‘American Idol’ Hollywood Week Kicks Off With Ellen DeGeneres’ Debut

Judges send 95 singers through to Wednesday's group round.

Finally! After what felt like an eternity, “American Idol” served up the first dose of Hollywood Week on Tuesday night (February 9). In addition to the 181 potential superstars filing into the Kodak Theater, the show marked the debut of newest judge, talk-show host/ comedian Ellen DeGeneres , who quickly proved that she not only has plenty to say, but says it in an entertaining, thoughtful manner.

“So this is it,” DeGeneres said, staring into fellow judge Simon Cowell’s eyes as they sat down for the first day of Hollywood singing. “I come on, you leave.”

The quip immediately put to rest the weeks of chatter about Cowell’s imminent leave-taking at the end of this season and established what seems like a jovial tension between the two new co-workers.

The singers came out in groups of eight, given the option to sing a cappella or with an instrument. The first bunch included 17-year-old Katie Stevens, who charmed the first time with a husky voice and a backstory that included her caretaking role for her aging grandmother. Cowell still liked her and Randy praised her natural talent, while the verging-on-annoying Antonio “SkiiBoSki” Wheeler might have worn out his welcome with a herky-jerky “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.”

“You frighten me,” DeGeneres said over loud laughter. “You were stalking us. You were like a leopard behind a cage. … I was watching you looking at us like, ‘I’m gonna getcha.’ ” But seriously, she said, don’t frighten your audience, don’t be so intense. “Sexy and scary, it’s a fine line.” He appeared to cross that line, as he didn’t make the cut, while Stevens did.

The second group featured young dad Andrew Garcia , strumming former judge Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up” as a Jason Mraz-like acoustic jam that showed some serious soul and arranging chops. “That was genius,” Kara DioGuardi said. “Paula would be screaming and yelling and dancing,” she added, praising him for radically interpreting a song the way last season’s runner-up Adam Lambert did.

Tennessee bridge-jumper Vanessa Wolfe was shaken by a serious case of nerves, warbling her way through Blind Melon’s “No Rain.” Ellen praised her “unique quality,” encouraging her to embrace that special something. Garcia, not surprisingly, made the cut, while Wolfe’s first trip out of her small hometown came to a swift end.

Also flaming out were jump-splitter Cornelius Edwards; Maegan Wright, the cosmetologist whose supportive little brother made a memorable appearance on the show; and Italian stallion Amedeo DiRocco, who begged for another chance to no avail after a shouty performance that didn’t live up to his initial promise.

Tampa, Florida’s Janell Wheeler made another great impression with an acoustic-guitar ramble through Estelle’s “American Boy” that Ellen called “amazing.” They were also still feeling the love for another strummer, wannabe country star Haeley Vaughn,16, who did a charming sandpaper take on Taylor Swift’s “Change,” as well as 28-year-old rocker mom Mary Powers, who eerily channeled Pink on “Sober.”

Both made it through to the next round, along with Fantasia co-star Todrick Hall , Chicago’s Charity Vance and Boston’s Ashley Rodriguez , one of 46 to make it through on day one.

Day two dawned rough with annoying beatboxing from Miami’s Jay Stone, while Michael Lynche stepped to the mic as his wife was about to give birth to their first child, warning he had to make it or else he’d be in big trouble. The massive bodybuilder — who reportedly has been dropped from the show because his father is alleged to have blabbed about his son’s Hollywood trip — killed it with a gospel-y take on John Mayer’s “Waiting for the World to Change.”

Sandwich maker Lilly Scott went quirky with an acoustic-guitar version of Ella Fitzgerald’s “Lullaby of Birdland,” which DioGuardi loved. “Everything about you is refreshing,” she gushed, just before putting Scott through. Also making it to the group round was Texas’ Tim Urban, who redeemed his initial weak audition with a strong take on David Cook’s “Come Back to Me,” while Utah cancer survivor Justin Williams was sent packing after an overly dramatic performance.

Whip-cracking former “Barney” girl Erica Rhodes didn’t make it, and neither did tanned and teased Orlando, Florida, sisters Bernadette and Amanda Disimone . Maddy Curtis, the 16-year-old Virginia native who pulled heartstrings with the story of her four brothers with Down Syndrome, also blew it with an uneven cover of Fitzgerald’s “The Nearness of You,” while shirtless wonder Casey James ripped it up and made it through with his gritty acoustic-blues cover of Ray Charles’ “I Don’t Need No Doctor.”

In the last group, weepy Knoxville, Tennessee, waitress Didi Benami sang a touching take on DioGuardi’s “Terrified” that sounded like it was radio-ready. “I hate to admit it, but I really like that song,” Cowell said, adding that he also liked the idea of a just-folks waitress making it big. “It’s what it’s all about,” he told her. Dreadlocked Chicago single mom Crystal Bowersox brought some gritty rock/soul to Aretha Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman,” getting the audience so hyped they threw in some impromptu backing vocals and a standing ovation, with both women making it through round two.

In all, 95 advanced to Wednesday’s group round.

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