One Sunday evening in 2003, Channel Ten aired its first ever episode of Australian Idol. Uniting an entire country behind one dubious premise—that of unfamous strangers singing Christina Aguilera songs on national television while being taunted by a nasty man with a British accent—the show was an immediate hit. And its formula still works well today, albeit in the updated format of The Voice. All these years later, people are still making memes about it.
It's not a stretch to trace the success of every current Australian reality show (from Masterchef to Married at First Sight) back to Idol, and the success of Idol back to shows like Young Talent Time and Countdown. Fact is, Australia loves a talent contest. The talent, be it cooking or singing or dating or dancing or modelling, is irrelevant. But why exactly did Idol resonate so hard? One of the iconic trio of original judges, Mark Holden—the kinder, dorkier counterpart to Dicko—has a surprisingly woke theory.
"The beautiful thing about Australian Idol and where it separated itself from the past, was in the 1960s and 1970s and 1980s and 1990s there was this record business in Australia that was essentially run by white males," he tells me. "And those white males tended to sign white males."
Idol and the shows it has since inspired, Holden argues, subvert this model completely. "In 2003, almost 100 percent of record contracts were given out to white people. And probably 75 percent of them were male. But there were no Chinese women, there were no Indian women, there weren't many Aboriginal women—one or two maybe, like Ruby Hunter. And when Idol started, people turned up and lined up and the majority got a crack. And the Australian public chose a Malaysian Australian, Guy Sebastian. Right from day one. Then they chose Casey Donovan. Then they chose Jessica Mauboy."
It's a nice theory, and a convincing one. Although I can't help but recall things just a little differently. One of my most distinct memories of Australian Idol's incredibly popular first season is talking about it on the school bus each Monday morning. There was this one girl a couple of years above me who was adamant that Guy Sebastian was only winning over the public vote because "everyone likes his afro". We all vehemently agreed that Sebastian's hair was unfairly distracting from the show's true talent—our ultimate crush, certified white dude Rob Mills. This was a popular sentiment among tween girls at the time.
Still, Millsy only came fifth. And you can't say Idol didn't democratise the music industry or make a whole bunch of extremely unlikely people overnight stars. There are plenty of names from those iconoclastic first few seasons that retain novelty value, if not music industry currency, more than a decade later: Shannon Noll, Cosima de Vito, Paulini, Ricki-Lee, Anthony Callea, Lee Harding, Courtney Act, Matt Corby, Lisa Mitchell, Damien Leith, Wes Carr. The show's original co-host with James Matheson, Andrew G, now hosts The Bachelor as Osher Gunsberg.
The judges experienced fame and notoriety, too. "One day we were walking down the street and no one knew who we were, the next day everyone knew," says Holden.
Holden was handpicked for the Idol judge's panel due to his songwriting past—throughout the 1970s and 1980s, he enjoyed success as a pop star and later as a Los Angeles R&B hitmaker. He got his start making regular appearances on another extremely successful Australian music show, Countdown, and later went on to craft hits for the likes of Vanessa Amorosi. And produce an album for some personal primary school favourites of mine, Joel Turner and the Modern Day Poets. By the way, he's now left the industry for good and become a successful barrister.
"The formula for Idol was Simon Cowell the record executive, which on our show was Dicko, then Marcia was Paula Abdul, and I was Randy Jackson," he recalls with fondness. But although Holden appears to have nothing but happy nostalgia for his time on the show, his time on the judging panel was fraught. While Marcia acted as a serene, above-the-fray presence, the other two judges were fierce and sometimes dirty rivals who got along poorly on and offscreen.
The Dicko-Holden tension was part of what made Idol so good, but also led to its downfall. Dicko left the show two seasons in, only to return in 2007 under the proviso that Mark be replaced. The show's ratings spiralled downwards, and never recovered. "He never really understood that together, we were stronger than we were as individuals," Holden muses. "That the two of us working together, we really had something quite significant and magical. You can't manufacture that."
Holden says that Australia's reality TV producers learned some profound lessons from the dramatic demise of Idol. " Masterchef for example has kept the same judging team," he says. They've learned from our mistakes. The attitude during Idol was that if ratings dropped, they'd change the formula. They think smarter now, less impulsively."
What's nice about talking to Holden is his sincere enthusiasm for Idol. He clearly loved discovering and nurturing talent—his earnestness on the show was a little irritating sometimes, but it was never fake. "I love musicians and singers and songwriters. You've got to have a calling, because often you don't make much money from it," he says. "There are people who devote their life to that, and I love those people. I love music. I love anything to do with music, and people who put their lives on the line for music, I love that. So in that sense it was beautiful. You might see 500 people in a day, but among those would be a Guy Sebastian or a Shannon Noll."
It was that sense of professionalism which elevated Idol from cringeworthy hate-watch reality show to heartwarming viewing. The most memorable and fun part of each season was the audition episodes, which saw Holden, Dicko, and Marcia travel state to state and sit through some mesmerisingly bad renditions of Robbie Williams songs. Holden enjoyed it all. "It was beautiful to see people bare their souls in the most intimate way one after another, showing you the best of what they think they are. It's that opportunity to mentor combined with a kind of improvisational comedy. Sometimes you give real advice, sometimes you want to just riff—somebody will do something wacky and you'll turn it into a bit of television improv."
The most memorable piece of improv, and one that came to define Holden's time on the show, was the touchdown. "That remains one of my happiest memories," he explains. "In American football they have something called the touchdown, which is where I got it from. People loved it, and it became a kind of a currency. People were determining how well they did by whether they got a touchdown, and if they did—how many touchdowns. I think in the end maybe Damien Leith got the most. I still get asked to do it, but there has to be a reason, I can't just do it without a reason."
set a precedent for a new kind of reality TV show—one that wasn't a low-cost alternative to scripted television. One that provided both spectacle and integrity. "Idol had really brilliant editors and producers and lighting people and make up people and the team around it—I've seen what the BBC is like with Top of the Pops, and I've been on America's Got Talent, and what we did on Australian Idol in a production sense was equal to any of it. Everybody that was involved was at the top of their game," says Holden.
As our interview draws to a close, I can't help but cram in some Idol fan-related questions. Does he find the Shannon Noll versus Guy Sebastian memes funny? "I love all that nostalgia, it's a good nostalgia." Why did Cosima leave? "With Cosima, the exposure stressed her out. Whereas with Guy, the energy of something like Australian Idol fuelled him." Does he keep in touch with the pop wannabes he mentored? "I was just texting back and forth with Paulini last week, she wanted a touchdown and so I sent her a touchdown. I've spoken to Damien many times, of course I see Guy around the place. I've followed Matt Corby's music."
And most importantly, with an American Idol reboot in the works, does Holden see Australian Idol returning to our screens anytime soon? "Maybe it could, I don't know. I don't understand why they aren't repackaging it again to show the best bits. I think people would love to see Guy's performances again."
Channel Ten, are you reading this?
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'My Idol Years', Mark's memoir about his career and time on the show, is out now.