Welcome back to our stroll down Idol Memory Lane. This time, we are going to hit up the fashion district. Idol has had a lot of moments of high fashion – the breathtaking dress Jordan wore while singing “I Who Have Nothing – and tragic fashion – the cow dress that Gwen made Pia wear – but some of the biggest press came from the Idol Transformations.
Each year, contestants show up for auditions sporting “their look”. It is pretty clear that most people understand that the music industry also has a visual component. They arrive wearing outfits that help define them as artists and set the tone. Others, show up like they just fell out of bed. Once they arrive at the Idol Factory, both sets may undergo a gently shaping (Idol designers are clear that they don’t want to change things too quickly lest it seem fake). The well-defined artist may learn that their style is sending the wrong message while those with no fashion sense are injected with some. The longer they stay in the competition, the more dramatic the transition may be.
Once they hit the Idol stage, the stylists step in. Hair and make-up specialists make them camera ready and the Idols are each given a budget for buying clothes. Each Friday, show stylists would take them shopping to help them create a style, but not a costume. They try to blend the contestants emerging personal style while setting the tone for the song that was actually to be sung.
That’s not to say the stylists were always on the mark. I’ve ranted for years about whatever stylists decided that all the female contestants needed to wear sky-high heels (even Carly Smithson complained about that). High-heels may work for people who are used to wearing them, but to wear them when you aren’t comfortable made for stilted performances. Some of the female contestants were clearly thinking more about not falling off their shoes than they were about the rest of the performance as they klumped around the stage (or stayed glued to the spot). Crystal Bowersox trying to navigate the stairs during “Black Velvet” was a fine example of that. And although by that time in the competition, Haley Reinhart was becoming quite comfortable wearing stilts on her feet, would she have tripped going up the stairs during top 3 if she was wearing more sensible shoes? (1:32). Thankfully, more recent stylists have allowed contestants to wear flatter heels and we are getting more dynamic performances. Claire from Jurassic World may be able to outrun a T-Rex in high heels, but few can.
And the stylists are not always successful. Some artists like Scott Savol from Season 4 seems to be allergic to style. No matter what they tried him in, nothing looked organic. It was like his body rejected everything. Also rejecting everything was Season 11’s Phillip Phillips. The guy flatly refused to have anything to do with the stylists as he wore his grey shirts week after week after week. The stylists wept, but it worked for Phil. They also gnashed their teeth as Ruben Studdard kept wearing different colours of his 205 shirt week-after-week even if Ryan loved it.
Some artists don’t need the stylists. They come in with their own sense of style and just continue it. Season 8 had two such examples. Kris Allen had an easy style that he kept throughout his run. Sure he dressed up some weeks and down others, but it was all recognizable as the casual style palette he came in with. Meanwhile, Adam Lambert came in with high-style which changed from week-to-week as he used fashion to shape another aspect of his performance. He was fully in control of his look and it greatly enhanced his run. He was never stagnant, but you could still see his personal flair in every outfit he wore and that continues to this day. Both of these approaches worked for these guys and suited their style of music.
Now, lets take a look at some of these transformer… contestants who had changes that radically changed how we looked at them. A good transformation is one that works and suits the artist – you can tell because the artist continues the look forward as they progress through their careers.
1) Clay Aiken – Season 2 – No list of Idol make-overs would be complete without this guy. He is the one that started off this tradition. Clay Aiken showed up for his auditions looking like a dweeb. Sorry, it is true. If you called up central casting and asked them to send over a dweebish guy to stick in the background of a shot, they could use Clay Aiken’s style as a template. The stylists got ahold of him and got him to lose the nerd-glasses, gave him a stylish (for the day) colour and cut and put him in clothes that fit and was cut to de-emphasized the gangly. Clay was stylin’…and he looked comfortable doing it.
2) David Cook – Season 7 – I’m sorry, his audition look was clearly planned out, but that look was tragic. I’m not sure who gave him that haircut, but if it wasn’t David’s idea, his hairdresser needs to go back to school. The colour was not working for him, the cut was not flattering and the style was meant for a double-take. Is it a fauxhawk? Is it a Kate Gosselin? Did a muskrat crawl up their to die? Top it off with a soul-patch and his ever present butt scarf and it’s a good thing David has a great voice or we would not know his name today. Honestly, whenever I look at my iPod during “Always Be My Baby”, I shake my head at the picture. By the time he arrived at the finale, the facial hair was on point, the hair looked like it belonged and the clothing style was fine.
After (Top 3):
3) Scotty McCreery – Season 10 – Scotty McCreery arrived at the Idol show somehow convinced that your hair should look like you just escaped from some kind of prison camp with a lice problem. The stylists said “No” and convinced him to grow his hair out to at least an inch long. While some people look good with kiwi fruit hair, most people don’t look all that great with every plane of their skull highlighted. Sure, Scotty complained a few times throughout the show that he didn’t like having long hair (you’d think he was sporting Bo Bice’s locks from the way he described it), but I note that the the record label or sanity has convinced him to keep his hair at a reasonable length since the show. Add in that he wore flip-flops to his audition and we can see that he needed a style intervention. Gangly teen to credible country star…here we come.
After (Top 5):
4) Carrie Underwood – Season 4 – Just hear me out – she transformed y’all. Carrie arrived at the auditions as a beautiful farm-fresh ingenue and left a goddess. At her audition, Carrie sported tight curls and an outfit that would be great for hanging out at the mall. It fit her back-story and was totally appropriate, but Idol took her to the next level and made her a star. They softened the curls and gave her a classic style. Her look still takes her to the mall and gives her a casual grace, but she can also now compete on any red carpet – and win. She’s totally the Audrey Hepburn of Idol.
After (Top 2):
How about you? Do you have examples of Idol make-overs that worked? Examples of Idol high fashion? Or even the tragedies? Chime in and share the wealth.