Paula Abdul, Ju'Not Joyner Spotlight Ugly Side of 'American Idol'

Former contestants, judges, employees say "Idol" experience isn't all it seems.

Aug. 6, 2009 — -- It entertains millions of viewers a week, creates water cooler fodder after every episode and manages to shift the majority of the country to the edge of its proverbial seat the night before each season finale.

But for some of the show's contestants, judges and staff, the "American Idol" experience is something else entirely, and it's not always pleasant. At times, they claim, the reality competition can be unfair and manipulative, grueling and deceitful.

Now, they're ditching "American Idol" and coming clean.

Paula Abdul bid adieu to "Idol" this week after her manager called the show "rude and disrespectful" for not offering her a formal proposal for a season nine contract. Abdul had served as a judge on the Fox reality competition since it began in 2002. The New York Times reported that "Idol" offered her a 30 percent raise and a total multi-year deal worth more than $10 million to stay. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Abdul wanted $20 million.

"I'll miss nurturing all the new talent, but most of all being a part of a show that I helped from day one become an international phenomenon," Abdul announced on her Twitter feed Tuesday. She declined to elaborate on why she left the show, as did Fox and the show's producers, FremantleMedia North America and 19 Entertainment.

Ju'Not Joyner, a top 20 finalist from "Idol's" past season, hasn't been as tight-lipped. During a Web chat with "Idol" fans last week, Joyner called the competition rigged and claimed the show's producers try to manipulate contestants.

"It's fixed. It's manipulated," Joyner told afterward, saying that "Idol" spotlights certain contestants producers feel will resonate with the audience and, literally, keeps others in the shadows. "It's scripted; it's not a talent competition. They show you who they want to show, and that's just what it is. They have some people, when they get on stage, lights come out that you didn't even know existed."

'American Idol' Contestants: Judgment Happens Off-Air, Too

But it's not just the favoritism that got to Joyner. He resents "Idol" for making the top 36 contestants rush to sign legal documents, including non-disclosure and compensation forms, and penalizing those who asked questions -- himself included.

"There wasn't even an opportunity for me to review what I signed," Joyner said. "The day we saw the contract, we had to sign the contract. We had to collectively vote on a lawyer out of a selection of three attorneys they presented us -- it was ridiculous."

When Joyner tried to negotiate for more money and asked if his own lawyer could review the contracts, the show's executive producer, Ken Warwick, shot him down.

"He pulled me in his office and said, 'You're not going to ruin my show.' He wouldn't let me say anything. I felt like a child," Joyner said.

Representatives for "American Idol" declined to comment for this story. But Joyner's far from the first contestant to express grievances about "Idol" that go beyond classification as sour grapes. Season two runner-up Clay Aiken and season seven finalist David Hernandez both criticized "Idol's" structure and judging process long after they left its stage.

Season five contestant Ayla Brown told that behind-the-scenes judgment can sometimes influence a singer's fate more than on-air evaluations or audience votes.

"The way they portrayed me on the show was that I'm the daughter of a state senator and a news reporter and I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. I came off as this stuck up northeastern b***h," Brown said.

That changed when executive producers Warwick and Nigel Lythgoe actually listened to Brown sing.

"A few weeks in, when I was rehearsing, Ken and Nigel came in and said, 'You know, we knew you were pretty but we really didn't know you could sing this well,'" Brown said. "It made me think that I was on the show, and some people are put on the show, just to get ratings."

Does 'American Idol' Go Too Far for Ratings?

It's no secret that reality TV, like all TV, is ratings driven. But what shocked Brown, other "Idol" hopefuls and those who worked for the show is its ruthless pursuit to woo viewers, even if it means manipulating them and the contestants.

"The show uses the back stories to help bring contestants who they want to go further in the show to the front of the public, the public's eye, so the public has sympathy for them and they will vote them into the top 24 or the top 12, or the top 3 and ultimately the winner," said Justin Buckles, a former "American Idol" production coordinator and author of "Stage 46: The Reality of Reality Television," a novel based on his four-year-long "Idol" experience. "I think they use the back story to manipulate the public, no question about that in my mind."

Buckles also has personal reasons to speak out against "Idol." He claimed the show exploits its staff and subjects employees to sub-par working conditions. Buckles said that at one point, he worked seven days a week for four months straight, earning a flat rate that amounted to approximately $4.50 an hour after taxes.

"It is slave labor and I am not afraid to say it," he said.

But ultimately, for these contestants, and surely for Buckles and Abdul, "American Idol" provided a platform. They agree that while things were not as glamorous behind the curtain as audiences might believe, they wouldn't be where they are today without the show.

"Maybe there is a possibility that it is rigged. Maybe," mused Brown. "But I'm in a place in my life right now where I don't care. I get hired to sing, I've recorded three albums ... I'm living a life that I can't complain about."

Additional reporting contributed by ABC News' Laura Coverson.