CHICAGO — There were times last year when Kara DioGuardi felt as if she had — to borrow a phrase — her pants on the ground.
Yes, there was the bikini incident in which, in a prearranged stunt, the then-new “American Idol” judge finished a song alongside a contestant known as “bikini girl” and pulled open her dress to reveal her own two-piece swimsuit (and perfectly toned torso).
But where the now-39-year-old, a songwriter by trade, really felt exposed was being up there week to week in front of the contestants, the thousands in the auditorium and the tens of millions more watching on TV.
“I never was in front of the camera” before “Idol,” she says.
“That was very difficult to go from the back of the studio to in front of 30 million people. I wish people had been a bit easier on me for that because it’s really scary when you’re just kind of sitting right there and having all eyes on you and being judged.”
She said she’s stopped reading Internet comments, but learned last year that “the younger people seemed to have a lot more of a problem with me. I just feel like my personality, at times, didn’t always come through. Like, I’m way more feisty, but I can be fun and maybe I took myself a little seriously at times. I was just, you know, not good TV to them.” That’s a feeling you’d think might lead to more sympathy for the contestants, but DioGuardi says she won’t be taking over the role played by departed judge Paula Abdul, who almost always coddled the contestants.
If anything, DioGuardi said, she’s feeling more comfortable and might be tougher this year on the Fox show’s would-be singers. “I may push it to be even more critical just because I think the stakes are even higher in the music business these days,” she says. “I’m not trying to hurt anyone.
I’m trying to help them and tell them, ‘Look, you’ve got to stand out.’”
DioGuardi made her mark writing, co-writing and/or producing hits for, among others, Christina Aguilera (“Ain’t No Other Man”), Kelly Clarkson (“Walk Away”) and Cobra Starship (“Good Girls Go Bad”).
Now, after a season as an “Idol” judge and being asked to come back this year, she’s become a celebrity for — as “Idol” judges do — expressing an almost purely advisory opinion. The winners of the talent contest are determined by audience vote; the judges are there to put in words what viewers might be thinking, except with more use of the word “pitchy.”
DioGuardi is famous enough, in fact, that Folgers, the coffee company, is paying her to be celebrity judge of its contest, which invites people to submit new takes on the company’s classic “Best Part of Waking Up” jingle. (Details at bestpartofwakingup.com.)
It’s Folgers that has put DioGuardi on the phone, parceling out 10-minute interview dollops to reporters around the country.
We didn’t have time to ask her whether she feels that she’s compromising her judging art by being willing to do it for commercial hire.
But we did learn that DioGuardi “always loved that jingle” and, to the larger point, is optimistic about her TV show, even in the midst of more change.
Comedian Ellen DeGeneres has joined the judging panel. And although none of the DeGeneres shows has aired yet, DioGuardi said she’s been impressed.
“Idol” was in the middle of taping “Hollywood Week” last week, which winnows the regional winners down to a set of finalists, and DeGeneres “is doing a phenomenal job,” DioGuardi said.
“She’s funny. She’s critical at times. She comments on things that are very specific to the music or the way they’ve changed the melody or their performance. I think people are going to be so impressed by her.”
The other judging change is merely prospective at the moment. Simon Cowell, who happily wears the metaphorical black hat to match his actual black T-shirts, has said that he’ll leave after this ninth season of the show.
DioGuardi thinks the departure is for real — not a ploy. “I think when he says something, he’s pretty serious,” she said. But as much as Cowell draws attention for his acerbic attempts at wit, the show is bigger than he is, she said.
“We’re all sad to see him go. He’s an incredible judge. I was a fan of his before I came on the show, and I’m still a fan of his,” she said. “I have mad respect for that guy. He’s able to say things nobody else could say in a way that nobody else could even think of coming up with those things.
“So, of course, the dynamic will change. But I don’t think the strength of the show will change.”
That strength? “People love to be invested in these contestants we tweak. They love to root for them and find somebody who would never have their shot at their dream of singing, and they like to see it come true. It’s very powerful” — almost like a good strong cup of coffee.