Viewers accuse 'American Idol' of exploiting Claudia Conway for ratings: 'Disgusting'

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Lyndsey Parker
·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
·8 min read
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Claudia Conway tries out for 'American Idol.' (Photo: Christopher Willard via Getty Images)
Claudia Conway tries out for 'American Idol.' (Photo: Christopher Willard via Getty Images)

The big hype leading into Sunday’s American Idol Season 19 premiere centered on the audition by Claudia Conway, the 16-year-old daughter of former Donald Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway. Claudia insisted, both on her recently revived Twitter account and onscreen in the audition room, that going on Idol was an “amazing opportunity” for her to establish her own identity and pursue her long-held dream of evolving from TikTok star to pop star; Claudia’s attorney father George, who accompanied her to the Idol set, even said Sunday through tears that he “couldn’t imagine anything that would make her happier than to do this.”

But the backlash to Claudia’s TV appearance nonetheless has been immediate, intense… and not unjustified. After a nonstop torrent of Sunday-evening Twitter protests, this outrage was distilled in a widely tweeted Variety op-ed titled “How ‘American Idol’ Used Claudia Conway.”

Many viewers and pundits accused American Idol of exploiting a vulnerable young girl for ratings, or simply wondered if Claudia, despite showcasing some raw talent, would have gotten so much screentime (or any screentime at all), let alone a Golden Ticket to Hollywood, if her parents weren't “high-profile political figures.” (After Claudia’s first song attempt didn’t go over so well, the judges, particularly Katy Perry, seemed so eager to say yes that they actually asked her to sing a second song, with Perry’s rather hands-on coaching yielding slightly better results.)

Other critics understandably blasted American Idol for humanizing and normalizing the behavior of Kellyanne, who has made headlines not just for her complicit role in the Trump administration but for allegedly physically and emotionally abusing Claudia. On Sunday’s Idol episode, Claudia said, “When your mom is working for the president of the United States, who you very much disagree with, it's hard,” but she and Kellyanne mostly downplayed their “family drama” — insisting that they love each other just like any other feuding put-upon mother and incorrigible teenage daughter, and that they “agree to disagree,” even if their relationship is currently “iffy.” Claudia’s audition was even preceded by a cheerful video pep-talk from her supportive mom — although that supposed feel-good moment actually came across as positively dystopian, as tiny Claudia stood in the shadow of a Big Brother-esque, billboard-sized digital wall of Kellyanne’s grinning, pixelated face.

The Conway “family drama” has played out in real time on Claudia’s social media over the past couple years (a combined 2.5 million fans on TikTok, Twitter, and Instagram follow her posts protesting her parents’ political beliefs) — so much so that when Claudia appeared on Idol Sunday, a concerned Perry asked her, “Are you OK?” and “Does your mom still hug you?” Back in August, Claudia had posted that she was searching for a pro bono family lawyer so she could become emancipated “because of years of childhood trauma and abuse”; shortly thereafter, she announced that she was taking a "mental health break” from social media. The same day of Claudia’s hiatus announcement, both Kellyanne and George Conway issued statements announcing their resignations from their respective positions, so that they could “devote more time to family matters.” Claudia then responded during a TikTok live-stream, claiming that her parents’ gesture was “not genuine” and confessing that her mental health was at an “all-time low.”

Claudia’s American Idol audition was filmed back in November 2020, and judging by the flattering edit she and her parents received this week, all was calm, or relatively calm, in the Conway camp at that time. But the family dynamic has seemingly become even more toxic in recent months, which has prompted Idol critics to question whether it was appropriate to air Claudia’s audition at all in February 2021. Last month, Claudia posted TikTok videos, which racked up millions of views before being deleted, that appeared to show Kellyanne screaming and getting physically violent with her. In one video, Claudia claimed that Child Protective Services “interviewed my whole family and they didn't do s***. Pierre from Child Protective Services, if you're watching this, you failed me.”

A week later (and less than three weeks before the American Idol premiere date), Kellyanne seemed to vengefully tweet a topless picture of Claudia; Claudia later confirmed that the photograph was authentic, but said Kellyanne’s Twitter post had been accidental, saying, “I’m assuming my mom took a picture of it to use against me one day and then somebody hacked her or something” and “I know that my mom would never, ever post anything to hurt me like that intentionally, and I do believe she was hacked.” Claudia said she and her mother would handle the situation privately, and she would "never ever" speak about it to the press.

Claudia Conway gets a message from her mother Kellyanne Conway on 'American Idol.' (Photo: ABC)
Claudia Conway gets a message from her mother Kellyanne Conway on 'American Idol.' (Photo: ABC)

On Sunday, Claudia insisted to the American Idol judges (including Luke Bryan, the one judge who voted not to send her through): “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.” But her Idol appearance seems to have done little to quell the controversy that constantly surrounds her. Controversy certainly makes for buzzy television, so expect Claudia, who's already being aggressively promoted in Season 19 teaser videos, to receive plenty more screentime during Hollywood Week. (In a recent interview with TV Insider, mentor Bobby Bones was asked how much interaction he’d had with Claudia in Hollywood, to which he tersely answered, “A lot, actually. I’m just going to say it was interesting.”)

As for whether Claudia’s Idol participation is a genuine attempt for her to seize control of her narrative and her destiny and launch an exciting "new chapter" in her life, or a troubling case of gross child exploitation for ratings and publicity, remains to be seen. But apparently this… is American Idol in 2021.

Representatives for ABC and Fremantle did not respond to Yahoo Entertainment's request for comment.

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