‘American Idol’ Executive Producer Weighs In On Some Contestants’ Professional Backgrounds

A handful of season seven's reported hopefuls have record deals, noted managers and other industry connections.

The seventh season of “American Idol” kicks off Tuesday night (January 15) with a two-hour extravaganza sure to feature plenty of tears, shattered dreams and epic, bleep-laden meltdowns — not to mention some legitimate talent, a whole lot of WTF?-worthy warblers and, of course, gratuitous Seacrest.

It’s all part of what makes the early-season “Idol” episodes so mesmerizing: a heady mix of the bizarre, the talented and, of course, the talent-less, all hoping to get famous (or at least get their 15 minutes). The ultimate goal is the discovery of the “diamonds in the rough,” the sublimely skilled singers who have somehow fallen through the cracks. Of course, if you believe the rumors that have been swirling around “Idol” fan sites in recent days, those diamonds are becoming more difficult to find — which is why the show producers have seeded this year’s field of contestants with a handful of ringers: male and female singers who have been signed to major labels, worked with established songwriters and musicians, released albums and even been nominated for Grammy Awards.

The controversy started in December, when someone with the online handle “JoesPlace” began posting a list of names and MySpace pages on the fan site IdolForums.com, claiming that they were revealing the top 50 contestants who had survived the “Idol” preliminary rounds (like the kind that will air in the premiere) and made it to Hollywood. That list began to be dissected by the folks at VoteForTheWorst.com, the site launched in 2004 to subvert the “Idol” process by urging fans to vote for, well, the most supremely untalented of each season’s contestants. What the site discovered seems to fly in the face of everything “American Idol” is supposed to represent: namely, discovering the undiscovered.

As proof of this, the site points to several alleged season-seven contestants, including Carly Hennessy, an Irish singer who was signed to MCA Records and released a solo record, Ultimate High, which sold just slightly more than 300 copies, despite a multimillion-dollar push by her label, according to The Wall Street Journal. Or Kristy Lee Cook, a country artist once signed to Arista Nashville and managed by Marty Rendleman, who previously helmed LeAnn Rimes’ career.

The list goes on and on and includes contestants who worked as a songwriter for Sony and Universal artists (Shaun Barrowes), sang with Patti LaBelle (Joanne Borgella), were nominated for a Grammy (Jermaine Paul), and even dated Britney Spears (Robbie Carrico).

The whole thing has created such a stir — and brought into question the very validity of a show created to find undiscovered talent — that MTV News went to “Idol” executive producer Ken Warwick for comment. And while he didn’t deny that some of the season-seven contestants had previous experience, he explained that the process of finding new, never-before-discovered talent has grown increasingly difficult, given the show’s popularity.

“The truth of the matter is, there are too many people who come on to audition for us to go into all their backgrounds,” Warwick said. “We judge it purely on, when they walk through the door, if they have a record company attached to them already, then we’re not interested. If they have a management contract, they’ve got to lose it. it. … We take them on the merits of ‘Can they sing or not?’

“There are kids who are sufficiently good out there, that maybe should be stars,” he continued, “and the fact that they’ve been a backing singer to someone else in the past — if they were within the age limit and they meet all the criteria that we set — then who are we to say, ‘No, you can’t have another go [at it]‘? That’s ridiculous.”

And while the show does make attempts to weed out those who have previously worked in the industry, Warwick said contestants’ backgrounds shouldn’t have anything to do with how far they go in the competition. Ultimately, it’s up to viewers to determine just who should be crowned “American Idol” champ.

“If they walk through that door and they sing well, then they will go through to the next round. End of story,” he said. “[And] don’t forget, when we get to the final 24, it’s America that makes up their mind. So if America, having found out a little bit more about the contestants — which, hopefully they will have done by then — if they decide, ‘Oh, this person’s been around the block three or four times, I don’t like them as much,’ then that poor person will have to suffer the consequences. It has nothing to do with us.”

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