- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 6, 2009

Paula Abdul is leaving Fox’s top-rated “American Idol,” and she’s likely to take the heart of the show with her. While the other judges judged with a critical music-industry eye, Miss Abdul - when she wasn’t bickering with Simon Cowell or weeping at the performances on Broadway night - connected with contestants and the audience.

“With sadness in my heart, I’ve decided not to return to Idol,” Miss Abdul announced on her verified Twitter feed late Tuesday. “I’ll miss nurturing all the new talent, but most of all being a part of a show that I helped from day 1 become an international phenomenon.”

The statement came after many weeks of a contract impasse with show executives. A statement from Fox said: “Paula Abdul has been an important part of the ‘American Idol’ family over the last eight seasons and we are saddened that she has decided not to return to the show. While Paula will not be continuing with us, she’s a tremendous talent and we wish her the best.”

“Idol” host Ryan Seacrest said on his radio show today that he was “shocked” by the decision.

“She’s a dear friend,” Mr. Seacrest said. “I love her to death and am really sad that it came to fruition. I’m just bummed because we’ve worked together for so many years. It’s sad.”

Meanwhile, callers to Mr. Seacrest’s show and posters on various Internet boards overwhelmingly said if Miss Abdul was finished with “Idol,” so were they.

“Idol” is a common-man’s music competition, and Miss Abdul provided the common touch. Yes, Miss Abdul, 47, has made millions as a singer, dancer, choreographer and, for the past eight seasons, “Idol” judge. However, to the singing cowboys, waitresses, students, single mothers and just plain crazies seeking a shot at stardom, Miss Abdul was one of them.

Judge Randy Jackson and Mr. Cowell represent the suits at the record labels. They are bottom-line kind of guys who are thinking about platinum records, performer packaging and dollar signs. New judge Kara DioGuardi, a Grammy-winning songwriter, also has a businesslike outlook; in her one season on the show, viewers rarely saw whatever nurturing side she was supposed to represent.

Miss Abdul knew what songs 13-year-old girls would listen to while dancing around their bedrooms. She could recognize who had heart, who wanted it the most. Best of all, she would tell those contestants exactly what she was feeling - even if it made the viewers at home cringe. Could you imagine Mr. Cowell saying, as Miss Abdul often did: “I just want to hug you?” Or Mr. Jackson moved to tears over David Archuleta hitting a high note? Or anyone else showing up in a sequined tank top and doing an ersatz hustle in her seat on disco night?

Miss Abdul’s unpredictability was a key ingredient in the runaway success of America’s most-watched network television show. Sometimes she would be up and dancing. Other times, she seemed a little lost. She was rumored to have had an affair with a contestant and occasionally acted confused, as if maybe her ubiquitous Coca Cola glass was filled with something stronger.

Earlier this year, Miss Abdul admitted to taking painkillers but said she has beaten her habit, which stemmed from back and neck injuries.

“I could have killed myself,” Miss Abdul told Ladies’ Home Journal. “Withdrawal - it’s the worst thing. I was freezing cold, then sweating hot, then chattering and in so much pain. It was excruciating. At my very core, I did not like existing the way I had been.”

Through it all, though, Miss Abdul was just so nice. Even when a contestant fractured a song, Miss Abdul’s criticism would start out with something like, “Let me just say, you look beautiful tonight,” before segueing into a variation of “You gave it your all. It wasn’t your best performance - maybe it was the song choice - but you were very brave to try it.”

Miss Abdul’s departure was no surprise to show followers. Miss DioGuardi was added to the judges table in season eight, making the panel more confusing and Miss Abdul’s future role uncertain.

Miss Abdul had been in contract negotiations with the show over the past month. The Los Angeles Times reported that Miss Abdul, who made $2 million to $4 million in previous seasons, had started out asking for $20 million for next season, which will begin in January. She later cut her asking price to $12 million and reportedly walked away when the final offer was to increase her salary by about 30 percent.

Meanwhile, Miss DioGuardi re-signed this week. Mr. Cowell made $36 million last season and reportedly has been offered more than $100 million per season if he extends his contract when it expires next year. Mr. Seacrest has a $10 million-a-year, three-year contract (with more money to be made in merchandising rights). Mr. Jackson is negotiating a deal.

Last week, Miss Abdul’s agent, David Sonenberg, said it was “unnecessarily hurtful” that his client received no counteroffer from producers.

Contestant auditions for next season begin today.

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