American Idol at 20: Recapping Season 1! Those Wacky Auditions

American Idol Season 1 Simon Cowell Paula Abdul Randy Jackson

American Idol premiered on FOX TV June 11 2002. We’re just past the 20th anniversary of the airing of the premiere episode, so I came up with an IDEA.

I’ll be recapping American Idol Season 1 all summer

Admitting that I only watched clips from Season 1, and never an entire episode led to a demand that I relinquish my Queen of Idol Blogs crown. (Not a thing in any way, shape or form, actually, therefore it would be quite impossible to relinquish). So why not fix that hole, and spend the summer recapping every episode? We’ll finish near or on September 4, the 20th anniversary of the season 1 finale. It’s not a spoiler to say Kelly Clarkson (Who REALLY IS A QUEEN) walked away with the crown.

Entire episodes are actually on Youtube, and I have downloaded bad quality versions from the internets. It’s doable!

The first two episodes aired on back to back days. The auditions took up one 90 minute episode, and Episode 2, the only Hollywood episode, aired the following night.

The production values were low, talent-free singers a-plenty

Of course, compared to what American Idol became, the production values were low. The auditions took place in various conference rooms in Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Dallas and Miami. Cheap looking curtains served as the backdrop, and judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson sat at what looked like a school cafeteria table.

There were no video packages, although contestants did have backstories that they shared in front of the judges. Folks make a big deal about how the season 1 auditions DIDN’T feature Kelly’s audition. But they barely showed the good singers. I remember reviewers comparing Idol auditions to that classic 70s cult show, The Gong Show. And now I get it. Narratively, the single audition episode concentrated on talent-free singers, with the good vocalists showing up just in the nick of time. 

Producers set up Simon Cowell to be the star

The framing set up Simon Cowell as the “mean” judge and a focal point. Paula was the known quantity on the panel. But producers obviously anticipated Simon would be a star like he was on Pop Idol, the UK show American Idol was based upon. Simon’s eventual fame and popularity was no accident.

Featured auditions from the Top 10 contestants included: Justin Guarini, Tamyra Gray (who was depicted as a pageant girl), R.J. Helton, AJ Gil, and Jim Verraros. A.J. sang the National Anthem as his audition song. Pretty weird, yes? Jim told the sentimental story of his deaf parents who would never hear him sing. He signed his performance of “When I Fall in Love.” The panel agreed that Justin and Tamyra were stars. 

The judges put through some pretty horrible singers, including a Michael Jackson impersonator. It’s a thing that would never happen in today’s “artist” focused American Idol. Singers who earned raves from the judges wouldn’t make it through preliminary rounds today. It’s amazing that the show turned out such an incredibly gifted winner in the end.


Co-hosts Ryan Seacrest and Brian Dunkleman didn’t add much in this first episode. Ryan played the consoler, mostly. While they also endured ecstatic contestants almost bowling them over. The looks, especially Ryan and his frosted tips, are hilariously dated. At one point, Ryan reveals that viewers will be voting with this, and he holds up a freaking giant telephone.

115 singers moved on to Hollywood, which actually took place at the Pasadena Civic Center (where America’s Got Talent auditions are presently filmed). I’ll recap that show later this week.

Watch the full episode below.

Watch Kelly Clarkson’s Audition

Kelly Clarkson’s audition eventually made it to air. I remember it from Idol Rewind, a syndicated show that aired four seasons. covering seasons 1-5. Season 1 Idol Rewind aired in 2006 and featured the eventual winner’s audition in Dallas. She’s fantastic. Kelly not only blows the doors off the audition, but she’s her typically bubbly hilarious self.

Why didn’t the show air it? Because the season 1 audition episode was all about Simon Cowell cutting down bad singers in his inimitable way. Also, Paula lectures Simon on his cruelty. And according to anecdotes, it wasn’t a bit. Paula says she “quit 8 times on the first day.”  Nevertheless, the producers were correct. Simon became an instant hit.

This high quality clip, from a FOX special that aired the day of the final season finale in 2016, ends with Kelly’s audition. Also, Simon and Paula talk about their very real fighting during auditions. A producer talks about handing out flyers in a Seattle mall trying to find auditioners for a show nobody had heard of. Justin said the scene was so crazy, he almost got out of the audition line and went home. 

Here’s Kelly’s full audition from Idol Rewind. Cool beans!


About mj santilli 35048 Articles
Founder and editor of, home of the awesomest fan community on the net. I love cheesy singing shows of all kinds, whether reality or scripted. I adore American Idol, but also love The Voice, Glee, X Factor and more!