Tragic Details About The American Idol Judges

The following article contains references to sexual assault, racism, substance misuse, suicide, and domestic violence

"American Idol" has been entertaining fans for over two decades with its addictive and resonant formula documenting the highs and lows of chasing one's dreams. And as much as the contestants enthrall us, the judges are equally a part of the entertainment spectacle. The show's panel of observers serves as judge, jury, and executioner, holding the hopes and dreams of aspiring young singers in the palms of their hands. 

Since its initial incarnation via the iconic trio of snarky Brit Simon Cowell, kindly but at times curt Randy Jackson, and the affable Paula Abdul, the show's formula proved a hit. Since then, numerous A-listers have taken the helm at the judges' table, including Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, and Nicki Minaj. In 2018, the formidable judging-throuple of Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan took to the panel, imparting their experience and expertise to young hopefuls. However, their judgments weren't always popular, with many "American Idol" fan favorites losing out on furthering their showbiz dreams.

Though the judges sometimes veer into heartlessly blunt territory (Perry has arguably usurped Cowell as the meanie of the three), the show is also not without its heartwarming and poignant moments. On occasion, Judges are even moved to tears by the harrowing back stories of contestants, from tales of grief and illness to uplifting admissions of reclaiming trauma and abuse. Such revelations of hardship and woe likely resonate with the panel, often mirroring their own tragic life stories. There's so much more to the judging panel than caustic complisults – as these tragic details about the "American Idol" judges undoubtedly prove.

The violent, tragic end of Katy Perry's ex

Katy Perry began dating "Sons of Anarchy" star Johnny Lewis in 2005 and the pair stayed together for around a year. At red carpet events, the young lovers appeared smitten as they sported classic Y2K hairdos and attire. 

Sadly, Lewis suffered from mental health issues, apparently exacerbated by a severe head injury following a motorcycle accident, per Los Angeles Magazine. Having spent time in both jail and psychiatric hospitals, he reportedly refused to take his antipsychotic medication. On the night of September 26, 2012, he went on a violent rampage, attacking a housepainter and an elderly neighbor, and brutally murdering his 81-year-old landlady, Cathy Davis, and her cat. Lewis is then believed to have fallen to his death. He was 28.

Following the tragic news, sources close to Perry told Us Weekly that she was distraught. Insiders attempted to shed some light on the nature of the pair's relationship, and the potential troubles that led to its dissolution. "She had to separate from him ... to get ahead and focus on her career," the source divulged. "He was in trouble then and she couldn't help him. A lot of her songs were partially inspired by him. I know 'The One That Got Away' and 'Circle the Drain' are partly about him ... But she was young and it was a time in her life she cherishes." Perry's best friend, Shannon Woodward, also tweeted her devastation regarding the tragedy, and highlighted that Lewis' actions were a horrifying result of his untreated illness.

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

Lionel Richie experienced 'a massive depression'

With his affable and benevolent persona, Lionel Richie has been a welcome addition to the "American Idol" judging panel. But the iconic singer endured some harrowing personal hardships that halted his career trajectory for many years. During an appearance on "Lorraine," Richie opened up about his experience with mental ill-health.

After he performed at the 1984 Olympics closing ceremony, the singer discovered that his father was gravely ill and he subsequently began suffering from major depression. "I went through a ... a massive depression," he said. "My dad was my hero, so I went through that whole period of my life," he said. Discussing the impact of this trauma on an episode of "Life Stories" (via Daily Record), Richie revealed that he was so distraught by his father's death that he shied away from the public eye for five years.

In an interview with The Mirror, he explained that he was able to heal from his trauma thanks to his own music. Recalling an instance in which a friend handed him some inspirational tapes, Richie was stunned to discover that he had been given his own music, with certain significant and poignant lyrics underlined. "I started listening to my lyrics," he reflected. "This time from the point of view of someone who needed that message ... I used to look out into the audience and wonder why that guy was crying to one of my songs and now I get it — it just hits something in your core."

If you or someone you know needs help with mental health, please contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741, call the National Alliance on Mental Illness helpline at 1-800-950-NAMI (6264), or visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.

Luke Bryan lost both of his siblings

Luke Bryan has had to contend with the pain of losing not one, but two of his siblings at a young age. When he was 19, his brother, Chris, died in a car accident. "I'm kind of hyperventilating talking about it," he told ABC News. "You never truly ... move beyond it." At the time, he was planning on leaving Georgia to attend college in Nashville but opted to stay with his family in the wake of the tragedy. 

When he finally moved to Nashville, where he found fame thanks to his hit "All My Friends Say," tragedy struck again when his sister, Kelly, died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2007. To this day, he is unsure as to how she died. These dual deaths had a devastating impact on the country star. Speaking to Today, he disclosed that losing his siblings had led to him experiencing anxiety. "You worry about people at home just really wondering why this much tragedy and unfortunate things have happened in my life," he conceded. 

To make a tragic situation all the more heartbreaking, in 2015 Kelly's husband also died, leaving the couple's three children as orphans. Subsequently, Bryan revealed that he and his wife, Caroline, would be taking in his 13-year-old nephew. "We feel like if we just stay positive through this ... You just have to plow on and play the hand that's dealt," he told ABC News. He later confirmed that he had also become guardian to his sister's other two children.

Simon Cowell was devastated by his parents' death

Though he may have developed a reputation as the mean judge in his "American Idol" heyday, Simon Cowell has a softer side to him. In 1999, his father died aged 81. In an interview with Piers Morgan (via the Daily Mail), Cowell revealed that it was the worst day of his life.

16 years later, his mom, Julie, died aged 89. Due to his heartbreak at losing his beloved mother, Cowell opted out of judging "X Factor" auditions that week. When he did return to judging duties later that year, his grief manifested on screen. The notoriously stoic Cowell was moved to tears by a contestant who dedicated his song to a friend who was killed in a car accident. "It was quite difficult because I thought, 'God this is going to be really hard to sit through this,'" he said on "Loose Women" (via Hello!).

In an interview with the Daily Mail, he opened up about losing both his parents, acknowledging that while he was shattered by his mom's death, he was relieved that he got to be by her side to say goodbye before she succumbed to a stroke. This was something he was unable to do when his father passed away unexpectedly. "The biggest regret you'd ever have is not to have the chance to say how you feel about someone," he reflected. "I know I'll miss her every day, but I also know I'm incredibly grateful to have had her."

Paula Abdul's chronic illnesses

In 2005, Paula Abdul opened up about living with a chronic illness. After suffering from unrelenting pain (exacerbated by various injuries) for decades, she was diagnosed with the neurological condition Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy. In an interview with PainPathways Magazine, she explained that due to the illness being extremely rare, it remains poorly understood. "Because of my experience with RSD, that old phrase, 'I know exactly how you feel' had to be deleted from my brain," she revealed. "RSD is a disorder that is so difficult to explain — especially during a flare-up — there's no way that anyone could know exactly how I felt. That really hits home for me." While she acknowledged that she was often in pain, with treatments offering mere temporary relief, she had learned to appreciate the days in which she did not experience symptoms.

In 2019, she revealed that her pain had subsided thanks to Cortical Integrative Therapy. However, some have cast doubt on the experimental treatment's efficacy, per Elemental

Additionally, Abdul has osteoarthritis. The diagnosis came around ten years after she went public with her RSD diagnosis. "I knew something was wrong with my body," she told People in 2020. The singer turned "American Idol" judge explained that she was trying her best to adopt a positive outlook following her diagnosis, embracing the little things in life that bring her joy in spite of her pain. "Every day I try to wake up and think, 'What can I do today that's going to make me happy?' " she reflected.

Mariah Carey was racially abused

Having been a judge on "American Idol" for just one season, Mariah Carey has been frank about her unpleasant stint on the show, telling "Kyle and Jackie O" that it was one of the worst experiences of her life. In particular, she disliked the manufactured feud between herself and Nicki Minaj, who left the show at the same time as Carey, as well as the pressure to be unkind to contestants. This unwillingness to acquiesce to producers' apparent thirst for cruel remarks perhaps stems from her own unhappy childhood experiences.

The daughter of a white mom and a Black father, Carey was subjected to relentless racist abuse while growing up. When Carey and her mom, Patricia, appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show," the latter revealed that she was disowned by her parents for marrying a Black man. The family, who lived in an affluent white neighborhood, was also cruelly targeted by their neighbors. "One of our dogs was poisoned," Patricia recalled. "And we had a bow window in the front of the house and ... someone shot through the window."

When Carey found fame as a singer, the bigoted abuse didn't end. She was famously targeted by comedian Sandra Bernhard, who used a racial slur as the cornerstone of a quip against the singer in the '90s. Moreover, her racial identity was constantly under scrutiny, with many questioning her authenticity as a Black woman. Carey told Vulture of feeling distanced from her community, "[It] is an even deeper kind of a pain — [a] pile of pain."

If you or a loved one has experienced a hate crime, contact the VictimConnect Hotline by phone at 1-855-4-VICTIM or by chat for more information or assistance in locating services to help. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

Kara DioGuardi is a sexual abuse survivor

In her memoir "A Helluva High Note" (via People), "American Idol" judge Kara DioGuardi revealed that she had been sexually assaulted multiple times throughout her life. At the age of 11, she was molested by the son of a family friend, who lured her into a shed to abuse her. "I remember freezing and not knowing what to do," she recalled of the traumatic experience. In an interview with PopEater (via Us Magazine), she said that her mom failed to protect her from the abuse, making her feel worthless. "In the last month I spoke to my mother's friend's kid and she relayed to me how my mother was speaking to her about it," she said. "So I definitely know it weighed on her and I spoke to her about it before she died."

Later in life, she alleged that she was raped by a famous producer in 2000. She also claimed that she was forced into uncomfortable situations by a successful artist years later, stating, "The trip's activities consisted of watching Russian porn, scavenging around the kitchen for food [and] leering at two strippers ... as they performed sex acts in the living room" (via People). She cut ties with the musician after he sexually assaulted her. She did not name either man.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, she said that despite her experiences she didn't want to be perceived as a victim, instead hoping to reclaim her trauma and be seen as a survivor. 

If you or someone you know may be the victim of child abuse, please contact the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child (1-800-422-4453) or contact their live chat services.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Steven Tyler experienced substance misuse issues

Aerosmith frontman and erstwhile "American Idol" judge Steven Tyler has been open about his struggles with substance misuse. He told GQ that he started experimenting with drugs in the '60s, after being curious about their sensory effects. Subsequently, his substance misuse was exacerbated by the pitfalls of fame, as everyone around him appeared to be taking drugs. "It was more or less the thing to do, back then as well," he explained. "I don't think there were any bands that even knew what sober was ... I was the kind of guy who would hate to be the guy who never came down because he never went up."

It was thanks to an intervention by his bandmates in 1988 that he decided to get sober. However, he told Haute Living (via People) that he was initially angry at his friends for forcing sobriety upon him. "It took me many years to get over the anger of them sending me to rehab while they went on vacation ... But today, because of that moment ... I am grateful and owe a thanks to them for my sobriety," he reflected.

Chatting to People following the death of Prince in 2016, he acknowledged that recovery is an ongoing process, noting that he went to rehab again in 2010. He remained sober for nine years, before voluntarily entering a treatment facility in 2022, after experiencing a relapse. Following the stint, sources told TMZ that Tyler was doing well and feeling excited for the future.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

Randy Jackson's health problems

In his 2008 memoir "Body With Soul" (via Today), Randy Jackson discussed the health problems that he suffered from for years. After a health scare in 1999 resulted in him being admitted to the emergency room, he was subsequently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. "For five long days I had been feeling sick in the craziest kind of way — extremely tired, extremely thirsty, all sweaty and dizzy," he recalled. Then came the news that his blood sugar was five times higher than normal, putting him at risk of a heart attack or stroke. "It's a curse to be saddled with a disease that's life-threatening and that you can't completely get rid of (though you can certainly manage it). But it's a blessing to get that huge wake-up call," he explained.

Subsequently, he decided to prioritize his health, as he feared he would die young or else have life-threatening complications without medical intervention. "It had really come down to a matter of life and death (or at least a life threatened by blindness, amputation, and the complications I mentioned earlier)," he said. He underwent gastric bypass surgery in 2003.

In an interview with WebMD, Jackson acknowledged that he had difficulty managing his diabetes. He also opened up about his issues with food addiction and binge eating, which exacerbated his illness. Accordingly, he highlighted the importance of being kind to oneself, noting that depriving one's body of food can trigger a binge cycle.

If you need help with an eating disorder, or know someone who is, help is available. Visit the National Eating Disorders Association website or contact NEDA's Live Helpline at 1-800-931-2237. You can also receive 24/7 Crisis Support via text (send NEDA to 741-741).

Jennifer Lopez is a domestic abuse survivor

In her book "True Love Deluxe," Jennifer Lopez explained that she wanted to offer a voice to domestic violence survivors by conveying abusive relationships onstage for her 2012 Dance Again tour. She recalled watching women in the audience cry following the performances. The issue was a sensitive one for Lopez, who revealed that she's a survivor of domestic abuse. 

Subsequently, she wanted to highlight that there are different types of abusive relationships, and they don't all involve physical violence. "I've never gotten a black eye or a busted lip, but I've been in relationships where I have felt abused in one way or another: mentally, emotionally, verbally," she wrote. "I know what it feels like for your soul to be diminished by the way your loved one is treating you ... maybe it's a push, a shove, or a nasty word that stays with you." She explained that it took her many years to be able to walk out the door with the realization that she was undeserving of such behavior.

In an interview with The Daily Beast, she disclosed that she experienced a mental breakdown while filming the 2002 domestic abuse film "Enough," though she did not explicitly state whether the film's themes triggered these feelings. "I kept saying, 'I'm not weak. I'm not weak.' It's funny what tricks your mind plays on you," she said. "I just didn't want people to think I was falling apart ... I just sat there and started crying and felt frozen."

If you or someone you know is dealing with domestic abuse, you can call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1−800−799−7233. You can also find more information, resources, and support at their website.

Ellen DeGeneres is a survivor of child abuse

Despite initially appearing like a kind-natured addition to the "American Idol" judging panel, Ellen DeGeneres has been accused of workplace misconduct on her eponymous show. While it may not excuse her alleged behavior, DeGeneres herself being a survivor of horrific trauma may help to elucidate her purported hard exterior.

In a 2005 interview with Allure (via CBS), she accused her stepfather of groping her when she was just a teenager. At the time, her mom had breast cancer. Thereafter, the molestation escalated, leading to DeGeneres jumping out her bedroom window to escape the abuse. "I had to kick a window out and escape and sleep in a hospital all night long," she recalled.

During an appearance on David Letterman's "My Next Guest Needs No Introduction" (via the BBC), she discussed the impact of the abuse, revealing that she didn't tell anyone about it in order to protect her mother. When she did finally confide in her mom years later, she dismissed her claims. "I should never have protected her," she lamented. "I should've protected myself, and I didn't tell her for a few years and then I told her, and then she didn't believe me and then she stayed with him for 18 more years." She said that she hoped her story would inspire other survivors to come forward and speak their truth. "When I see people speaking out, especially now, it angers me when victims aren't believed because we just don't make stuff up," she added.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

A Paula Abdul superfan died outside her home

Sadly, we have lost a number of "American Idol" stars throughout the years. But the name that continues to resonate is that of Paula Goodspeed. A Paula Abdul superfan, Goodspeed appeared on "American Idol" in 2006, telling Ryan Seacrest before her audition that she modeled her look on Abdul and had been making lifesize drawings of her since she was a kid. During Goodspeed's audition, Simon Cowell made cruel comments about her appearance. "I don't think any artist on earth could sing with that much metal in [their] mouth," he remarked, in reference to Goodspeed's braces. After losing out on her chance at advancing to the Hollywood stage, she vowed to keep on singing.

Two years later, Goodspeed, who remained obsessed with Abdul, parked her car outside the "American Idol" judge's Los Angeles home and died by suicide. Testament to her adoration for Abdul, her license plate read "ABL LV," per ABC News

Discussing the traumatic incident with Access, Abdul revealed that Goodspeed had been stalking her for years and had attempted to end her life outside her home several months earlier. She also admitted to having felt anxious during the late "American Idol" hopeful's audition, with her death leaving her shaken and traumatized. "I went through a very rough time of feeling like she wanted my attention so much ... I shed a lot of tears," she said. "It was tumultuous, for me ... [I'm] living with security full time now."

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ by dialing 988 or by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Jennifer Lopez was homeless before her big break

Though she is revered as one of the most successful artists on the planet, Jennifer Lopez was once living in poverty. The songstress, who was raised in the Bronx, grew up poor and shared a bedroom with her two sisters. At 18, she moved out of her mom's house to pursue a dance career and found herself homeless. "I started sleeping on the sofa in the dance studio," she told W magazine. "I was homeless, but I told her, 'This is what I have to do.'"

Chatting to Cosmopolitan, J.Lo argued that her early economic hardships led to her being branded a "diva" by the media, as she was deemed as undeserving of the finer things in life as a woman from a working-class background. "I always felt that was unfair ... I came from virtually nothing, so there was a time when I was like 'Oh my God, I can have that car or I can have that coat,'" she explained. "I don't think anybody in my position wouldn't have done the same thing."

Moreover, in an interview with the Mirror, she said that while her kids will grow up rich, she hoped her own experiences of poverty would help ground them. "I grew up poor, so I knew I had to work hard," she said. "With them it's different, and I am trying to make them aware of the world around them ... what it is to be not as fortunate."

Two of Ellen DeGeneres' ex-girlfriends have died

Tragically, Ellen DeGeneres has been through the trauma of losing two of her former girlfriends. Eerily, both of these girlfriends died in car accidents. During an appearance on "Armchair Expert," DeGeneres recalled grieving the death of her girlfriend when she was just 20. DeGeneres, who had been living with her partner at the time, was working as a waitress, but couldn't afford to pay her rent following the tragic accident. "So I moved into this tiny little basement apartment that I was sleeping on a mattress on the floor and it was infested with fleas ... I thought why is this beautiful 21-year-old girl gone and fleas are here?" she pondered. "And I just thought it would be amazing if we could just pick up the phone and call up God and ask questions and actually get an answer?" 

The comedian and former "American Idol" host said that the tragedy motivated her to pursue her showbiz dreams. Subsequently, she landed a stint on "The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson," where she channeled her grief into comedy by performing her routine about calling God.

Decades later, DeGeneres lost another of her former partners, actor Anne Heche, with whom she had been in a highly publicized relationship between 1997 and 2000. Heche, 53, died of smoke inhalation and severe burns after crashing her car into a house in 2022, per TMZ. "This is a sad day. I'm sending Anne's children, family, and friends all of my love," DeGeneres tweeted.