It was a much-hyped move into prime time for the queen of daytime TV – but Ellen DeGeneres later admitted it was “one of the worst decisions” she ever made.
In late 2009, Ellen was announced as a new judge for the next season of American Idol, replacing Paula Abdul – and the job seemed like an easy fit. Her talk show had been on the air for six years, frequently unearthing and showcasing fresh musical talent from across America.
Ellen made her American Idol debut in February 2010, sitting alongside Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Kara DioGuardi on the judging panel. She was reported to have signed a five-season contract worth tens of millions of dollars.
By July, she was done, saying only that the show “didn’t feel like the right fit for me”.
Ellen’s first – and only – season on Idol had gotten off to a rocky start, with fans of the franchise sad to see Paula Abdul depart after nine seasons.
Others questioned her lack of music business credentials – but as Ellen explained when her appointment was announced, that was the whole point.
“I love music,” she said. “Hopefully, I’m the people’s point of view … I’m looking at it as someone who’s going to buy that music. Think of all the money I’ll save from not having to text in my vote.”
But some critics noted Ellen seemed hamstrung by her inexperience in the music biz.
“I feel like her first two live shows, she was a little tentative and in a couple of cases almost apologetic for her lack of musical know-how and I don’t think that’s the way to go,” Entertainment Weekly ’s Michael Slezak said at the time. “She has a strong point of view, she is able to express an opinion in a witty authoritative way and I think she just needs to own it.”
In an interview around the same time, legendary singer Patti Labelle appeared to diss Ellen’s appointment on the judging panel, without ever mentioning her by name.
“Some of the judges, I don’t think they’re qualified to even judge,” Labelle said of the show. “The comments that were made, they could make you, like, wanna kill yourself.”
And that, in the end, was Ellen’s undoing: The “queen of nice” admitted she hadn’t considered that being a judge meant publicly critiquing the same unpolished musical talent she tried to uplift during her day job.
“A couple months ago, I let Fox and the American Idol producers know that this didn’t feel like the right fit for me,” DeGeneres said in a statement announcing her decision not to return for another season.
“I also realised 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.”
Five years later, and DeGeneres didn’t mince her words when it came to this rare TV failure.
“That’s one of the worst decisions I’ve made,” she told Howard Stern in a candid 2015 interview when asked about her brief Idol stint.
“As a fan of the shows, it doesn’t matter that I sing or I know anything about pitch or anything, I’m like everybody else at home – it’s American Idol. So I thought I’m gonna represent those people at home that have opinions,” she explained.
“But then I just thought: I can’t break this person’s heart. Let somebody else do that.”
Ellen’s candour was surprising, given who she was talking to: Stern himself had earlier slammed her appointment on the show, while discussing rumours he was going to join her on the judging panel.
“(DeGeneres is) going to ruin American Idol,” Stern said weeks before her debut on the show. “Everyone goes, if Howard Stern takes over American Idol, Ellen DeGeneres might leave. Well yeah, that’s the whole (expletive) idea. I’m not going to sit there with her – that dummy.”
Still, DeGeneres is not the only one-season wonder to depart American Idol with a bad taste in her mouth. Three seasons later, Mariah Carey struggled through a season-long stint on the show, frequently clashing with fellow judge Nicki Minaj.
Carey later said it had been “the worst experience of my life”: “It was like going to work every day in hell with Satan,” she said.