'American Idol' grads speak out: Can the show survive without Simon Cowell?

American Idol‘s ninth season begins tonight on Fox — look for PopWatch posts from yours truly right before and after the showx-, plus a full TV Watch recap on EW.com in the early morning — but today, the show’s fans are still buzzing about Simon Cowell’s announcement that he won’t return for season 10 in 2011. I picked up my special IdolPhone (covered in Ford, AT&T, and Coca-Cola logos) and reached out to five popular former contestants — Melinda Doolittle, Brooke White, Anoop Desai, Matt Giraud, and Megan Joy — and asked them two all-important questions: Can Idol survive without the notorious British judge, and how should the show proceed in looking for a person to fill Mr. Nasty’s chair? Here’s what they had to say:

Melinda Doolittle (third place, season 6): “You’re probably not going to like my answer: I have no idea. For me, Simon was my champion while on the show, he always had my back, and I’m a huge huge fan. And even when I don’t agree with the way he says things, I normally agree with what he says. So I’m wondering, how do you replace his wit, his sarcasm, and his non-filtering way of saying things? That’s what makes me nervous. You see so many shows try to copy the format, but they still can’t get a Simon. He’s so quick about it, especially on the live shows. I remember last season when [Idol's producers] were trying to cut back on time, and they only had two judges critique every performer. I was so upset because I didn’t know what Simon thought [for every other contestant]. I was like ‘Maybe they can do Randy and Simon, then Kara and Simon, then Paula and Simon. This is not working at all!’ The biggest quality a new judge will need is to have a business executive’s mind. That’s what [Simon] represented for us on the panel: ‘The bottom line is this doesn’t work, or this will make me some money.’ If Simon and Paula end up on X Factor, that might just get me. I would have killed to be mentored by one of the judges, mentored by Simon! Knowing me, I’ll probably have to watch both shows. I can’t give up on Idol, but X Factor is becoming more and more intriguing to me.”

Brooke White (fifth place, season 7): “I want to say yes [Idol can survive without Simon], but I think I have to say no. Because it’s not just Simon leaving. Paula’s leaving too. And it’s season 9 now. The intrinsic formula [is changing]. I wish it was about the contestants, but the truth is we get replaced every year, and people are used to that. But what they do have is a constant, and that’s the judges. There’s comfort knowing when they turn on the TV, these judges they trust can help them make a decision. That familiarity is going to be missing [in season 9 and even more so in season 10]. And initially, that will make people tune in out of curiosity. But will it have longevity? Will it stick? I don’t know. It’s almost like they have to come at Idol from a completely different angle, but the issue with that is that Simon is bringing a new show [to U.S. viewers] that’s a reinvention of American Idol! Yikes. I mean, it’s sad. But good things come to an end. I do know you’re not going to find a replacement, per se, for Simon — another meanie British man. He’s known for being right — which sometimes just kills me. Because it’s not about being nice, it’s about telling the truth. And on top of that, while Simon is a judge, he’s also a star. And as cheeseball as it sounds, he does have the X factor. With Idol, everyone has wondered: How long is it gonna last? And then for a lot of people, it lasted longer than expected. And now it’s like: How could it ever stop? It’s the biggest TV show in America, maybe the world. What would it be like if we didn’t have American Idol? But when you have powerful personalities and celebrities involved, you know eventually they’re going to want to do their own things. It’s like the boy-band phenomenon: It works for a time and it’s huge, and then people want to go spread their wings and become Justin Timberlake.”

Matt Giraud (fifth place, season 8 ): “No offense to Paula, ’cause I love her more than life, but it’s going to be harder to replace Simon than it is to replace Paula. People take his word as the final opinion. And a lot of people will find it confusing to not see Simon’s opinion on every performance. He has that blunt thing. People sometimes feel Randy and Kara sugarcoat it. And I don’t think they need another person to say, ‘Well, I liked your outfit.’ Believe it or not people often tune in for the judges more than the contestants. That’s why they get paid so much. [Laughs.]“

Anoop Desai (sixth place, season 8): “I think the show can survive without Simon. When the show first started it was a lot more dependent on that ‘Simon Cowell personality,’ and that’s still a big drawing point for the show. But it’s also come into its own as part of the American psyche. At its core, the show is still about talent being discovered, and America likes going on the journey with those people, regardless of who the judges are. So, yeah, every past contestant would like to think that Idol can go on without Simon. Having said that, of course, when you think American Idol, you think Simon Cowell. I have no idea of the effect it will have on the brand. Simon is a caricature of the mean judge [archetype]. Can they get someone to replace that viewpoint? Sure. Can that person do it as well as Simon has done it the last eight seasons? Probably not. Whoever replaces him will have to have a background in the music industry. That’s really what gives Simon his bite: He comes into this with the assumption of ‘I know what I’m talking about. I’ve made hits.’ It has to be someone bona fide, someone who can back up what they’re saying. Simon is insanely popular, too. Not only do people love to hate him, they just love him. Nine out of ten people you talk to will say, ‘He’s a jerk, but I agree with him most of the time.’ What Idol needs to be careful of is that it’s one thing to be mean, but it’s another thing to be mean and right. And that’s the genius of Simon Cowell is that he’s mean, but he’s right.”

Megan Joy (ninth place, season 8): “How I’m looking at it is that Idol as we know it is never going to be the same; it’s going to be two brand-new shows [Simon-free Idol and The X Factor] to love. It’ll be new and different and exciting. Idol without Simon and Paula, and all these new people, it can’t possibly be the exact same ever again. Definitely they shouldn’t try to create a ‘new Simon.’ It needs to be something original and fresh. It’d be silly to try to have a judge be like Simon, but I don’t know the key beyond that.”

Oh, and for all my American Idol coverage — season 9 and otherwise — follow me on Twitter @EWMichaelSlezak!

Comments (85 total) Add your comment
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  • wg

    I don’t know if it’s because I’m still on a Glambert high, or if it’s because I miss Paula and can’t stand Kara and have no need for Ellen, but it’s been a long time since I’ve been this unenthused for the start of an Idol season. Meh.

  • wg

    And yeah, not sure I want to watch it w/o Simon next season.

  • Lauren

    I think Megan Joy has the right idea. They will be different and for me I will watch both because I love this stuff! Also I thought of another person to be a judge: David Foster. He has introduced a lot of great singers to the world.

    • GWEN DEAN

      I totally agree with W.G. and Lauren, can’t stand Kara, don’t like wannabe Randy, who can’t judge on his own trying to be like Simon, and Ellen? how can someone judge and can’t even sing…..
      I think the person who would be a good person to take Simon’s place would be the guy who is a Judge on America’s Got Talent” I think he replaces Simon you would be saying Simon who? lollllllll

  • Emily

    I’m just going to end up watching the X Factor instead. I really don’t see how Idol can come back without Simon. They already took a blow with quirky, but sweet Paula leaving. Now the show’s voice of reason gone too? It simply will not be the same, and in my opinion, it will not work out.

  • Lupita

    NO!NO!NO!NO! this show will NOT survive without him! he needs to be there! he’d say the truth about singers!

  • Nick

    I think Megan Joy has the right idea and DAAAMN she looks good!

  • lori

    no simon is idol!!! and i dont think randy,kara and ellen and who ever else they get will be able to keep idol a live.besides america keeps voting the wrong winner kinda tired of that maybe its time to find some thing else to watch

  • Anna

    God bless him, Anoop’s still running around in circles and making no sense whatsoever.
    Lori, Lupita, Emily, and, wg are right. Simon is Idol. No one cares about Ellen or Karla, and Randy and Ryan are tired cliches. It’s time to quietly pack up the franchise and try to re-invent the brand with some fresh thinking.

    • Vivi

      Anoop made perfect sense to me. They all did. Quite unfortunate that you couldn’t understand him, claiming he’s “…running around in circles”. Was it the big words that did you in?
      **
      Anywho, I think that “American Idol” will not be the same without Simon BUT the show will still go on. At the end of the day, it is still a singing competition. Personally, I watch the show for singing…not for the judges. Besides, Simon’s not always right. You people are making it seem like he’s the next coming of a genius, when he’s not.

      • Anna

        Are you always this catty? Oooohhh, okay, I get it. You were the one. You were the one keeping that disaster on the show week after excruciating week. You want to be more careful, you’re letting your bitter show.

      • skipper

        Wow. That’s harsh. Do you feel like you have to protect Anoop, a person you don’t know and are likely never to meet, from a mostly anonymous poster you don’t know and are likely never to meet?

    • Whatever

      Why do you gotta be so negative. Everything he said made perfect sense. He’s saying that if we go back to the concept from when AI first started (which is about the contestants and not the judges) then perhaps Idol has a chance of surviving without Simon.

      I mean really? Why do you gotta be so cruel…Anoop made it on the show for a reason. If he’s not your style thats one thing…but to me, he is MY AMERICAN IDOL. If what If what he said didnt make sense to you, then thats your problem. He did graduate college and study for his Masters for a reason…so he could sound articulate unlike your idiotic comment. thanks

      • Anna

        My comment may have been, in your opinion, idiotic; which is fine as you also have the right to an opinion. Go back and read Anoop’s comment. You don’t like “running around in circles”? Let’s try straddling both sides of the fence then. It’s way too much “well, on the one hand, but then on the other….” I think my comment could have been responded to without the need to question my level of literacy or to be labeled “idiotic”. But then, that’s my opinion – to which I’m also entitled. I’m out. Peace.

      • skipper

        Apparently Anoop’s fans are staunch and aggressive…

  • Sarah

    I’ve been watching American Idol since the first summer it was on (when Brian Dunkleman was still a co-host and Ryan Seacrest looked even more like a Ken doll than he does now). And even then, at the very beginning, the show was Simon. I think the producers should have this season be its last and let the show bow out gracefully. Now we all have to watch what will likely be a protracted and awkward demise to one of the most popular shows of the decade.

  • d

    The show is Simon. Simon is the show. Everyone knows this. And if Simon (as rumored) is genuinely interested in getting Paula to join him on X-Factor, then stick a fork in Idol. It will be done.

  • Deanna

    I’m pretty excited to see how Ellen interacts with the contestants and Kara for that matter. Simon in my opinion seemed pretty uninterested in being a part of idol this past season 8 anyway. So it doesn’t surprise me that he’s leaving. I guess we’ll see how it goes after the first few shows. :)

  • No Way

    No way Idol survives without Simon. The only judge comments people talk about are is. To paraphrase The Nature Boy, whether you love the man or hate the man, you have to respect the man cuz he IS the man!

  • Dave

    American Idol without Simon is like Dallas would’ve been without JR.

    Randy has little credibility as a judge. Kara never found her footing last year. Ellen fans watch her on her own show. And Seacrest is everywhere, all the time & holds little appeal for many. Fox will likely be forced to let Idol slip away when they find they can’t command the ad revenue they need without Simon.

  • SaraJ

    All I know is I won’t watch this show once Simon’s gone, but I might skip out early considering how grating Kara is (and without Paula, none of the judges know anything about SINGING!).
    If Paula joins Simon on X-Factor, that would not only be wonderful, it might be like a sweet destiny for singing fans — a way for them to start over without nonsensical Randy and Kara.

  • Joe

    I don’t think the show will survive without Simon, he is the show. And as far as Ellen goes, what does she know about music talent, nothing!

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