When asked what he thinks of Jennifer Lopez replacing him on American Idol, Simon Cowell said, “I got to know her quite well,” damning with faint praise as usual. We’ve all gotten to know Lopez quite well over the past decade, but is that a good or bad thing for the world’s most popular competition show? With the departure of superstar judge Cowell and failed judges Ellen DeGeneres and Kara DioGuardi, Idol has seemingly turned to Lopez as its last best hope: TMZ and other publications reported that Fox is giving her a one-year, $12-million contract to sit and listen to young people who can’t sing. Fans of the show are already skeptical of Lopez’s ability to hold our interest: “I doubt Jennifer will be an entertaining character,” says Dave Della Terza, whose website Votefortheworst.com is dedicated to whipping up votes for bad but entertaining Idol candidates. “I’ve been saying they need a judging panel of Kanye West, Whitney Houston, and Howard Stern.” But there might be one hope for Lopez, and the show: Idol needs someone who can be as hated as Cowell was. And if anyone can generate that level of animosity, she can.
Of course, many people are comparing Lopez not to Cowell, but to the much-missed Paula Abdul. Like Abdul, Lopez started as a dancer (she performed on In Living Color on Idol’s own network, Fox). Also like Abdul, her work in the music business isn’t behind-the-scenes like Cowell, but a series of hit records and videos. And now her career is more or less where Abdul’s was in 2001—not completely gone, but not where it was at her peak of popularity. We’re a long way from the days when Lopez and Ben Affleck were the most famous couple in the world of celebrity gossip, or when she was giving well-regarded performances in movies like Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight. Even her fashion choices don’t seem to matter much; it’s not like it was at the 2000 Grammys, when her famously revealing Versace dress made her a role model for women who wanted to be sexy without being skinny.
Today, nothing Lopez does seems to get that kind of attention. Her romantic comedy The Back-Up Plan didn’t perform well at the box office, and while she’s continued to make albums, none of them have sold well except a Spanish-language record. Though she’s been married for six years to fellow Puerto Rican pop star Marc Anthony (“It’s a big step for me to be married a whole year,” she said recently), the gossip publications don’t pay as much attention to them as they did to “Bennifer.” Vanity Fair contributing editor Richard Rushfield, who frequently writes about Idol, told Maclean’s that “the reality is that her career isn’t what it was. She needs a second or third act now.” If Idol was Abdul’s second act, why can’t it be Lopez’s?
But it seems like the Abdul role may already be filled in the new season by Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler, who, reports say, will be Lopez’s new co-judge. Though Rushfield notes that the aging rocker has “satanic character possibilities,” many commentators see him as more likely to take over the Abdul role as the ex-music star who says strange things. Executive producer Nigel Lythgoe told Variety they want Tyler because you “never know what he’s going to say next,” while Della Terza says Tyler is “being brought on board to be the crazy one who might be drugged out. This is a huge mistake—they had a nice person who was crazy and drugged out already named Paula Abdul.” Since Randy Jackson will still be there with his usual catchphrases and lack of personality, that means Lopez is the only person who could conceivably fill the Simon Cowell role: someone who knows a lot about show business and isn’t afraid to use that knowledge to dash the fragile hopes of mediocre performers. Rushfield thinks that at the very least she’s expected “to be harsher than Abdul was in her day.”
Can Lopez be caustic like Cowell? Probably not. But if she can’t do that, she could be a different kind of villain, the self-absorbed diva who condescends to everyone. She already has that reputation in real life, thanks to things she’s said in public: MSNBC reported that she was upset to find Good Morning America covering Michael Phelps instead of her (“I couldn’t understand why everyone is talking about the swimmer”).
Earlier this year, in an interview with Latina.com, she argued that her critically loathed flop El Cantante didn’t get her an Oscar nomination because “I don’t even think the academy members saw it. I feel like it’s their responsibility to do that.” The most famous Lopez parody was on South Park: in that depiction, everyone in show business hated her so much that they replaced her with a J-Lo puppet painted on a boy’s hand.
If Lopez can build on that image when she does Idol, she might have a shot at being an interesting character. Which may be why the publicity leaks surrounding the show seem to be intent on portraying her as someone the audience can hate. After she was announced as a likely candidate, reports circulated that she had been dropped from consideration due to her diva shenanigans. An anonymous insider leaked the news to People magazine that “her demands got out of hand. Fox had just had enough.” It turned out that Fox hadn’t had enough at all, and a few weeks later negotiations were back on track.
Another insider told Deadline.com that Lopez wanted “a vanity deal,” a phrase that led to more Lopez-as-diva media coverage. Except, as Lane Brown put it in New York magazine, her demands turned out to be “not really that diva-like”; he was expecting “helicopter transportation to and from the judges’ table,” but all that happened was that she wanted $15 million and a movie deal, and settled for $12 million and no movie. Whatever the reality is, it might help Fox that she’s once again established as the temperamental star, and that means that if she and Tyler turn up on the show, “people will be taking a look at them,” Rushfield says.
Especially after the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Fox was taking steps to stop Lopez’s embittered ex-husband, Ojani Noa, from sneaking into the auditions.
But even if Lopez can get the public rooting against her, some observers think it might still come off as a desperation move for a show that’s in trouble. Idol’s ratings last year kept it as the No. 1 show in the world, but even with Cowell still around, the viewership was falling, and there were other warning signs: the New York Post reported that a major gambling website stopped publishing Idol odds because “betting interest in the show started to dwindle two years ago.”
Still, the fact that she’s joining a struggling franchise, rather than the juggernaut of past years, may be good for Lopez. It frees her from the pressure that did in DioGuardi and DeGeneres, the feeling that she’s an interloper. Rushfield says that DioGuardi didn’t catch on because “she had a stigma, through no fault of her own, as the person who broke up the band. She came in and was a threat to Abdul, who audiences had warm feelings for.” Lopez won’t have that problem.
Even if she manages to last longer on Idol, though, it might not boost her career outside of the show. That’s because the move she’s making is still a fairly new thing in show business. It used to be that when someone’s movie career stalled, she would do a TV sitcom or drama; that’s why Candice Bergen did Murphy Brown, or why Dustin Hoffman is about to star in the HBO drama Luck. But a reality show is not a traditional path for someone who used to be a major movie star; it’s supposed to be for people who were never that big to begin with, like Howie Mandel. By coming so far down so fast, she could run the risk of getting more reactions like that of TV.com’s Tim Surette, who grumbled: “I really don’t understand this. Jennifer Lopez is more washed up than a dying whale, what the heck is Fox shelling out all this money for?”
Still, at this point, reality TV might be a better option for former stars. Scripted TV comebacks usually flop (no one remembers The Geena Davis Show or Bette Midler’s sitcom), but with Idol, even in its weakened state, Lopez is guaranteed a certain level of success: “You only work two days a week, three months a year, you get paid a fortune and it reaches a huge audience,” Rushfield explains. If this works out, Lopez could be a pioneer, showing there’s no shame—and lots of money—in stooping to this kind of work.
But to make it work, Lopez may have to admit she’s no longer a superstar and allow herself to be hated, the way Cowell was. And some commentators think she won’t be able to bring herself to do it. “Lopez will try to be the nice judge,” Della Terza predicts. “She has a career to think about, as non-existent as it’s been recently, so she won’t want to ruin it by saying mean things to people.” If Lopez actually wants to make people like her, she could be as boring an Idol judge as DeGeneres. And Della Terza, for one, is looking forward to that possibility: “Whoever is sabotaging the show is brilliant, and I’d like to help them out in any way possible.”