Brian M. Raftery
June 14, 2002 AT 04:00 AM EDT

AMERICAN IDOL: THE SEARCH FOR A SUPERSTAR Fox, premieres June 11, 8:30 p.m.

Lately, Paula Abdul has been forced to tell it straight up. And it hasn’t always been fun. As one of three judges for Fox’s talent showdown American Idol, Abdul crisscrossed the country for almost a month, watching as hundreds of wannabe Britneys and Justins took the stage in hopes of landing prime-time exposure — and a recording contract. Then she told just about all of them to go home.

”No one is entitled to crush dreams,” she says, her voice cracking from the stress. ”But it’s our job to be honest.”

And if a little brutal honesty here and there yields the kind of gawkward viewing that made American’s U.K. forerunner — the ratings record-breaker Pop Idol — an unexpected phenomenon, so be it. Its success could help Fox lay claim to the biggest British pop-music import since…well, at least since the Spice Girls.

Unlike previous behind-the-music matchups, Idol allows viewers the chance to pick which contestants deserve the Top 40 glory. By the end of the show’s two-part premiere, Abdul and her two cojudges — music producer Randy Jackson and U.K. head of A&R at BMG Records Simon Cowell — will have whittled down the competition from thousands of applicants to 30 heart-on-their-sleeve hopefuls. For the next three weeks, the public decides — voting via a toll-free number — who should stay in the running. The contest culminates in a weeklong PR crusade of personal appearances and on-air appeals waged by the final two contestants. ”It becomes like a presidential campaign,” notes exec producer Nigel Lythgoe. ”Only with a bit more talent.”

Specifically, the kind of talent one wouldn’t find in O-Town. While Popstars and Making the Band churned out demographically pleasing pop combos, Idol is looking for a solo act — and one with a grasp of the classics. On Feb. 11, the current British champ, Will Young, 23, had the fastest-selling debut single in British history — take that, Beatles! — not by ‘ncorporating an ‘N Sync-like style but by recording the Milquetoast Streisand staple ”Evergreen.” (Three weeks later, he was knocked out of the top spot by the show’s runner-up, Gareth Gates, 17, who covered the Righteous Brothers’ ”Unchained Melody.”)

Aside from a knowledge of old-school songsmanship, Abdul and her cohorts are looking for that ”undeniable, undefinable ‘X factor,”’ she says. ”From the moment that they walk on stage, their presence [should be] compelling and they [should] have an air of confidence. Then you just hope and pray that when they open their mouth, that confidence matches their talent.”

If they don’t have the goods, contestants may need Prozac and a therapist waiting for them off stage. Part of Idol’s overseas success was thanks to the blunt on-camera assessments and dismissals dispensed by Cowell — or, as he’s known across the pond, ”Nasty Simon.” During his Stateside trip, ”he actually said to somebody, ‘You’re too fat,”’ says Lythgoe. ”And the American crew nearly passed out. We’re much tougher than any other talent show has been in the U.S.” Don’t worry — we think America can handle another British invasion. Just leave All Saints at home this time, okay?

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