‘American Idol’ Host Brian Dunkleman Says First Season Was ‘Very Cruel’

Former American Idol co-host Brian Dunkleman is opening up about his experiences on the show.

Dunkleman, 52, was a one-season-wonder, appearing as a co-host on the show’s first season in 2002 with Ryan Seacrest. He quit before season 2 began, but said in a new interview that he’s still rattled by what he witnessed during the audition process.

“You’re spending a lot of time with these kids in the line, and you’re getting to know them, you’re getting to know their parents. There was a stretch for an hour straight where kid after kid came, [and] every one of them was bawling. And I thought, ‘What is going on?’” he recalled of the auditions on the Still Here Hollywood podcast with Steve Kmetko.

He continued, “At one point… I just went and found a corner behind the curtain. I just started crying. I don’t know why it affected me so much. Maybe because I’ve auditioned so many times. I know how it’s not easy. It’s not easy to put yourself out there.”

Brian Dunkleman in 2022.

Michael S. Schwartz/Getty

Dunkleman recalled one contestant in particular, a young girl whose carpenter father had sold his tools in order to get the money to drive her to the audition. The comedian said the girl was “so excited” to audition, but when she came out, her “eyes were dead” and she was “shattered.”

“I just didn’t understand why that was necessary… But it was very, very cruel that first season,” he said. “And that’s kind of what made the show such a hit, was how mean [judge Simon Cowell] was. He was hated. He got death threats in England. He comes here, and everybody loves the guy.”

Dunkleman said that while he didn’t want to “bad mouth anybody,” he felt that the set-up of the show was not kind.

“I don’t believe that you should set kids up to be humiliated like that,” he said. “You’re putting them in front of cameras, and I can hear them [go]. ‘Oh, this girl, she thinks she can actually sing. We’re gonna crush her.’ She’s 16.”

Still, Dunkleman had positive things to say about Cowell, whom he called a “really nice guy” with a “great sense of humor,” as well as his fellow judges Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson.

“I just adore Paula,” he said. “Love Randy. Such a nice guy… That guy is exactly what you see. Just a really, really sweet guy.”

Ryan Seacrest, Kelly Clarkson, Justin Guarini and Brian Dunkleman in 2002.

Kevin Winter/Getty

After Dunkleman walked away, Seacrest continued to host American Idol, which recently wrapped season 22 with judges Luke Bryan, Lionel Richie and Katy Perry.

“People still think I got fired. I didn’t. I wish I would have. It would have been easier,” Dunkleman said on the podcast. “[But] I’m sure I would have [been fired].”

He later left show business in order to raise his son, and has worked as an Uber driver.

Now, though, he’s slowly stepping back into the entertainment world, and said on the podcast that he recently did a pilot for his own show that features his name in the title.

“Life is really, really good. I I know it could be hard for some people to believe, but, for the first time, I really think I’m I’m hitting my stride as a human being. I feel like, this kid has changed my life, stepping away from the business for a while to raise him,” Dunkleman said. “And now stepping back. I really feel like I’m doing my best work and I’m knocking on the door and I think it’s just a matter of time, but I’m really, really enjoying myself right now.”

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