Top 10 Biggest American Idol Scandals
VOICE OVER: Phoebe de Jeu
WRITTEN BY: Jacob Pitts
"American Idol" sings a song of scandals. For this list, we'll be looking at the juiciest on-air and behind-the-scenes scandals throughout “American Idol” history. Our countdown includes Textgate, Phillip Phillips' win, Jennifer Hudson's elimination, and more!
Top 10 American Idol Scandals and Controversies
Welcome to MsMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 American Idol Scandals and Controversies.
For this list, we’ll be looking at the juiciest on-air and behind-the-scenes scandals throughout “American Idol” history.
Which of these controversies was most surprising, and which ones did we forget? Let us know in the comments.
#10: Wyatt Pike’s Exit
The real story is enough on its own, but the rumors surrounding this situation are what made things even more scandalous. When season 19 early favorite Wyatt Pike dropped out of the competition, the rumor mill was spinning overtime. As judge Luke Bryan was also absent from the episode following Pike’s withdrawal, fans believed that the pair clashed behind the scenes. However, it was revealed that Bryan was simply taking time off to recover from COVID. Pike later shared that he left the show for “personal reasons,” and while he didn’t elaborate, he’s since continued his music career with the full support of fans. Although there was never a backstage brawl, it’s still pretty rare that someone would willingly give up the “Idol” spotlight.
#9: The Sanjaya Malakar Campaign
Every fandom has its trolls, and “American Idol” is no exception. Starting in season 3, a website called Vote for the Worst began campaigning to keep the less-favored contestants in the game for as long as possible. The group’s most successful effort came in season 6 with Sanjaya Malakar. Despite some questionable performances, the “Idol” hopeful made it all the way to 7th place despite being less than popular with the judges…especially Simon Cowell. Sanjaya fever became more and more widespread until his elimination, even getting a shoutout from Howard Stern. Since you’re supposed to vote for the best, some felt that Vote for the Worst derailed the show’s original purpose. While the site’s antics were certainly entertaining, its critics weren’t exactly wrong.
Like many reality shows, “American Idol” has faced its fair share of rigging allegations. However, the show’s phone voting format never seemed more shaky than after Textgate. For the season 8 finale, one of “American Idol’s” sponsors, AT&T, confessed to giving away free phones and showing people how to send “power texts” — texts that count as 10 votes each. The company’s employees reportedly encouraged people to vote for Kris Allen over rival Adam Lambert, with one guest claiming she voted for Allen 10,840 times. Whether or not the texting spam led to Lambert’s loss, we doubt he’s still worried about it these days. From his own music to partnering and touring with Queen, he’s one of the show’s most successful runners-up.
#7: David Archuleta’s Stage Dad
Most families of “American Idol” contestants are simply happy to be along for the ride…which is why it was so unusual for David Archuleta’s dad to cause such a ruckus. Archuleta’s father previously joined him during rehearsals, but was eventually banned from the set after costing the producers money. When he advised his son to add a lyric from Sean Kingston’s “Beautiful Girls” to his cover of Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” the network had to pay up as they hadn’t cleared usage of the additional song. Furthermore, he reportedly put pressure on David by yelling at him during rehearsals. David has defended his father over the years, but would later speak out about the intensity of having much of his personal life aired on the show.
#6: Caleb Kennedy’s Old Video
Compromising footage of “American Idol” contestants had leaked before, but nothing ever quite this shocking. Season 19 finalist Caleb Kennedy withdrew after making it to the top 5 when a Snapchat video from years prior resurfaced of him with someone wearing a white hood reminiscent of a rather well-known white supremacist group. He apologized in a statement, saying that the video was taken out of context and doesn’t represent his views but, for many, the damage was already done. The judges then reacted in an interview, expressing their disappointment over the situation. To make matters worse, in 2022, Kennedy was arrested for a DUI, which resulted in the death of a 54 year old man. Although “American Idol” employs the use of background checks, some skeletons have still managed to slip through the cracks.
#5: Corey Clark’s Disqualification
For each “Idol” contestant who exits the show on good terms, there’s another who goes fully scorched-earth. That was certainly the case when season 2 contestant Corey Clark got disqualified. Once his part in a domestic violence case was revealed, the top 10 finalist was removed from the competition. Clark initially stayed quiet but, after two years, he went public with an alleged affair with Paula Abdul. He described their supposed relationship in detail, accusing her of giving him special treatment and advice to get ahead on the show. This would have been quite the bombshell given Abdul’s reputation as the sweetest original judge. During the investigation, however, Clark was unable to give sufficient evidence.
#4: Frenchie Davis’ Leaked Photos
Today, leaked photos aren’t necessarily the career-ending scandal they once were. But unfortunately for season 2 contestant Frenchie Davis, they were enough for “Idol” producers to send her packing. When Davis informed the crew that she had taken topless photos, she was promptly disqualified from the competition. The scandal was brought up again in season 6, when contestant Antonella Barba also had leaked photos but was allowed to stay. Davis’ fans called out the double standard, with Rosie O’Donnell defending her on “The View” and deeming the decision racist. Luckily, Davis seems to have rebounded, appearing in “Rent” on Broadway and going far on season 1 of “The Voice.” Compared to some of the other scandals here, time has been relatively kind to her.
#3: Phillip Phillips’ Win
America might be a melting pot, but that hasn’t always been reflected in its idols. In season 11, Phillip Phillips became the fifth consecutive “WGWG,” or white guy with a guitar, to win the competition. Such contestants tend to be popular but, by then, the trend was reaching a boiling point. People felt that runner-up Jessica Sanchez deserved to win over Phillips, and that gender and racial biases were at play in the results. Nevertheless, Phillips’ coronation single “Home” became the best-selling of any “American Idol” winner, and season 12 broke the streak with an all-female top 5.
#2: Jennifer Hudson’s Elimination
Given her prolific career since, people who haven’t watched “American Idol” might assume Jennifer Hudson was the winner of her season. In actuality, she only made it to 7th place. Hudson’s early elimination came as a major shock, as she wowed both the judges and audience week after week. Elton John even called the outcome “incredibly racist,” as she was joined in the bottom three by the season’s only other Black female contestants, LaToya London and future winner Fantasia. Thankfully, the defeat only motivated Hudson further. She became an EGOT winner in 2022, following standout film and music performances, as well as ventures into TV and stage production.
#1: Feuding Judges
Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj are both legends, but in the case of their “American Idol” stint, that legend might as well be “Clash of the Titans.” We can’t say we ever remember judges openly fighting on-air week after week, creating a venomous atmosphere on what’s supposed to be a family-friendly show. Both artists continued throwing jabs in interviews, not even pretending to like each other. At the peak of their feud, Carey compared Minaj to Satan and accused the rapper of threatening her with violence. Not only was their over-the-top bickering inconsistent with the show’s feel-good tone, more importantly, it also distracted from the real stars: the contestants.