Eight years ago, Ryan Seacrest was the frosted-tipped co-host of "American Idol," sharing the stage with a comedian-turned-punchline named Brian Dunkleman. Eight seasons and a $45 million contract later, Seacrest has gone from sideshow act to ringmaster -- carrying the show for better or worse, depending on who you ask.
Seacrest, 35, raised eyebrows across America -- and prompted OMG's from the blogosphere -- with his bizarre behavior during last week's Elvis performance show, in which he told Adam Lambert, "My tongue's not as talented as yours," rudely waltzed with an audience member during Tim Urban's performance and jokingly announced Dunkleman would host this week's "Idol Gives Back" charity bonanza.
In the wake of those antics, which led Entertainment Weekly to declare that Seacrest had "lost his everloving mind," comes another blow to his squeaky-clean image. In a call to the "Big Ken and Coleen in the Morning" radio show in Des Moines, Iowa, ousted season-nine contestant Katelyn Epperley debunked an E! report hailing Seacrest as the "Superman" who convinced "Idol's" dreadlocked front-runner, Crystal Bowersox, not to quit the show because she missed her young son.
Epperley told the radio show that after she texted her friend Bowersox about her reported crisis, Bowersox responded with a text of her own, saying, "I'm fine…betrayed by Seacrest!"
Confirming a TMZ.com story, E! said last week that Seacrest counseled the single mom in the "Idol" parking lot because she felt homesick and struggled with the stress of the "Idol" juggernaut. According to E!, where Seacrest serves as on-air personality and managing editor, he "talked her down" with pearls of wisdom about fame and wealth.
"The greatest thing I ever did was make enough money so I could buy my mom a house," E! said Seacrest told Bowersox. "You can buy your mom a house."
As the radio hosts guffawed Monday, Epperley downplayed the drama.
"[Bowersox] apparently just had a moment backstage where she was just missing her kid... she really wanted to see her little boy and sometimes it really gets to her," Epperley said. "I think she probably just had a moment and they made it to be something that it wasn't...I bet Crystal's, like, shaking her head."
Bowersox ultimately stayed, saying on the "Idol" fan Facebook page: "We all have moments of doubt. As much as I miss my kid, the big picture is this: I'm doing this for him and my fans."
"Mama Sox" is likely to blow viewers away this week with an inspirational song of her choice, but whether or not Seacrest is a hero remains to be seen. Some seasoned "Idol" buffs say Seacrest's recent outlandish behavior is a sign he's making a play for the spotlight that outgoing judge Simon Cowell will leave behind.
"A lot of users on our site said they have noticed an ego battle between Simon and Ryan," TVGuide.com Senior Editor Adam Bryant told ABCNews.com. "Maybe Ryan's ego is getting the best of him and he's trying to be the center of attention."
Jimmy Kimmel has mocked Seacrest's wacky behavior on his late-night ABC show, and an Orlando Sentinel recap said Seacrest "was making Paula Abdul seem like a bright shining light of intelligence."
Mary Jo Santilli, the blogger behind the popular "Idol" fan site, MJ's Big Blog, said she sees a change in Seacrest that goes beyond his bizarre behavior last week.
"It's been going on for a while now... he's becoming more aggressive and weird," she told ABCNews.com. "He's aggressive with Simon and he's badgering the contestants, really pressing them to reveal personal details. Last week was really the pinnacle of his odd behavior."
Santilli described what she called Seacrest's pressing of season-nine's Didi Benami, who broke down after singing what turned out to be her swan song, "What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted," in honor of a friend who died. And she said Seacrest's touting of his intervention with Bowersox could put her frontrunner status in jeopardy.
"It made her look sort of shaky," Santilli said. "On "Idol," you have to look grateful -- always -- or the viewers will turn against you."
While Seacrest's recent antics have certainly sparked debate among the "Idol" faithful, insiders point out that Seacrest, like Bowersox, may be buckling under the pressure of being the hardest-working man in Hollywood. "Idol" is a night gig for Seacrest, who also hosts a morning radio show, helms the E! News operation and manages his own production company.
Entertainment Weekly staff writer Adam Vary attended last week's performance show, and while he acknowledged Seacrest's behavior was out of character for the usual "consummate professional," he said Seacrest copped to sleep deprivation in a pre-show chat with contestant Katie Stevens, who was voted out last week.
"Katie said she asked him what was up and he said he was incredibly tired and was trying to fool himself into believing he was awake," Vary told ABCNews.com. "He was running on no sleep and lots of caffeine."
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times last week, Seacrest responded to the critcism of his behavior by saying he is always "unscripted" and acknowledging that some of his wacky behavior may be a function of his grueling schedule.
"Often, I will playfully do things to amp up the energy for the live show, because it's at the end of my long day," Seacrest said.
Seacrest, who is also an "Idol" producer, may also be trying to spice up what is widely considered to be a lackluster season with a dearth of Adam Lambert-like star singers.
"A lot of people say this season is a snoozefest and there's not a lot of reasons to tune in. Ryan's behavior makes the show a little more unexpected and fun," Vary said. "He has an ability to just go for it on live television and create those little 'moments.'"
And making those magic television moments may include pumping the wide-eyed "Idol" contestants for juicy personal tidbits.
"Those details are what keeps viewers invested and attached, so if he has to push a little bit, I sympathize with that. It's his job" Us Weekly staff writer Eric Andersson told ABCNews.com. "I'd chalk it up to him trying to mix things up and create a little fun."
E! declined ABC News' request for comment for this story, with a rep saying, "Since Ryan is E!'s biggest personalities (sic) I would never participate in this story. Apologies."
Several bloggers predict Seacrest could have a sit-down chat with Bowersox before she sings Tuesday night on Fox, when the theme will be inspirational songs ahead of Wednesday's "Idol Gives Back"two-hour special. Sir Elton John, Alicia Keys, Carrie Underwood, The Black Eyed Peas, Annie Lennox, Jeff Beck & Joss Stone and Mary J. Blige & the All-Star Band will perform.
President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama have reportedly taped a brief segment for the show, which will benefit charities including the Children's Health Fund, Feeding America, and the United Nations Foundation.