he came in at #10 on Forbes’ “Top Ten earning American Idol stars” list.

Season 5 – Katharine McPhee (runner up)

Simon’s Call: “Parts of that was [sic] absolutely fantastic… I’ll tell you what I love about you, you’re very current. You’re very, very current… You’re on the money, you know? It’s not stage school, it’s not wannabe-ish. It’s just very very very what is happening today. Amazing.”

Actual Outcome: Katharine wasn’t exactly right on the money, but she was pretty close. She had the second-best-selling single of 2006 after Taylor Hicks’ “Do I Make You Proud,” though her initial album didn’t take off. (Her sophomore outing, Unbroken, just hit the street). And while Simon said she wasn’t “stage school,” Katharine has gone on to have an acting career with a role in The House Bunny, a guest spot on CSI: NY, and will have a role on NBC’s Community as Chevy Chase’s stepdaughter.

Season 6 – Jordin Sparks (winner)

Simon’s Call: Simon presented Jordin with this analogy: “Sometimes I like to put one sugar in my coffee, that was the equivalent of 11 sugars… A bit over the top… weird smile through out. All I’m saying is it was a little bit too sugary for my taste. You’re gonna do well, but it wasn’t perfect.”

Actual Outcome: Jordin wins American Idol. Simon may have found her sweet, but has delivered some impassioned performances (and hits) in songs like “No Air,” with all-around-sweetheart Chris Brown, and “Battlefield,” which had the best pre-chorus of the year. And while Simon thought her smile was weird, Jordin went on to become the face of Avon makeup’s teen line, Mark.

Season Six – Blake Lewis (runner up)

Simon’s Call: “You’re good. You’re just very over the top. I don’t know if you’re as good as you think you are… I think you’re good enough to go through to the next round, I’m just not as easily impressed as Paula is.” He also called Blake “obnoxious.” Way harsh, Simon.

Actual Outcome: Blake wasn’t just good enough to get to the next round, he was good enough to take home second place in Idol. His rendition of Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name” was the highest-selling download of the season. Obnoxious? Well, he was polite enough to score an invitation to perform at the 2009 Congressional Clubs’ First Lady’s Luncheon to Honor Michelle Obama (with a beatbox verison of “America the Beautiful”). That said, Lewis hasn’t had the chart success or touring career of some of his fellow Idol alumni. So perhaps Simon wasn’t totally wrong on this one.

Season Seven – David Cook (winner)

Simon’s Call: “Other than being a little worthy, it was good.” (We have no idea what that means either.)

Actual Outcome: Maybe Simon meant “worthy” as in being worthy of the title of “next American Idol,” because that’s exactly where Cook ended up. David then went on to break Billboard chart records by being the first artist to have 11 songs debut on the Hot 100 in a single week, and his debut album is platinum.

Season 7 – David Archuleta (runner up)

Simon’s Call: “Great choice of song by the way. I really enjoyed it.” That’s it?! That’s all you have for this little cherub-faced crooner?

Actual Outcome: While David was named one of Forbes’ “Breakout Stars of 2008” he’s not exactly lighting the world on fire. While his debut album (self-titled) racked up sales of more than 750,000 copies, it’s not clear that the kid is loaded with pop hits. Maybe Simon was right to just focus on David’s song selection, rather than his performance.

Season 8 – Kris Allen (winner)

Simon’s Call: “I think part of the problem, Kris, is you. Because you don’t have a huge amount of personality and your modesty is actually putting me off a little bit.” Simon later went on to say, “I’m going to give you another shot. Yes.”

Actual Outcome: Kris has no reason to be modest now: he won Season 8. His version of “No Boundaries” outsold fellow Idol contestant Adam Lambert’s. Allen’s cover of Kanye West’s “Heartless” hit #13 on the chart and his self-titled album debuted at #11 on the Billboard album chart. Does he have the staying power? Is Simon right? Will his “lack of personality” get in the way of a long-term career as a singer? Only time will tell.

Season 8 – Adam Lambert (runner up)

Simon’s Call: Other judges thought that Idol was ready for someone like Lambert. Simon thought he was “theatrical… not current.”

Actual Outcome:Theatrical, maybe (they don’t call him Glambert for nothing). But “not current”? Hardly. Lambert’s style has helped turn him into a fashion icon, and his controversial American Music Awards performance became international news. His album For Your Entertainment debuted at #3 on the Billboard album chart, higher than Kris Allen’s. For now, it looks like Lambert is as current as it gets.


That’s all so far. Of course, Simon’s most recent decision is the one that may have the most serious consequences. Any bets on whether he made the right one?