Nigel Lythgoe Talks American Idol Season 12 – Rankings, Wildcards and More

American Idol executive producer, Nigel Lythgoe answered reporters’ questions on a conference call today. Here’s what went down, including dish on weekly voting rankings (this could happen!) wildcards, and how a girl could finally win it all.

The American Idol auditions begin next week with New York City on Wednesday, Jan 16 and Chicago on Thursday Jan 17.

You know those controversial voting rankings Simon Cowell revealed every week? Nigel Lythgoe has been wanting to do that for 8 or 9 years. Yes, he thinks it’s an awesome idea, and what he has to say on the subject, is pretty interesting. He name checks Carrie Underwood, who he says won every week, and Hawaii, “It’s very amusing to me. It’s something we’ve wanted to do for 8 or 9 years. We did it in England with Pop Idol. I’ve always been stopped doing it in this country with people saying ‘Oh no, people will stop voting if you show that the one person is winning–like a Carrie Underwood who won every week–people will stop voting.’ We always fought that back and said, ‘Well no…just because my soccer team is number 4 in the league, doesn’t mean to say I’m going to stop supporting them. I’m going to support them more.’ All of a sudden, they managed to do it on the X Factor. I was a little…’Damn. It now looks like we’re going to be copying them.’  The one thing I believe about American Idol, is that everybody else copies American Idol.  Yes, I thought it was a good  move.  It doesn’t stop people voting. It makes them more passionate to see their person do well. I liked it. We’ll still discuss it. I’m not sure how we’ll do it.

Nigel would like to reveal regional statistics, “I also like the idea of doing…like the conferences like the NBA do. Let’s see how the west voted for you…let’s see how the east voted for you…and build the figures up so you can see where the votes are coming in from. I think it would be exciting. I think we’d see if they’ve got hometown support. Very interesting when you’ve got an Hawaiian contestant–how that can sway the vote. Every island votes for goodness sake (He’s talking about Season 3 and Jasmine Trias, who made it all the way to 3, presumably on the strength of the Hawaiians. So it was true.) Anything that garners interest and fills a show out that is generally 99% padding–any way we can make that exciting–I really want to look at. Now that X Factor’s managed to do that, I will be fighting tooth and nail.”

On the semi-final round changes and wild cards,I’ve never liked a top 11 or a top 12 or a top 13.  It was always created in order to fill the transmission times that Fox wanted.  So we created t0p 13s and top 12s, and let’s give them wildcard here and let’s bring somebody back–It’s very plain and simple.  As we’ve always done with So You Think You Can Dance–There’s your Top 10, It’s a knock out competition. We’ve always attempted to do that. But we’ve never found a way to do it with everything that’s been asked of us. And this year, we have.” Hm. The math is a little confusing here. The finals begin on March 7.

What makes a good judge and how much of a bonus has it been that we’ve already heard about the judges and the sparks that are flying between them, “I don’t think that’s been a bonus. It’s not publicity that I  welcomed. It’s about the contestants. The judges are always  going to be interesting because they are who they are. I don’t really want to know that there’s been a huge blowup between them and have it it all taken out of proportion. I’m not into that sort of publicity. It will, I guess, get people to watch to see if they blow up on TV. So, everybody tells me I should be grateful. I would much prefer that  they watch because these judges are excellent. Nicki Minaj, I think, is one of the best judges I’ve ever worked with.”

What makes a good judge? Singing out of tune is not that big a deal!  “Somebody who is honest with integrity. Not honest just telling somebody they suck and go home, pack your suitcase. Any information that they can feed into helping the kid in that short period of time I think is great.  The different angles that they can come from, knowing that it isn’t just about the voice. And REALLY does it matter if they sing out of tune a little bit? Because everybody I’ve ever seen live sings out of tune, even the greatest singers in the world. Of course, if you’re making a single now a days, they’ll auto-tune it anyway.  Is there more we should be discussing rather than ‘You were pitchy.’ I’m so sick of that remark! So now, we are constantly trying to find ways to help them. This panel is doing that. I think one of the best judges I’ve worked with is ME on So You Think You Can Dance.”

On a female contestant finally winning Idol, what do they need to do?  “What they have always had to do, which is capture the vote. It isn’t always about the voice. It is about charisma, personality attracting an audience. And doing that week on week. If there was an absolute formula to stick to in order to win American Idol, we’d have probably found it by now, bottled it, and I’m sure one of the production companies would be selling it. It’s really what grabs you.  Does the story grab you? Does the song of the week grab you? There’s more strength in the talent of the girls [this year]. It’s not to say that one of the boys will not sneak in. Because there are 5 or 6 really good guys and only 5 of them are going to make the top 10.  At the end of the day, when you’ve got 5 guys and 5 girls, the depth of talent doesn’t matter. It’s anybody’s game at that stage.”

Would Nigel be personally disappointed if a guy won this year, “I get my favorites, I’m human, and I like my favorites. I’ve never been disappointed with any one of the winners with the shows I’ve been involved with.  I’ve been disappointed in losing people a little too early along the way–Tamyra Gray, I was really upset at losing–but thrilled that Kelly Clarkson won.  I don’t have a personal involvement from that point of view. Normally my favorite revolves around who I pick in the draw and hopefully I’ll win the 150 dollars at the end of the series.  In truth, I don’t have a horse in the race, and I like to keep it that way so that nobody can make allegations about ‘oh his favorite won? How did that happen?.’  (Uhm, except this last season on SYTYCD where you namechecked your favorite every week–and she ended up winning Favorite Girl)

Why does American Idol produce bonifide stars while the others, like The Voice and X Factor have not?  “In fairness, It’s right to say they haven’t been on the air that long yet,” admits Nigel. “I do think that other shows tend to concentrate on gimmicks–maybe their judges a little too much.  I say that having just experienced two months of talking about our new judges. Hopefully the programs themselves will show we’re still purposing on the contestants.  Also the amount people vote and get involved with–they want to see them successful after the show. Phillip Phillips‘ song “Home” was just tremendous. Scotty McCreery, again,  very good in that genre, and people loved him.  We’ve had success and we want to continue having success.”

What the judges are looking for, “Nicki is looking for an artist. Mariah is looking for the complete singer-songwriter. Randy is looking for somebody that sings on pitch. (laughs) Keith isn’t just looking for a country star. Keith is looking for an instrumentalist, a good singer, and somebody that can capture that magic charisma, and connect with the public. They all have their own agendas.”

Which judge is the toughest this season, “So far, Randy Jackson.  You can see the other 3 judges wince, because although they may agree with that outright sentiment, they certainly feel like they’re not there to hurt anybody. So, where possible, they will try and send them away with either a good comment of how they can improve, or a suggestion of what they can move on into. Obviously, they haven’t met my little friend, Jimmy Iovine yet. He will have many words to say.  These judges are judges–they’re not mentors. They’re not really going to be speaking with the kids during the week or helping them improve. They will make a judgement of the kids’ performance and then if it helps, then the kids take it on board. If not–it’s very difficult in that 30 seconds to make lasting comments for the kids to improve week on week.  We’ve got other people telling them how to do that.”

On Keith Urban and country music on Idol and throwing shade on Simon Cowell!  “It actually came up at TCA yesterday, where somebody said, all of a sudden, country music is being embraced by American Idol. Which, in truth, I tried to put right and say, ‘we had  country music right from the beginning.’ Simon Cowelldoesn’t like country music. I don’t think he understands country music. I don’t think he understands all the different genres, whether it’s bluegrass, outlaw country or anything. He just thinks that everything is  “Grandma got over by a reindeer”….that’s his assumption of country music and he always put it down. We always had good country singers.  This is the first time I think that we’ve had a country judge–he is such a lovely man. He is the scratching post between Mariah and Nicki. He sometimes looks like he’s watching a tennis match with his head bobbing between the two girls. But when it’s his turn to speak, he gives his mind and he won’t put up with anybody else knocking a kid down.  He’s had rows with both Mariah, Randy and Nicki–a big one with Nicki.  They know they’ve got a big job on their hands, because, Jennifer, Steven and Randy did very well with Scotty McCreery and Phillip Phillips. They’re very competitive people. These are human beings who have experienced an incredible success in their own lives. Keith is a great addition this year.”

How empowering was it to have the success that Phillip Phillips’ had just at the time they are ready to launch a new version of the show, “Certainly that song has been one of the biggest. But Phillip still has to prove himself.  We can’t jump up and down and say ‘Wow, he’s a major star now.’  There’s a long way to go to be the next Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Daughtry.  But, thrilled for Phillip and it obviously validates the program. There are other people like Colton [Dixon] in that year, who have become a huge Christian star. Scotty McCreery–still a very big country star. We tend to produce the goods at the end of a series. But it’s maintaining them too. I’m not one of these people who just want to waive a flag and go ‘American Idol is a great thing.’  We’re a springboard. But one record does not make a career. I have every belief that Phillip will make a career, because I think he’s hugely talented. We are extremely lucky that a record like “Home” sells over 3 million. It’s astounding how successful that’s been. Hopefully, we’ll use that as a springboard to get the attention for this year’s American Idol.”

Nigel mentioned the bus tour that sent a producer out to far flung small towns. People who passed that audition went on to sing in front of the judges.  Plus, producers went out with a hidden camera to surprise kids who were nominated by their friends and families.

Also, he mentioned what we already knew: Boys and Girls will be separated through the Vegas round. “It gives us a little more insight into who the talent is,” Nigel said.

Of course, there will be no guest judges. Jimmy Iovine is coming back as mentor. Like last year, record producers will join him to work with the kids. Nigel is trying to align the Idol experience with what the kids will encounter in the music business.

Will American Idol ever embrace hip hop music?  Could there be a winner who raps?  No. “I don’t believe so. I believe rap is an art form in itself.  More akin to poetry, more akin to drama. Rap in the street, when they have rap competitions is thrilling, because these kids are making it up and having a go at each other. Hip hop is a way of life, it isn’t a genre in truth, in American Idol. I think what we’ll get–a lot of good R&B kids, and a lot of good street kids coming in–goodness knows we need it, because there’s very little music to get hold of now a days. I think we’ve heard the Adele songbook 2,987 times this season, because there are melodies there that the kids can latch onto and sing.  You give them a whole list of 9 thousand songs and they sing Etta James’ ‘At Last’.  We cannot win sometimes with the music.  I do not believe Hip Hop will become a genre on American Idol.”

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  • Jason Scott

    Carrie won every week? I’m cool with that. :)

  • zaclona77

    if I had a dollar for every time I´ve read or heard the words “a girl could finally win it all” …..

  • sandrajane

    Hip hop is not just rap music.

  • TLB

     I’ve always been stopped doing it in this country with people saying ‘Oh no, people will stop voting if you show that the one person is winning–like a Carrie Underwood who won every week–people will stop voting.’ We always fought that back and said, ‘Well no…just because my soccer team is number 4 in the league, doesn’t mean to say I’m going to stop supporting them. I’m going to support them more.’

    Soccer and American Idol are very different. Whether or not Nigel stops cheering for a soccer team does not affect the players’ independent abilities. However, whether or not the audience stops voting for a contestant DOES affect the contestant’s standing in the competition. 

    Other than Nigel’s faulty logic, I also think that it takes a bit of the mystery away from the show. Yes, the rankings can still change week to week, but unless you have finalists that are somehow all neck and neck and give or take a standout performance here and there, it’s very unlikely that you’ll get a huge variance in popularity. 

  • MichaelG (MikhailXO)

    Oh Nigel…give up the girl winner dream. Yes, Voice was able to have a Cassadee win…but it’s not the same. Until and IF Idol ever disallows votes from females over the age of 40 (I’m not advocating this, BTW…) and disallows votes from Southern states…we will likely continue to see our WGWG every year. Personally, I have no issue with this because it is the viewers who choose the winner. If the majority of viewer-voters want a particular contestant…it’s only fair that contestant prevails. I don’t want some marketable pop star shoved down my throat and in my face just because the producers feel her ultimate win will make them more money.

  • Jason Scott

    So it’s you voting for the WGWGs every year. SMH.

  • Emmuzka

    If I remember right, they gave up the gender separated semi finals because they were looking for the best singers, not the best women singers and men singers. But again, the wind has turned and now it’s “It gives us a little more insight into who the talent is.” Okay then.

    Personally I’m not bothered by their need to turn back using strict gender slots until the finals. They practice rather blatant minority and geographical slotting too, so there really isn’t that much difference, except that they can talk aloud about casting according to gender, but not about casting according to minority status. 

  • fantoo1

    I think it would be even cooler to release the voting from past seasons. It would be intersting to see where the winners stood every week and which of them really did win every week-if I had to guess, I think Carrie(confirmed by Nigel) and Scotty are the two winners who won every week, and probably by a large margin.

  • Rand


  • Bug Menot

    I think there is another reason the other three judges wince at Randy Jackson’s comments. 

  • Sassycatz

    Until and IF Idol ever disallows votes from females over the age of 40 (I’m not advocating this, BTW…)

    Until you have actual proof of how women over the age of 40 vote, I don’t think you can say this. Speaking for myself, I haven’t been a fan of a male contestant in the past three years.

  • tigervixxxen

    I’d rather have the iTunes rankings revealed than vote totals. But since Nigel is revealing vote totals then what is the reason to hide iTunes rankings now? And there absolutely will not be just a top 10. That’s ridiculous. FOX is not going to give up weeks of Idol, it ALWAYS ends on the last day of sweeps Weds in May. Plus the whole “make the tour” is such a milestone. Are they setting up Mariah or Nicki having a huge mental breakdown and demanding one or two people to stay. I call bullshit.

  • MV007

    I’m glad to here they won’t have rap on the show even if he didn’t articulate the reasons against particularly well.  I’m a fan of hip/hop and it doesn’t belong on these shows because no legitimate rapper would ever bite someone elses lyrics.

    I’m against showing the rankings every week.  I wouldn’t be opposed to showing them every now and then.  But it really killed the drama on X factor.  I would have been super excited that 5th harmony had a chance to win had I not known the rankings throughout the season.  I’m guessing most seasons would be similar and have 1 or 2 people dominating the top of the rankings.

  • Beth Bowers

    I’d almost pay money to see those, fantoo1!

  • Sassycatz

    I think showing the rankings each week will be a huge mistake. It’ll take a good deal of the suspense out of the show and possibly hurt the ratings as some viewers get disgusted and tune out. Plus, it’ll put a kibosh on a lot of speculation that happens on all these message boards and in the Press. I just don’t understand how Nigel doesn’t *get* this. It’s not brain surgery!

  • mad1son

    Nigel doesn’t seem to realize it, but he just gave the best example for NOT revealing the votes. Carrie won every week? That’s a problem, because she didn’t give the best performance every week. If it’s clear from early on that one contestant will win no matter what and the performances don’t really matter, why bother tuning in? The diehards may not stop voting, but I think the casual fans will stop watching and the ratings would really tank.

    I don’t get it. TPTB turn themselves inside out trying to hype up the competition every season. Why would they want to take the chance of giving away all the suspense and drama?

  • Landon Cox

    I think it would be cool to show post season vote percentages like XFUK does; that way you can see how fanbases shift and surge throughout the show.

  • Montavilla

    What might be fun  is to have at most one or two weeks in which the top vote getter (and/or top itunes seller) receives some kind of a bonus.  Maybe a special video shout-out for their home town, or a special visit with a celebrity guest.  

    For example, say James Durbin had won a visit from Judas Priest.  Or if what if Joshua had won a special crawfish dinner from home (with video of its preparation by hometown chefs).  

    It shouldn’t be anything that gives an advantage to the winner.  Just something fun and cool.

    It’s a little Hunger Games, I suppose.  But I think it could add to the gaping maw of the results show filler.

  • Kesia Monteith

    I agree. I wouldn’t be surprised each judge will have a contestant for a wildcard, and then after each wildcard sang so well, all four goes through, making it a top 14. It seems like that’s what they are setting up for, some sort of surprise. I mean really, they can’t believe they are fooling us, right? 

  • elliegrll


    I don’t really want to know that there’s been a huge blowup between them and have it it all taken out of proportion. I’m not into that sort of publicity. 

    This is the guy who tried to milk the Jermaine Jones situation for as much publicity and press as he possibly could, even though no one cared.

    He should also realize that releasing the voting totals didn’t help the X Factor’s ratings, or make people care about those contestants. 

  • Leandro

    I think it’s interesting to reveal the ranking and the percentage of votes, but only like XF-UK has been doing: AFTER the end of the show.

    Revealing the voting ranking on XF each week didn’t change too much (if nothing) the position of the contestants, it just took away all the fun. We all knew after two or three weeks that Carly and Tate would be on the finale.

    The same thing for regional votes. After the show.

  • EvenMoreron

    I’d love to see how the votes stacked up in Seasons 5 and 7.  Did Taylor just dominate from the beginning?  And by just how much did Syesha fluctuate and almost get eliminated for 10 weeks?  

  • J

    I love Nigel on SYTYCD but usually disagree with most of what he says about Idol.

  • curly_yenta

    I don’t get what Nigel means when he says Carrie “won” every week?  Does he mean not eliminated?  Not in the bottom 2 or 3?  If so, well, we can put lots of winners in that category.  He’s a broken record at the beginning of every season… siteing the same people, making and hyping the same tired old ‘script’.  Can’t stand him.

  • fuzzywuzzy

    Nigel is so full of shit.

  • fuzzywuzzy

    I think that Nigel meant that Carrie got the most votes each week.

  • hayes

    Meaning she was #1 in the tally every week. I am not surprised by that, and I completely believe it.

    I enjoyed this interview btw. But I say no to revealing the votes because I don’t think it’s necessary. I like it though when they still do it sporadically in various creative ways (i.e. separating Top 6 into Top 2, Mid 2, and Bottom 2; Taylor, Katharine, and Elliott splitting the votes into 33.xx% each).

    One think I would get behind is getting rid of the judges’ save. I hope they consider that.

  • curly_yenta

    Yea, I liked the way they did Season 5 with the percentages of each of the last 3 remaining finalists.  I believe that was the only season they did that and it indeed added to the suspense.  Still feel bad for poor Elliott.

  • Jaejae1

    i would be ok with them showing the ranking up until the top 5.  I like knowing the rankings.  But I think the regional vote % would be just as interesting. I think a bit more transparency would be reallly good for idol. 

  • AlesheaDominique

    This was a very good interview and made EVEN more excited for the show next week. I’m iffy on releasing the votes each week. All I think it did on the XFactor was delay the inevitable on the contestants we knew would not make the top three. The region vote tally intrigues me but I’m not sure I want to know each week. We all know how this show works by now and we all can usually speculate  who will win. Even though we “somewhat” know this we still have hope for are snowflakes. I really don’t want my hopes dashed until the final when the winner is handed their guitar and asked to sing. 

  • teekee

    No, to showing the weekly rankings. Had I been an X Factor voter, seeing how badly my favs were doing would not have inspired me to vote more. It would have made me think voting was pointless. I too hope the “save” is no more.


  • durbesque

    The vote ranking was the most interesting part of the show.  Britney’s dresses were interesting.  Occasionally a song was mildly interesting. 

  • Anny_nanny

    I want to showing:
    1. ALL ratings AFTER season
    2. ALL iTunes ratings AFTER season
    3. regional rankings AFTER season
    I want:
    4. full song from participants
    5. to shut up the judges for the WHOLE season (but this will not)
    6. lower the ballast in the episodes – judges, stylists, producers, guest-stars who can’t sing.

  • sue

    Nigel, please listen! Don’t show the weekly rankings PLEASE! WE don’t want to know until the end of the season. It would kill the suspense. Overall this was a great interview. So excited about idol being back next week.  :) 

  • fantoo1

    He meant she was number 1 in the votes every week. I’m betting a lot of contestants weren’t able to accomplish that feat.

  • springboard2

    I am really hoping that they won’t announce the voting ranking every week because I believe that it would kill the show.

  • Kariann Hart

    Nigel did reveal that Clay Aiken had the most votes every single week from Wildcard round through the TOP 2.  However, there were weeks where Kimberly Locke beat out Ruben.  Would they really want that known, especially since they wanted Ruben to win?  This is a bad idea.

  • dabney c

    Plus, it’ll put a kibosh on a lot of speculation that happens on all
    these message boards and in the Press. I just don’t understand how Nigel
    doesn’t *get* this. It’s not brain surgery!

    Right! So much of the fun of Idol is the speculation and analysis and fights that go on online. Showing weekly rankings will take the wind out of our sails. At least with Dialidol (pre-text votes) we had margin of error to contend with, but for the show to just lay it all out on the table? Big mistake. Don’t mess with a winning formula, Nigel!

  • blackberryharvest

    Yeah, Nigel should just wait until the season is over to release the rankings. That would make it more interesting!

  • arkboy

    Finally the acknowledgement that Carrie won every week. In fact I had heard that she was getting as much as 40% of the vote when there were still 8 people left. 

  • Wui Zhuan Lim

     I like how Nigel mentions Carrie Underwood’s name first…hehe…
    just kidding…no offense!
    I like Kelly Clarkson too…

  • windmills

    arkboy: Finally the acknowledgement that Carrie won every week. In fact I had heard that she was getting as much as 40% of the vote when there were still 8 people left.

    Pretty sure Ken Warwick (or maybe it was Nigel) had already revealed that Carrie had won every week several years ago. I know this is not the first time that info was revealed by an AI producer. 

  • MichaelG (MikhailXO)

    Touche’…and of course I don’t know this with any certainty. Though it’s quite possible that you may not be representative of the “majority” of the female middle aged+ voting bloc.

  • hillstreetblooz

    Nigel sounds good, but I’ve learned to take everything he says with a huge grain o’salt, lol… I just want to get on with the new season, want to see what we got this year, I want to start gushing, bitchin’, trash talkin’, actin’ a fool – all the usual goood American Idol stuff we do, lol…  I hope Nigel and some of his propsed ideas don’t muck it up too much – bring on the singing and the judging!

  • fuzzywuzzy

    “Nigel sounds good, but I’ve learned to take everything he says with a huge grain o’salt, lol…”

    Exactly! lol

  • cheese1

    I love that Nigel comes right out and admits that the results show is 99% filler. At least they are looking for some new filler.  

    I think revealing complete voting results like they did on X Factor would be bad for the show, but giving more limited information like the top 3 iTunes sellers (maybe in no particular order) would be OK.  Unlike the situation on the Voice, I don’t think that iTunes sales would necessarily reveal too much about the votes. I occasionally buy an Idol song on iTunes, but I never vote, at least not in the last 4 seasons. 

  • Miz

    Something that was left out of this is the judges and producers influencing the vote via the shows and in interviews.

    He mentions Carrie being a top vote getter every week. Everyone who watched TV or read entertainment/TV news KNEW about Carrie before the show ever started. Simon and Randy in particular name checked or described her numerous times before that season started and continued to throughout. People looked for the pretty country pop girl and were pre-disposed to thinking she was good.

    They also influence the vote in more subtle (or not) ways in the form of staging, lighting, camera angles, and sound manipulation. When showing choice segments of the contestants’ performance with phone numbers at the end of each show, they hand pick from the rehearsals either the best or worst of that performance even if what we see on the air was quite different.

    People want to back a ‘winner’ for bragging rights in the end. Many will gravitate to what they perceive as a sure thing.


    It would also be very interesting to see if Scotty had the most votes each week also. Would not be surprised if he did.

  • SaSa8

    Please DO NOT reveal the rank each week Nigel.  I think that will hurt the show in a major way.  It would discourage folks from voting and the suspense.  How do big TV execs not get this????  This is part of the appeal of the show – who is gonna win, how close are the votes, who did well this week vs. last.  Voting in earnest for your favorite, not knowing where they rank and the suspense of the bottom 3.  Nigel – this is a BAD idea IMO.  Please don’t do it. 

  • Jason Brown

    I think bringing Nicki and Keith on was GENIUS. Nicki is intriguing, and this whole feud with her and Mariah is going to bring lots of viewers. And they needed someone who can bring insight into the contestants who are country. Because I feel like with contestants like Kellie Pickler, Kristy Lee Cook, Scotty McCreery, Lauren Alaina, and Skylar Laine, there was nobody there who really understood what to look for to become a country star. So I’m glad that Keith Urban is there for that purpose. :)

  • Ria

    “I’d love to see how the votes stacked up in Seasons 5 and 7. Did Taylor just dominate from the beginning? And by just how much did Syesha fluctuate and almost get eliminated for 10 weeks?  ”
    This is what I want to see.  I want to know the rankings for past seasons.  I think that will be extremely intertesting.  If they show the rankings only after a season is over, it will not impact the weekly votes. 

  • Robert W

     Astro was most certainly NOT terrible during the xfactor season. He became a little prissy after he was in the bottom but that young man produced great content while he was on the show from writing all his own lyrics to performing them every week like a pro.

  • Robert W

    I, like Nigel, wish Tamyra Gray would have won the 1st season. It’s a shame how that went down but she did make Top 3.