First Person: My ‘American Idol’ Experience, by Taylor Hicks

The 15th and final bittersweet season of American Idol is underway, and all season long, Yahoo Music’s Reality Rocks is inviting alumni from the series to share their stories. And who better to participate in this special essay series than champion Taylor Hicks, winner of Season 5, the highest rated season in the competition’s history? Here, the silver fox reveals his strategy for the show, and explains why the wacky, purple-jacketed Taylor we all saw on TV wasn’t necessarily the real him.


(photo: Fox)

As someone who’d been doing bar gigs my whole life, dreaming of success, putting in time learning the instruments, writing songs, and selling CDs out of my trunk, I was completely consumed by the idea of becoming successful long before I tried out for American Idol. I was always thinking about my big break. And I wasn’t thinking “if”; I was thinking “when.” I knew Idol was my opportunity, so everything I did was calculated on the show – little things, like getting to know the guys in the production truck. I would go out to the truck and say hello to those guys and tell them “thank you” after every single show.

But here’s my main advice. You want to win a singing competition on national television? Cozy up to the song-clearer. That’s how I was able to sing what I wanted, like even the Beatles’ “Something.” I strategized with her every week, and we always picked the right songs; because of how close we became, she was instrumental in clearing everything that came down the pipeline for me.

Obviously, I didn’t get along with everyone on the show. People especially think Simon Cowell and I were enemies. But as a matter of fact, he and I would smoke Kool cigarettes in his dressing room sometimes after the show – which is a total no-no, of course. He smoked Kools, and I just thought that was interesting, so even though I’m not proud of it, he and I enjoyed a nice Kool cigarette every now and then. Not only that, but he was the one that told me I should do “In the Ghetto.” He was actually giving me pointers.

But of course, Simon and I didn’t always see eye-to-eye, and he didn’t always get what I was doing. I’m from Mars, and he’s from Venus. Or more specifically, I’m from Alabama and he’s from… where is Simon from? London, I guess. The rapport between Simon and me was the same rapport that all of America had with Simon. As in, there’s not too many British folks walking around the state of Alabama – and if they are, they’re lost! But I definitely think that once he caught wind of who was going to win, he changed a little. He was a fairweather judge, really.

Overall, I had great relationships with people from the show. I always had the utmost respect for Nigel Lythgoe. I will never forget what Nigel and Ken Warwick told me when I auditioned. I went into the audition room, and they said, “We don’t want to see Joe Cocker; we want to hear Taylor Hicks.” That made a lot of sense, because ultimately the end game of the show is to hear a voice that can sell records.

Speaking of the Joe Cocker comparisons, I was very aware of the character-building I was doing on the show. If you’re getting spoofed on Saturday Night Live, you must be doing something right, so you have to keep doing what you’re doing! Sometimes I do have a little regret about cultivating that jovial, silly persona, which isn’t totally me – in real life, I’m a bit more reserved. I’d even dare say I’m cooler than how I appeared on the show. But it’s television, and people want to see happiness and positivity. And if you did bar gigs your whole life and you got on a hit show where millions of people were watching you, you’d be pretty jovial, too.

The main reason why I created that persona was I couldn’t play instruments! Instruments weren’t allowed on the show till Season 7. So I had no tools. All the tools I had learned all of those years, they were gone, except for a microphone. So my thought process was, “Well, OK, if I can’t use instruments and I can’t be the musician, then I’ll have to be the entertainer.” When you take the instruments away, you have to figure out ways to entertain.

I’ve had to fight that misconception about me ever since. But I’ve come to embrace it, all of it. I’ll be in New York City and someone will come up to me and go, “Wooo! Soul Patrol!” I still get all of that. And I embrace it. My life is changed forever because of Idol, in such a wonderful way. I mean, who gets the chance to entertain every Wednesday and Thursday night for the world? And we’re not talking just about 5 or 6 million people – back in Season 5, about 25 million watched American Idol.

As for my reputation to this day, I call it “The Liberace Effect.“ Liberace was a polarizing figure, but he did his shows, he played his music, he performed, he sold his merchandise, he was always nice to the fans… and it just so happens that when you look at Liberace, he’s legendary. I follow that example. Keep your head down, work really hard, be good to people, give back. That’s what you’ve got to do, and don’t worry about anything or anyone else.

I do have some more serious memories of my time on Idol, involving real music legends like Stevie Wonder and Rod Stewart. One of my finest memories was singing in a room – basically it was a closet – me, Al Jarreau, Burt Bacharach, and a piano. That was one of the neatest musical experiences for me. Another one was when we went to Graceland and visited Elvis’s grave when it was raining, and I held the umbrella for Priscilla Presley so she wouldn’t get wet as she stared at the grave. That was some of the best stuff that I enjoyed, because it was interesting.

Right after I won Idol, the mania in the media was a little tough, I admit; being followed by helicopters and being in the paparazzi bubble was not cool. It was really heavy there for a good year, but I felt like I did OK with it. I just went on tour, riding a bus and doing dates, so I never really had time to get caught up in that intensity. And that would be my two cents for any show winner in this field: If you win The Voice, if you win Idol, you get on the bus and you make your money. Make your record quick and good, and get on that damn bus.

–as told to Lyndsey Parker