'Idol' Talent Not as Amateur as Fans Thought

Is TV's "American Idol" becoming a slick way to promote wannabe stars with previous experience in the music industry rather than a showcase for raw, undiscovered talent?

This question is being asked after it was revealed that prior to appearing on the show, some contestants have been signed to million-dollar deals by record companies. As first reported by New York Magazine, several of this season's "Idol" hopefuls are less amateur than the show would lead viewers to believe -- and may actually be some of the most seasoned contestants the competition has ever seen.

One in particular, Irish singer Carly Hennessy, has an impressive music resume. Her album can be bought online or at record stores.

Hennessy, now 24 and set to appear on upcoming "Idol" shows, released "Ultimate High" in 2001, and despite a more than $2 million budget from MCA Records, the label that signed her at the time, managed to sell only a few hundred copies of her CD, according to Phil Gallo, a music critic at Variety.

"[Hennessy] was certainly someone who went through the process," said Gallo, who defined a professional to ABCNEWS.com as someone who has been signed to a recording deal in the past, and not necessarily someone who has been paid to perform music. "She made the album, she was signed, she was groomed."

And Kristy Lee Cook, who introduced herself on the show as a horse lover who lives in a log cabin in Oregon, may not be as green as the show's producers would like viewers to believe. Cook signed a songwriter-affiliation deal with record company BMI in 2001, according to the label's Web site.

While Fox declined to comment directly regarding the rules about contestants who have professional experience appearing on the show, a representative from the network pointed ABCNEWS.com to a section on "Idol's" Web site.

"I've noticed that several contestants have professional music experience, including TV appearances and on Broadway, I thought you were only looking for amateur performers?" asked a question in the FAQs section of "Idol's" site.

The answer reads, "In order to be eligible, the contestants are not permitted to have any CURRENT recording or talent management agreements."

But whether die-hard fans of the show -- many of whom blog their opinions on each "Idol" wannabe and exchange thoughts on the contestants' prospects -- will steer clear of the program is unclear.

Several "Idol" idolizers told ABCNEWS.com that they were turned off by the show's secretiveness about contestants' previous experience.

Industry Experience on the 'Idol' Stage

"I think it ruins the show," said Maura Johnston, editor of the music-centric blog Idolator. "I think ["Idol"] should be more honest about their professional backgrounds. I think it's treading too closely to the line that they're trying to fool the viewer into thinking these people have real back stories and are totally new to the business."

Johnston did understand the motivation for putting more seasoned performers on the show, especially after several seasons that produced only semi-successful stars.

"I think the producers have had some failures in the past -- like Taylor Hicks and Ruben Studdard -- and some other "Idol" albums that haven't done well," said Johnston. "They're trying to go for the kind of people who have experience in the business and who have been seen as having star potential by other executives. It's not a sure thing, but it's a little bit more of a sure thing."

This new season, which debuted on Tuesday, is down 10 percent as compared to the same time last season, according to Nielsen Media Research, but industry experts told ABCNEWS.com that in years past viewership has increased once the "real" competition starts and the auditions are over.

"I think if they made it clear that these people had professional opportunities, but it didn't work out for them," viewers wouldn't be so angry, said Johnston, who said she considered anyone who has been signed to a label a "professional." "I mean it's America. People like second chances, they don't like being lied to."

Idol fan and Chicagoan Becca Leftwich, 22, said that she's watched almost all the "Idol' seasons and was unhappy to hear that some of the talent this season isn't as "real" as the show makes it seem.

"I'd like to think that if I were to go on the show, I'd have the same opportunity as these people -- that I'd have a real chance," Leftwich told ABCNEWS.com. "I thought everyone was right off the street."

"I think the show is really entertaining regardless, which is what it's meant to be, so it doesn't change my feelings about watching it," said Leftwich. "But I do think it's kind of weird they'd have pre-signed people on the show."

And while she isn't pleased about the extent of experience some of the contestants reportedly have, Leftwich said she'll keep watching as long as the talented contestants remain fairly unknown, and no mainstream (and recognizable) performers appear onstage in the coming weeks.

Boston-area "Idol" fan and blogger MJ Santilli told ABCNEWS.com that she actually enjoys watching the contestants who have more experience.

"I think those contestants can be pretty entertaining -- more so than those who end up onstage looking like a deer in the headlights," said Santilli.

Santilli said she wasn't angry when she found out about hopefuls like Hennessey, "and it actually cracked me up -- she seemed pretty ordinary," said Santilli. "After all the buzz, she didn't seem like a big deal."

"They build people up, and oftentimes they're not that great," Santilli said.