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American Idol has seen a lot of controversy over the years, and sometimes it’s the hit reality singing competition show’s judges that are at the heart of the scandal. Obviously Simon Cowell has been a controversial figure on the show, and Mariah Carey’s feud with Nicki Minaj was a headline generator for the entirety of Season 12. Even rocker Steven Tyler and pop star Katy Perry have generated controversy for their behavior on the judges’ panel.

Steven Tyler Wasn’t Mean Enough 

After his short tenure as a judge on American Idol, Steven Tyler spoke with Joe Rogan on the comedian’s podcast and revealed that he’d gotten very specific notes about his critiques of contestants. The number one complaint? Tyler wasn’t mean enough.

“It took me about two weeks to get into it because I told myself I am never going to tell some young girl who can't sing that she ‘can’t sing get the [expletive] out of here’ like that other guy,” Tyler told Rogan, clearly referencing previous judge Simon Cowell, who was infamously acerbic to contestants. “I didn't have it in me,” Tyler explained, adding, “They [the producers] would say to me, ‘Come on man, take it up a notch.’” Tyler admitted that the producers “got me a couple of times,” but that overall he just didn’t feel right being overly mean to untalented hopefuls just for entertainment purposes.

Steven Tyler flamboyantly yelling into the microphone at an American Idol event
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That wasn’t the only time Tyler was a source of controversy on American Idol. The rocker made waves with his sometimes overly flirtatious attitude towards young, female contestants. Once, after fellow judge Jennifer Lopez complimented a 16-year-old contestant on her skirt, Tyler added, “Yeah, just the right amount showing.”

There was also Fox’s strange apology posted at the start of an episode during Season 10 that read, “American Idol would like to apologize for last week's outrageous behavior by Steven Tyler.” That ominous announcement was followed by a second message that read, “Mr. Tyler has been warned and assured us it will never happen again.” No one really had any idea what the “outrageous behavior” was, since there were a number of “outrageous” acts committed by the Aerosmith legend.

Mariah Carey And Nicki Minaj 

It was clear from the beginning of Season 12 that Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj got on like oil and water. Or, perhaps more aptly, like a match and a can of kerosene. The pop diva and rapper’s onscreen clashes bled offscreen a number of times, resulting in a leaked video where Minaj went on a tirade against Carey, who dished back exactly what she got.

Two side by side photos of Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj walking the red carpet at separate American Idol events
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Barbara Walters later said on The View that Carey told her Minaj made threats against her. “She said that when Nicki walked off the set, multiple people heard Nicki say, ‘If I had a gun I would shoot the [expletive],’” the veteran interviewer relayed. Minaj denied the rumors over Twitter, writing, “I don't call tmz n Barbara Walters cuz I stand on my own two feet. Never needed an army. God is good. Insecurity is as cruel as the grave.” Both left the show after serving as judges for a single season.

Simon Cowell’s Eye-Roll 

Simon Cowell’s trademark sharp tongue and low-tolerance for bad performances from contestants have gotten the former American Idol judge in hot water plenty of times, but he once created a scandal with only his expression.

A contestant from Virginia was speaking about the then-recent Virginia Tech massacre in which 32 people lost their lives. The camera cut to Cowell, who could be seen rolling his eyes, although fellow judge Paula Abdul could be seen in the background attentively listening and nodding her head along with the contestant’s speech. The optics were obviously poor, but Cowell soon explained that he hadn’t heard what the contestant was saying and that he was actually responding to something else. “I didn’t hear what Chris was saying,” Cowell insisted.

I may not be the nicest person in the world, but I would never, ever, ever disrespect those families or those victims. And I felt it was important to set the record straight.

Simon Cowell wearing a black suit and sunglasses on the red carpet
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In an interview on Ryan Seacrest’s radio show, Cowell stressed that he hadn’t been aware of what the contestant was saying, nor did he know that contestant was talking about the massacre. “I was saying to Paula, ‘What does he mean, he sang nasally on purpose? I didn’t understand what he was saying.’ So I hadn’t even heard what he did. Then my eye rolled, given what I was saying to Paula,” Cowell further explained. The controversy once explained, soon blew over.

Katy Perry’s Flirtations 

Even after the reality competition show was rebooted and began its sixteenth season on a new network, ABC, scandal and controversy followed it. Pop star Katy Perry was called out almost as soon as Season 16 launched for the way she treated certain male contestants. When an 18-year-old singer named Jonny Brenns auditioned for the program, Perry told him, “You got a face like Chet Baker. Very good-looking,” and added,

It’s kind of like this sweet little sexy thing that you’ve got going on.

Perry had already caused a stir during the premiere after a 19-year-old contestant named Benjamin Glaze confessed to the judges that he still hadn’t had his first kiss. Perry motioned him over to give her a kiss on the cheek but turned her face at the last second so Glaze kissed her right on the lips. Glaze toppled over as the other judges, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie, howled with laughter. Glazer appeared to take the sudden loss of his first kiss fairly well, though he did later tell the New York Times he was a “tad bit uncomfortable” because he’d been hoping to save his first kiss for his first relationship.

Katy Perry smiling in a red hat and red dress.

It was pointed out that if Perry’s male counterparts had behaved the same way, as 30+year-olds kissing and flirting with teenaged, female contestants, there would be a much large outcry, especially in the age of #MeToo. It was a double standard, these folks argued, that Perry’s behavior was seen as acceptable instead of predatory if a man did it.

Glaze later took to his Instagram account to clarify, “I do not think I was sexually harassed by Katy Perry and I am thankful for the judges comments and critiques.” Since there were no real victims, and Perry toned down the behavior moving forward, this controversy also blew over and the show continues on, scandal-free...for now. Considering that’s happened on that show so far, there’s bound to be something new and scandalous that comes up.


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