As the faces of one of the oldest reality singing competition shows, many American Idol judges made major news when they decided to leave the show. There have been dozens of changes to the judges panel over the years, with everyone from Jennifer Lopez to Ellen DeGeneres, as well as the infamous Simon Cowell, playing judge on the popular show, but each left for their own specific reasons. Many times, the drama played out on the air for everyone to see.
Paula Abdul: Seasons 1–8
One of the original judges for American Idol, Paula Abdul was also the first judge to exit the show. From Season 1 to Season 8, Abdul was the queen of the panel, but the professional dancer/pop star decided to call it quits before the beginning of Season 9.
Abdul made the announcement via Twitter, “With sadness in my heart, I’ve decided not to return to Idol.” The sudden departure came on the heels of two back-to-back news stories concerning the amount of money made by others on the show, as well as the news of Abdul’s discontentment at her treatment by executives of the show.
Host of American Idol, Ryan Seacrest, was reported a few weeks earlier to have signed a deal for $45 million over three years, meanwhile sources told The Hollywood Reporter that Abdul was seeking $20 million to continue her role as a judge on the show.
Abdul’s manager spoke with the Los Angeles Times, via People, a few weeks before Abdul made her announcement, “Very sadly, it does not appear that she’s going to be back on Idol.” The manager added that the network hadn’t even produced a contract for Abdul yet, which made it seem as if Abdul was being forced out.
“I find it under these circumstances particularly unusual; I think unnecessarily hurtful,” he said of the delay. “I find it kind of unconscionable and certainly rude and disrespectful that they haven’t stepped up and said what they want to do.” Since her 2009 exit, Abdul hasn’t been back on the show, which makes it clear that there were some hard feelings about her leaving.
Simon Cowell: Seasons 1–10
Simon Cowell, another original judge, lasted two seasons longer than Abdul, but he, too, departed the show to move on with his career. After he announced that he’d be leaving the show after Season 10, Cowell joined the judges’ panel on another singing competition show he executive produced: X Factor. He can now be seen judging the talent on America’s Got Talent.
Randy Jackson: Seasons 1–12
Randy Jackson was the last of the original judges to leave the show. As one of American Idol’s mainstays, Jackson’s iconic catchphrases (“It’s a no from me, dog,”) would definitely be missed. He quit judging after Season 12 but returned for Season 13 as a mentor. Ultimately, he chose not to return in any capacity for the future seasons.
He released a statement that read, “After 13 seasons I felt now was the perfect time to leave American Idol. I’m proud to have been a part of a series that discovered some incredible artists and will go down in history as one of the most successful television shows ever.” Jackson likely witnessed a lot of behind-the-scenes drama during his tenure on the show, so he was likely glad to get a bit of respite.
Kara DioGuardi: Seasons 8–9
Singer/songwriter Kara DioGuardi had a short and fairly rough run as an American Idol judge. In her book, A Helluva High Note, via Rolling Stone, she revealed some truths about her time as a judge, and there were some moments in her tenure that were definitely less than pleasant. For instance, there was the time DioGuardi stripped down to a bikini in order to upstage Katrina “Bikini Girl” Darrell during the Season 8 finale.
DioGuardi wrote that after they wrapped for the day, “I went back to my trailer outside the Nokia Theater and bawled uncontrollably for 20 minutes…I had gone from the heights of success to the depths of humiliation.” In addition, she could never quite get along with Simon Cowell, which left her feeling rudderless. Eventually, DioGuardi was let go and the move came as a shock to her. “No one even gave me a heads-up that my job was in jeopardy,” she wrote.
“In fact, just two weeks before I was speaking to an executive producer about the upcoming season’s schedule. Then again, who really ever knows that their bosses are considering replacing them?” After multiple seasons with the same judges, the next few seasons would look more like a revolving door as new judges entered and old judges left.
Ellen DeGeneres: Season 9
Comedian and daytime talk show host Ellen DeGeneres was an odd choice, to begin with, for a judge on a singing competition show. Her lack of clear critique for contestants’ singing technique made her role on the show vague at best, which DeGeneres was aware of.
She voluntarily left the show, DeGeneres revealed in a statement, because she didn’t feel like she was the right person for the show. “A couple months ago, I let Fox and the American Idol producers know that this didn’t feel like the right fit for me,” The Ellen Show host explained.
“I also realized this season that while I love discovering, supporting, and nurturing young talent, it was hard for me to judge people and sometimes hurt their feelings.” DeGeneres also said her busy schedule soon became “more than I bargained for.” There seemed to be no hard feelings involved, just an addition to the show that didn’t quite make sense.
Steven Tyler: Seasons 10–11
Rock legend Steven Tyler came in for two seasons as a replacement for DioGuardi and DeGeneres. His tenure on the show was about as short, however, since Tyler left American Idol to focus on his band, Aerosmith. “After some long … hard … thoughts … I’ve decided it’s time for me to let go of my mistress American Idol before she boils my rabbit,” Tyler said in a statement, via EW. “I strayed from my first love, Aerosmith, and I’m back – but instead of begging on my hands and knees, I’ve got two fists in the air and I’m kicking the door open with my band.” Around that same time, another megastar judge decided not to sign on to Season 12 of American Idol.
Jennifer Lopez: Seasons 10–11, 13–15
Jennifer Lopez joined the judges’ panel for Seasons 10 and 11 of American Idol, but bowed out before Season 12 due to her busy touring schedule. Lopez broke the news on Ryan Seacrest’s radio show a day after Steven Tyler announced he was leaving the show. “I honestly feel like the time has come for me to be doing the other things I do that I’ve kind of put on hold because I love Idol so much,” Lopez admitted. She returned, however, for Seasons 13 through 15.
Mariah Carey, Nicki Minaj: Season 12
To make up for the loss of two big-name judges, pop diva Mariah Carey and rapper Nicki Minaj were brought in for Season 12. The two clashed both onscreen and backstage, however, and their feud was part of the reason they both bowed out after a single season on American Idol. Both superstars also cited a focus on their careers as their reason for leaving as well, but the two’s obvious distaste for each other was clear the whole season long. Soon after Carey announced she was leaving Idol to go on tour with Miguel, Minaj revealed that she was leaving the show as well in order to focus on her music.
Keith Urban, Harry Connick Jr.: Seasons 12–15
Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr. were the judges for the final three seasons of American Idol on its Fox network home. In the end, they were joined by Jennifer Lopez and stuck with the show until it was eventually canceled in 2016.
In 2018, however, the show was revived and found its new home on ABC, with judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry, and Luke Bryan and, of course, host Ryan Seacrest. Though the show’s judges and even its network have changed a lot over the years, American Idol still has a way of attracting major talent.