There'll be a few changes on the new season of ''American Idol,'' which premieres on Fox Tuesday, Jan. 21, at 8 p.m. There's a new roving correspondent, Kristin Holt, the former Dallas Cowboys cheerleader who was one of last year's top 30 finishers. There's a new ubiquitous product-placement sponsor, AT&T Wireless, whose subscribers can vote via text messaging and bypass the busy signals that can affect ordinary phone voters. And host Ryan Seacrest will be flying solo, without foil Brian Dunkleman. Seacrest sat down with EW.com to assure us he'll be up to the task, and that the competition will be a lot nastier this time around.
How's the talent pool this year?
No question, it's better. There are those who just suck, of course, who aren't talented enough to make it on the finals. But people know, if you are one of the top three, you get a record deal, and you get a fan base. So those who are good are more serious about making it and not just showing up to be on TV.
How do you see this season's contest shaping up musically?
Last year, there were five guys who were all boy-band types. I'd love to see America pick 10 finalists who are very different in look and styles but equal in talent. A real horse race, as opposed to two or three obvious frontrunners. And I'd love to see different styles of music among the guys, not just boy-band types.
How closely does what we see of the judges and contestants on TV resemble what they're like off camera?
The judges are portrayed pretty accurately. The animosity, that's accurate. This season, all three of them have decided to raise the bar to make it more difficult [for the contestants] to get through [to the finals]. As for [last year's winner] Kelly Clarkson, she's as bubbly and charming in person as she is on TV. She talks nonstop. Justin is as showmanlike in person as he was on stage. Tamyra is extremely headstrong and has a very strong passion for show business.
You and Simon are apparently close, since the current issue of People magazine says you vacationed together in Barbados, and he beat you in a jet-ski race.
I won the race! Didn't you see the picture? I was tanner, skinnier, younger, and faster than he was, and he was very upset about that.
Do you miss Dunkleman? Have you heard from him?
I have not seen him since we said goodbye after the last show. He always wanted to be a stand-up comedian, a comedic actor, and this series took him away from focusing on that. So he's doing what he wants to do. I wish him the best. I'm happy to do it alone. I love doing live TV. This is a dream job for a guy like me.
What's up with you and Kathy Griffin? After you ripped open her blouse and showed everyone her bra on the American Music Awards last week, she complained to the press that you ''physically assaulted'' her.
That bit was unscripted. After we did it, she turned to me and said, ''I think we both came off great,'' and that's the last time I talked to her.