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Kara DioGuardi warms to the hot seat

'American Idol's' fourth judge takes her love-it-or-hate-it role one show at a time as she walks the tightrope between criticism and compassion.

May 17, 2009|Kate Aurthur

The "American Idol" personality is largely id-driven: The pleasures the talent show offers are immediate, whether a singer soars or sinks. And the show around the show can yield even more merriment, as it spews out a ceaseless stream of news/gossip generated by the contestants' biographical details, the judges' antics, behind-the-scenes backstabbing that may or may not be fictional and, often least important, discussion of the results of the actual singing competition.

But Kara DioGuardi -- who became the show's fourth judge this season in the most visible manifestation of its much-hyped tweaks -- is all superego. And her weekly critiques, delivered live on Fox before an average audience of 26 million viewers, tend to weigh heavily on her mind.

"It wakes me up at night," DioGuardi said the day after a performance show. "Can you imagine? Last night I woke up in the middle of the night and I thought, 'I've got to look at those performances. Did I clock that one wrong? Why didn't I say that? I could have been more supportive.' "

So as Season 8 draws to a close Wednesday, the question rises: Will the union of DioGuardi, the thriving songwriter, and "American Idol," the only massively popular television show, last?

Before this season, the alchemy of the withering/accurate Simon Cowell, the kindly hysteric Paula Abdul and the axiomatic Randy Jackson worked well enough -- the trio had gelled over the years to become a cartoonish family. But during Season 7, as Cowell looked increasingly bored, as Jackson's pith grew more repetitive ("You worked it out, baby, you worked it out") and as Abdul famously and embarrassingly forgot how many songs a contestant had already performed, one did begin to wonder whether they were even paying attention anymore.

And then there was the matter of the legacy judges' contracts. Abdul's expires after this season, Cowell's runs out after next season and Jackson is booked through 2011.

So whether DioGuardi was brought in to shake things up on the panel (as Fox and "Idol" producers have insisted) or to be a bargaining chip against the other judges, she -- as the new kid -- has been a polarizing figure to the "Idol" audience.

Mike Darnell, Fox's president of alternative entertainment, said, "I think it's very difficult to come into a situation where you have three known family members and you're coming in as the fourth cousin."

As she sat on a comfortable couch in the sunken living room of her tree-sheltered house in the hills above Hollywood, DioGuardi said: "It's a lot to show somebody who I really am. And I feel like a contestant."

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Penning hits

As a songwriter, DioGuardi, 38, specializes in such lady anthems as "Come Clean" (Hilary Duff), "Pieces of Me" (Ashlee Simpson), "Ain't No Other Man" (Christina Aguilera), "Taking Chances" (Celine Dion) and the current Kelly Clarkson hit "I Do Not Hook Up." She had always loved to sing but didn't realize until she was in her 20s that she had the ability to write songs as well.

DioGuardi grew up upper-middle class in New Rochelle, an affluent suburb of New York City. Her father was a Republican congressman and her mother was a homemaker. She had "eating issues," "insecurities" and "was stifled." Because of her privilege, though, she dismissed her dilemmas. "What was my problem?" she said. "It wasn't like I was living on the streets."

She brought a photograph taken when she was 22 over to the couch. It was a posed picture of her with an otherwise all-male band who had hired her to be their lead singer. It was a rock band in which she was doing, she said, "Mariah Carey riffs." Everyone in the photo had big hair.

"I was at least 15 pounds heavier," DioGuardi said, looking at the picture with a pained expression. More important, she said: "There is a huge difference between singing and having a vision for yourself. And I could sing in this picture. But I had no idea -- what to dress like, what to sound like, which songs suited me.

"I really had an identity crisis," she continued. "So when I see these kids who really don't know who they are? I really didn't know who I was!"

By "these kids" DioGuardi meant, of course, the "Idol" contestants she has been evaluating throughout the season. Her commentary has been a mixture of wonky technical advice about the actual singing and riffs about "artistry": whether the "Idol" aspirant is showing who they really are within the strictures of the theme of the night.

Surveys of the Web reveal an intensely divided reaction to her, with many armchair commentators finding her strident and others appreciating her musical expertise. Then there are those who don't care about DioGuardi herself but either are grateful that her presence has snapped the other judges out of their ruts or, conversely, are furious that an outsider has intruded on the original troika.

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