A judge's trial by fire

The "American Idol" personality is largely id-driven: The pleasures the talent show offers are immediate, whether a singer soars or sinks. And the show around the show can yield even more merriment, as it spews out a ceaseless stream of news/gossip generated by the contestants' biographical details, the judges' antics, behind-the-scenes backstabbing that may or may not be fictional and, often least important, discussion of the results of the actual singing competition.

But Kara DioGuardi -- who became the show's fourth judge this season in the most visible manifestation of its much-hyped tweaks -- is all superego. And her weekly critiques, delivered live on Fox before an average audience of 26 million viewers, tend to weigh heavily on her mind.

"It wakes me up at night," DioGuardi said the day after a performance show. "Can you imagine? Last night I woke up in the middle of the night and I thought, 'I've got to look at those performances. Did I clock that one wrong? Why didn't I say that? I could have been more supportive.' "

So as Season 8 draws to a close Wednesday, the question rises: Will the union of DioGuardi, the thriving songwriter, and "American Idol," the only massively popular television show, last?

Before this season, the alchemy of the withering/accurate Simon Cowell, the kindly hysteric Paula Abdul and the axiomatic Randy Jackson worked well enough -- the trio had gelled over the years to become a cartoonish family. But during Season 7, as Cowell looked increasingly bored, as Jackson's pith grew more repetitive ("You worked it out, baby, you worked it out") and as Abdul famously and embarrassingly forgot how many songs a contestant had already performed, one did begin to wonder whether they were even paying attention anymore.

And then there was the matter of the legacy judges' contracts. Abdul's expires after this season, Cowell's runs out after next season and Jackson is booked through 2011.

So whether DioGuardi was brought in to shake things up on the panel (as Fox and "Idol" producers have insisted) or to be a bargaining chip against the other judges, she -- as the new kid -- has been a polarizing figure to the "Idol" audience.

Mike Darnell, Fox's president of alternative entertainment, said, "I think it's very difficult to come into a situation where you have three known family members and you're coming in as the fourth cousin."

As she sat on a comfortable couch in the sunken living room of her tree-sheltered house in the hills above Hollywood, DioGuardi said: "It's a lot to show somebody who I really am. And I feel like a contestant."

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Penning hits

As a songwriter, DioGuardi, 38, specializes in such lady anthems as "Come Clean" (Hilary Duff), "Pieces of Me" (Ashlee Simpson), "Ain't No Other Man" (Christina Aguilera), "Taking Chances" (Celine Dion) and the current Kelly Clarkson hit "I Do Not Hook Up." She had always loved to sing but didn't realize until she was in her 20s that she had the ability to write songs as well.

DioGuardi grew up upper-middle class in New Rochelle, an affluent suburb of New York City. Her father was a Republican congressman and her mother was a homemaker. She had "eating issues," "insecurities" and "was stifled." Because of her privilege, though, she dismissed her dilemmas. "What was my problem?" she said. "It wasn't like I was living on the streets."

She brought a photograph taken when she was 22 over to the couch. It was a posed picture of her with an otherwise all-male band who had hired her to be their lead singer. It was a rock band in which she was doing, she said, "Mariah Carey riffs." Everyone in the photo had big hair.

"I was at least 15 pounds heavier," DioGuardi said, looking at the picture with a pained expression. More important, she said: "There is a huge difference between singing and having a vision for yourself. And I could sing in this picture. But I had no idea -- what to dress like, what to sound like, which songs suited me.

"I really had an identity crisis," she continued. "So when I see these kids who really don't know who they are? I really didn't know who I was!"

By "these kids" DioGuardi meant, of course, the "Idol" contestants she has been evaluating throughout the season. Her commentary has been a mixture of wonky technical advice about the actual singing and riffs about "artistry": whether the "Idol" aspirant is showing who they really are within the strictures of the theme of the night.

Surveys of the Web reveal an intensely divided reaction to her, with many armchair commentators finding her strident and others appreciating her musical expertise. Then there are those who don't care about DioGuardi herself but either are grateful that her presence has snapped the other judges out of their ruts or, conversely, are furious that an outsider has intruded on the original troika.

DioGuardi admitted that she sometimes creeps onto the Internet to check out the punditry. And then she creeps right back out. "I don't like it," she said. "I'm glad that people care that much to hate me. At least they care. But 'hate' is a strong word."

Yes, the "Idol" nation certainly does care -- as we approach the seven-year anniversary of its 2002 debut, the Fox show is less watched than it was at its height but even more dominant when compared with the rest of network television. The scrutiny, therefore, is as intense as ever: In addition to the invisible enemies on computers, there are also the very real paparazzi and gossip press that cover the show's every twitch. Having written songs for and with previous "Idol" contestants, DioGuardi, who lives with her fiance, knew what she was getting into when she said yes to the job offer last August. "It's actually been not as bad as I thought it was going to be in some ways," she said. "I'm just not available. You just don't see me out."

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A surprise move

For a seismic shift in such an important pop culture engine, the search for a fourth judge and DioGuardi's subsequent hiring was kept shockingly quiet. According to Fox's Darnell, it was "Idol" creator Simon Fuller who suggested DioGuardi, and the decision was made together by Fox, 19 Entertainment (Fuller's company) and FremantleMedia (the company that produces the show). "She was the clear choice of the people that we looked at," Darnell said.

From DioGuardi's side, after a single meeting with producers over the summer, she heard nothing more about being a judge until right before filming started for contestant auditions in August. And as soon as she was hired with a one-year contract, she began to fret about being fired -- she feared that her severe stage fright and lack of television experience (though she had previous reality judging experience on another singing competition, the 2006 ABC bomb "The One") would hinder her.

"I could be fired at any time," DioGuardi said she thought to herself as she traveled from city to city shooting the show's first round. "Done. Axed. Probably even during this process."

If DioGuardi does turn out to be a one-season wonder, she would feel it keenly -- even if she were not brought back, for example, because having four judges has proved to be an unwieldy time suck (the show has run over many times this season, once so egregiously that DVR users missed an entire performance by beloved contestant Adam Lambert).

"I'm going to be, like, a dead body on the side of the street," she said. "Whoof. Wow. I'm not looking forward to that headline. That ain't gonna be fun!" Then, after a pause: "To be part of that for even a period of time was an incredible experience. I'll try to take the positive with it." Then: "Oh, my God, when's that headline coming?"

(Darnell's answer: "The fourth judge, if you will, was one of the many changes we made this year. And we're going to spend some time this summer reevaluating.")

Aside from what is looming, she has felt more comfortable as the season has gone on. "Now that I've been doing the show awhile, every time I step into the room now it feels like people are more rooting for me. At the beginning, when it was like, 'Kara!' " -- she made the sound of one unenthusiastic person clapping -- "it was like, 'Oh, my God, get me out of here.' "

DioGuardi is also trying to learn to express herself more briefly, a skill antithetical to her Italian heritage, she said. "It's more the hand motions and the facial expressions. By the time all that's done, you still haven't made your point."

At her home, it became apparent that it comes most naturally to DioGuardi to communicate about singing by singing -- something she assumes wouldn't play well on a live judging panel. (Though in an early episode this season, DioGuardi did upstage the villainous auditioner Katrina Darrell, a.k.a. "Bikini Girl," by showing her how to sing "Vision of Love" and crushing it.)

So the how-to-talk-in-sound-bites learning curve for the once and possibly future judge may yet be steep. But, DioGuardi said, it has also been a fascinating spectacle for her to experience. "You know when they say TV really tells the truth? Sometimes I look at myself and I think, 'God, I'm smiling so much -- I look happy.'

"And when I'm on that show, the energy of the room, the people -- they're rooting for these kids. The vibes on the table are good. It's an energizing, inspiring show. And it overflows onto me. And I forget that I'm scared."

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kate.aurthur@latimes.com

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