Talking with Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, Harry Connick Jr. at Atlanta 'American Idol' auditions

Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr. cut up in front of me at the "American Idol" Atlanta auditions Sept. 13, 2015. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/
Jennifer Lopez at the "American Idol" auditions Atlanta. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/

By RODNEY HO/, originally filed Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The very last Atlanta "American Idol" auditions at the W Midtown  this past weekend with the judges felt a bit like it did in the early seasons, when the vibe was casual and guards weren't in my face. But in some ways, it was clear the end was near, as if everyone was prepping for the final days of summer camp.

And personally, given how much "Idol" has meant to me and where I am today professionally, I felt more emotional than I expected, my body rife with nostalgia. I traded stories of the early days with publicist Jill Hudson and producer Patrick Lynn, both of whom have been with the show since the beginning. Lynn

"Idol" has held cattle-call auditions in Atlanta six times (seasons 1 to 3, 7, 9 and 13) and the judges have now come here seven times. For this 15th and final season, the producers held the first round auditions in Savannah (with a bus stop in Athens) but chose to bring the judges here, which was probably much easy logistically for the celebrity judges Jennifer Lopez, Harry Connick Jr. and Keith Urban.

For seasons two and three auditions, I was able to enter the cattle car room and see some early round auditions. At Callanwolde Arts Center season two, I got to hang out with Randy Jackson and Simon Cowell and watch the judge auditions in the room. Season three, I was able to gab with Paula Abdul, enter the judges room during a break and take a (blurry) picture of myself in there.

By season seven, Idol" was such a massive affair, I had very little access and actually snuck into the Georgia Dome just to watch from afar. That year, I wasn't even invited to the judges' rounds near the airport and by the time I got there, they had already left. During season 9, I was kicked out of the W Hotel and had to take photos from the sidewalk. But by the time season 13 rolled around at Gwinnett Arena, the media crunch had shrunken to a manageable size and we were given access to the judges at the W in 2013.

For this final run, I was able to watch the opening auditions in Athens during the bus tour without any interference and even talked to contestants who made it past the first round at will. And for the judges' round this past Sunday, the only media outlets who were able to come were Fox 5's Paul Milliken and me. It was a very short media line.

This was my first time ever talking to Lopez. I missed her on the red carpet in 2013. She was stunning but did ask the publicist to ensure the lighting was okay for my video interview. (Of course it was!)

"I only signed on to do one [season] but I love the show so much," she said, "and really enjoyed the journey and the experience and have stayed around. It's been a great part of my life and career."

She said she feels sad that it's departing. "I'm very grateful I can be part of this groundbreaking show," she said.

When I caught up with Harry Connick Jr., Keith Urban butted in at one point just for the heck of it. And jokingly, Connick Jr. proclaimed their pending nuptials. "We are in Atlanta," Keith said, apropos of nothing. I then made some joke that at least we're not in Kentucky. That made Keith laugh. I can't complain about that.

All three judges said they are trying not to change their criteria because it's the final year and being extra generous. "I think of it as this year and the people I put through are going to be ready for sure," said Harry, who has cut back on picking folks on potential, a mistake he felt he made season 13.

Keith said he felt "bittersweet" about the impending end. "It's pop culture," he said. "I'm grateful to have been part of it."

My only disappointment? Host and Dunwoody native Ryan Seacrest was not there! For reasons I have not been able to ascertain, the producers decided to drop Seacrest from the audition cities. Guests such as Ruben Studdard (Savannah), Clay Aiken (Philadelphia) and Kris Allen (Little Rock) have stopped by instead.

Philadelphia was a disappointing city for the judges. Little Rock was a relative gold mine. And Atlanta, on its second day, appeared to be doing well. The South in generally rarely disappoints. Of the 10 people I saw exit the judges' room, eight of them made it through. That's impressive. Without Seacrest there to greet them, the singers and their family and friends had to answer questions and cheer in front of cameras and producers minus a host. It's not quite the same.

Here are two of the contestants before they entered the judges' room. I didn't catch their names.
American Idol flags
One contestant was featured "arriving" at the W Midtown on his motorcycle. Cameras captured the "spontaneous" moment. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/
Producer Patrick Lynn (left) has been helping to cast "Idol" all 15 seasons. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/
As you can see, the media line on the right would be pretty low key in a few minutes on a pleasantly quiet Sunday morning. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/
The door leading into the judge's room. I should have asked to go in there before the judges arrived! Based on early previews, they have big photos of many of the biggest stars including Kelly Clarkson and Daughtry. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/
Closeup of a credential

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About the Author

Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho
Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.