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Claudia Conway faces challenges that evoke real and powerful sympathy, and not just because of her tender age. First, this 16-year-old emerged onto the national stage as someone seemingly desiring to make an impact but unable to escape her own famous name. Her parents, anti-Trump lawyer George Conway and Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway, had already shown the hazards of life in the so-called swamp, making gross public theater of the disputes within their marriage before Claudia began getting attention for her videos on TikTok. And yet the notice that comes her way is always in the context of her famous family, first for the simple fact of her publicly disagreeing with Mom, and later for darker and sadder amplifications. With Claudia having become the story, the teenager’s camera seemed to capture a family in crisis over more than just politics, with a series of videos accusing her mother of abuse circulating widely.
In light of this, and of further strange and troubling turns like Kellyanne Conway allegedly posting a topless photo of her daughter online in seeming revenge last month, it would seem easier and more humane to let whatever is to be the story of Claudia’s passage into adulthood and independence play out in private. But that has, of course, never been the way this nation operates. With the problem of Claudia’s parents seemingly beyond anyone’s ability to solve for now, television took up the case of redefining her in the public eye, on the new season of “American Idol.” A series whose long-term mission has been making ordinary people into celebrities now seeks to convert a celebrity into an ordinary person, and to borrow some of her ability to spark conversation along the way.
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The nineteenth season of the reality stalwart, which debuted Feb. 14, promotes Claudia’s appearance from its first ad break; that teaser features judge Katy Perry asking the youth, with some deliberateness, “Are you OK?” “No!,” Claudia replies, with the amusement at her own misery that will be familiar to anyone who was once a teen. Perhaps that’s all it is; perhaps Claudia is just suffering under parental authority in all the familiar ways. But there’s something eerier at work here, including Conway’s practiced defense of herself to the judging panel: “I only want to spread love, and I love a compromise. And I do agree to disagree with my mom and my dad.”
Granted, this was all taped last fall, before the most seismic family blowups hit the internet early this year. But the first thing that feels jarringly wrong about this is the degree to which a child at the center of a dispute that has bled into public view is being asked to launder the reputations of two adults who should know better. Kellyanne appears here briefly, first shown in archival footage embracing Donald Trump and then via video link, lecturing her daughter: “You should be nervous, honey, it’s a very humbling experience,” she begins, before declaring that “winners are people who are willing to lose.” (One wishes she’d passed that advice on to those in her professional orbit.)
George, meanwhile, is shown peering into the audition room. Later, he cries on camera while saying “I couldn’t imagine anything that would make her happier than doing this.” While the dynamics of the Conway family are, no matter how many TikToks we watch, unknowable to us, this rings false. Not anything? Not, say, an opportunity to wind back the tape on the past few dizzying months of tabloid infamy, after the spinning out of control of her attempt to speak out against a family who’d made political dispute into a publicity stunt?
Treating the pursuit of fame as the cure for infamy is hardly new. In the unscripted-TV universe, it’s been a generous wellspring for the casting department of “Dancing with the Stars,” among other shows. In 2019, Trump’s White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer attempted to obliterate the shadows in his persona with the glow of the mirrorball; previously, another daughter of politics, Bristol Palin, rode her Vice-Presidential nominee mom Sarah’s fame to the finals in 2010. That latter casting is likely more relevant here, in the similarities between Bristol Palin’s and Claudia Conway’s cases. Putting one on television felt annoying but conscionable, and putting the other on “American Idol” looks like malpractice. Bristol was, for all that her family’s story had made for tabloid fodder, tasked with working out nothing more complicated than her love for dance in almost aggressively sunny segments. She had also signed onto the show as a legal adult.
Contrast this with Claudia, whom judge Perry could credibly ask if her mother still hugs her. It fits both because of the public acrimony and because of Claudia’s age and vibrating waves of unhappiness. Claudia’s reply is as follows: “I mean, yeah, she loves me, I love her. It’s just, I feel like our relationship’s a little… it’s a little iffy.” The conversation between the judges and the judged is intercut with taped bits, including Claudia directly telling the camera, “Now I want to get out of the controversy, get out of the drama, get out of the political whatever, and let people know that I am a singer and this is what I want to do!” There’s a special sort of cruelty, or carelessness, to the introduction of a shot of Claudia fist-bumping her father just as she says she wants to “get out of the political whatever.” Try though she might, Claudia cannot escape the gravitational pull of her family story.
There’s a winking insistence that all is well here that rankles; this may indeed have been where the Conways were on that day, but using this snapshot as the story of the family’s life in public is both incomplete and unfair to the girl herself. Why, one wonders, is she having such a hard time, if her parents are just so supportive when the cameras are on? The denial of conflict becomes a new sort of conflict — butting up against what we’ve read with the force of state media. In this case, it seems less an endorsement of Kellyanne Conway’s agenda than an endorsement of the concept of not blowing up the story too early; if Claudia were to go on, the producers might play out the string of her family saga for weeks or months to come.
But first we must see if she goes on. It seems both unfair to viewers and unkind to the girl placed on view to go into granular detail about Claudia’s audition. In working towards an argument that she should never have been put in this position, pausing to comment on the precise nature of the position feels beyond the point. Suffice it to say that Claudia performs two songs that demand a sort of robustness of life experience most teenagers lack. For the second, Adele’s “When We Were Young,” Perry suggests that Claudia tap into her personal history: “There’s a sadness there, because you lost your youth,” the pop star says, further noting that to sing, Claudia must shut the world out. “Your dad’s your dad, your mom’s your mom. Who is Claudia? You have to calm the storm that is around you.”
This is credible advice for getting through a performance of an Adele song on television. But the performance of higher and more virtuous care for Claudia’s plight here is tiresome at best, similar to the manner in which those who professed admiration for Claudia’s TikTok exploits by comparing her to heroes of fiction grew to seem clueless very quickly. If the show is concerned that Claudia lost what has elapsed so far of her youth, the way to redress it would not be by having her spend some small portion of her teen years practicing her persona for millions on TV; if it wanted her to be able to suss out who Claudia is, it might allow her to do it elsewhere and then come back for season 21. Perry tells Claudia to calm the storm around her, while the show, putting her through to the next round, whips it up.
This is in what “Idol” clearly sees as its own interest, and would be even if Claudia Conway were Claudia Smith. Elsewhere in the premiere, a contestant delivering a self-written song makes herself cry to the point that she cannot go on. This song is about her mother’s abandonment and hinges on the line “How could a mother be okay leaving scars on her children?” (“That message on that song,” says judge Lionel Richie, “is a hit record.”) The plumbing of trauma can make for great music; on “Idol,” though, it’s more consistently important that it make for great storytelling.
But what story is being told here? We see a young woman blinking in the studio lights, showing far more fear than “Idol” contestants with far less experience in the public eye do. Despite being publicly at odds with her parents, she puts on a show of comity with them (one in person and one remotely). We see her talk around conflicts that can be seen in broad strokes as pretty basic — a kid with a rebel heart, political conflict within the family — but had come to seem, with each new revelation foisted on the public outside the “Idol” frame, meaner and crueler and harder on the soul. And we see a person who has not yet successfully managed to get out of the way of the mythmaking machine over the course of her young life told to take her chance and see if this time, she can be Claudia instead of a Conway.
The game is rigged. What seems at first to be Claudia’s chance to “get out of the political whatever” becomes a lengthy mandate to delve into, and finally to put a happy face on, a story that Claudia has tried, in fits and starts, to tell on her own terms. She’s ceded, or had taken from her, the chance to do that, with the promise that what she’d get in return would be a fresh start. What ABC has done here is wrong, and should merit deep reflection on the part of producers and executives. I suspect that will only come, though, if the ratings aren’t good, at which point young Claudia and her story of woe will quickly become expendable. She will have simply have found that a certain sort of moral swamp extends even as far as Hollywood, and met one more set of people willing to let drama play out in public as long as it sells.