Audiences may not have recognized the name or her face, but when Kara DioGuardi became the fourth judge on "American Idol," she was already a big name in the music business. As a singer/songwriter, DioGuardi has penned an impressive catalogue of songs, hundreds of which have the names of big stars attached to them: Christina Aguilera's "Ain't No Other Man," Gwen Stefani's "If I Were a Rich Girl," Pink's "Sober," and the list goes on.
Aside from helping to write more than a few multi-platinum records, DioGuardi is a busy woman. Just a few of the ways she occupies her time include co-owning a music publishing and production company, Arthouse Entertainment, seeking out new talent for as an A&R executive for Warner Brothers, and most recently, she's begun hosting her own Top-40's radio show.
Her busy schedule doesn't seem to be slowing her down by much, and it definitely didn't stop her from taking the gig with "American Idol." She recalls being very enthusiastic at the offer. "It was really exciting but I had no idea what was to come," she said. DioGuardi said that although her role as judge has been incredible, she had a rough time at the start.
"I think America felt like I was there to replace Paula," she said of the much-adored, longtime judge Paula Abdul.
"I'm not really as nurturing," she said, laughing. "That's not my thing." A self-described "typical New Yorker," DioGuardi said that audiences were taken aback by her sugar-free judging style.
She said she made the mistake of reading the comments on Idol message boards, where fans were not shy about their opinions. Many had no idea who she was. "'Where did she come from? Did you just grab her off the street?'" she recalled reading.
DioGuardi said her heart would sink reading the comments. "That was rough," she said. "Because even though I'm tough, there's a sensitive side to me, of course -- I'm a songwriter."
Eventually, she learned to quit minding the chatter. "I had to stop. So I think it's gotten better this year. People have reconsidered me."
Added to that, she said, was the pressure of joining the long-established comedic trio of her fellow judges -- Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Abdul -- and trying to make her own place with them and with host Ryan Seacrest. "It just felt like I had moved to a new high school," she said.
'Not as sweet as Paula'
This year she has settled into her role as the provider of constructive criticism. She's not as sweet as Abdul, but definitely not as scathing as Cowell, who has announced he won't be returning next season.
When pressed, DioGuardi said she thought Harry Connick Jr., who'd spent time on the show as a celebrity mentor, might prove to be a worthy replacement for Cowell. "The way that he worked with the contestants, he really cared about them," she said, adding that Connick was nurturing and provided good advice to contestants.
"I thought he was really, really great," she said.
DioGuardi grew up in suburban New York. Her mother was a homemaker, while her father was a politician. Both parents recognized early that their daughter had talent, a fact that DioGuardi is almost painfully aware of today.
"My dad went and got all the videos from the basement and put them online, and I almost died when I saw them," she said. "I'm like, 'Daddy! I have braces and my hair is wing-backed!'"
In at least one video, DioGuardi is seen belting out "Hello, Dolly." She admitted to being a big fan of show tunes. "I used to sing 'Getting to Know You' to my grandfather," she said. "I mean, that's what I heard on Sundays -- Frank Sinatra, all the show tunes. That's what my parents loved. When rock music came on, I was, 'Shut that off, be quiet.'"
DioGuardi's early opinions on rock music may seem ironic, considering where her career has taken her since.
Before she began writing music, DioGuardi studied opera at Duke University -- for about a minute. "I was accepted, went there, went to one class and was like, 'No way. There's no way I'm doing that,'" she said, laughing.
She remembered thinking the Opera style wasn't a good fit. "It was just so bottled up and disciplined and 'Breathe like this, and sing like this, and act like this,'" she said. "It wasn't for me."
But it did help DioGuardi recognize what she did want. "When I graduated, I wanted to be an artist, and no one would give me their songs, and THAT'S when I became a songwriter," she said.
DioGuardi: Discovering her 'truth'
DioGuardi said the most important part of being a songwriter is being able to write about one's experiences, what she calls her "truth."
"I had to really start looking at that and be honest, and experience what I was feeling for the first time and really put it down on paper, she said.
As a recording artist, DioGuardi was signed for a brief time, but it didn't last long. She said at first the rejection was a hit to her self-esteem, and she worried something was wrong with her. "I just had no sense of who I was as an artist," she said. She could switch easily between pop, R&B, rock, or other music genres -- but it left her with no concept of who she was as an artist.
"I don't even know that I do now," she said, "I just know who I am as a person. There's a big difference."
A defining time for DioGuardi was during the seven-year battle her mother endured with ovarian cancer. She died when DioGuardi was 26. Although it was an emotional time for DioGuardi, the experience is one she draws on when writing emotionally-driven songs, like "Mama's Song" with Carrie Underwood or Pink's "Sober."
"It's all about what their truth is and what my truth is. For instance, half the time I don't even know them. We sit down, 'Hey nice to meet you,' I start asking questions: where are you from? What's your relationship like with your parents? Do you have a boyfriend? Have you had your heart broken?" And the more they talk the more I say, 'I totally understand that, I completely understand that.'"
"Sometimes it's uncomfortable because I'll see them out and we had this really revealing moment where they may have cried or said something they've never said before," she said, but DioGuardi knows that those are the types of experiences that produce great songs. She said that writing often leaves her vulnerable as well, but it's worth it.
"Why do that if you're not going to get right to that moment?" she said. "I feel like I'm always risking a part of myself when I get in that room, too, because I may reveal something and they may be like 'Oh God,' she said, laughing.
Songs She Hasn't Written
One subject she has not yet touched on is her new husband, Michael McCuddy, a former teacher who now works as a contractor and artist. But he says he's more than okay with that.
"Her songs are usually about a guy being a jerk," he said, laughing.
"He's very happy I don't write songs about him," she said.
The pair seemed very satisfied with their relationship. DioGuardi said, "He's just so genuine and good and honest and supportive and not freaked out, not jealous, he doesn't compete with me. He's just so understanding and loving. I just smile when I think of him," she said, smiling as she spoke. "He's just the best."
The couple wed in July 2009, and these days they are renovating their home in Los Angeles.
DioGuardi credits her husband, and her experience with "American Idol," for giving her the confidence to overcome her stage fright and perform her own songs. DioGuardi said she's enjoying the performances, where she will play some of her well-known tracks.
"I tell the story of how they were written," she said.
Often she'll discuss certain obstacles they overcame in writing the song or perhaps some of the backstory on how the song came about. "And then I sing the song acoustically. And then there's a 15 minute Q&A period: 'Is Simon really that mean?' 'Does Randy really say "dawg" that much?' 'What's it like with Ellen?' she said, laughing.
"You know, that kind of stuff, it's really fun," she said.