Kara DioGuardi clearly remembers her initial reaction when the producers of American Idol asked her to appear on last season’s final episode wearing only a bikini. “I said no!” recalls DioGuardi ‘93, one of the four judges on the TV talent-show phenomenon. “Take my clothes off in front of 30 million people? What are you, nuts?” As anyone who watches the show knows, she did end up baring almost all, a move that was cheered as brave by some and derided as desperate by others. But DioGuardi has a quick explanation for why she did it: “They gave money to my favorite charity.”
That’s DioGuardi in a nutshell: practical, no nonsense, and willing to do what it takes to get what she wants—even if it means sparking criticism. It’s a combination of attributes that has served her well throughout her wide-ranging career in the entertainment industry, in roles as various as television personality, record-label executive, and songwriter. In fact, though her Idol role has gained her international fame, it’s her songwriting skills that have earned her the most music-industry renown. “She’s written a ton of great pop music,” says last season’s Idol runner-up, Adam Lambert. “I think she’s got a real talent for hooks and concepts. She finds ways to make even the most generic things non-generic. There’s a stamp of originality that she puts on them.”
The daughter of former U.S. Congressman Joseph J. DioGuardi (R, N.Y.) and his wife, Shirley DioGuardi, a homemaker, Kara decided on Duke after her best friend, Anne Dowling ‘92, was accepted early. “The thought of us going to school there was very appealing,” says DioGuardi, who was raised in New York’s Westchester County. “We’d be a team.”
Once in Durham, she quickly experienced culture shock. “I remember the first night, we went out to dinner with these Southern boys,” recalls DioGuardi, who’s now married to contractor Mike McCuddy. “I went to the bathroom, and when I came back, the guy was standing up and holding out my chair. I’d never experienced that in my life, coming from New York. There was this whole other culture. I was like, ‘Wow, this is chivalry!’ “
Other aspects of her time in Durham left her less enthusiastic. Although she figures her interest in opera singing helped her gain admission to Duke, she soon realized that formal musical training didn’t suit her style. “It was strict, strict singing,” she says, sitting in the living room of her house on a winding road in the Hollywood hills. “They wanted to change my natural breathing, my natural tone. I was like, ‘Whoa, no way.’ Part of what’s made me a really good writer is that I don’t know enough about the actual theory behind music. I just know what I feel.”
After declaring a major in political science, she turned her attention to excelling in her classes and planned to enroll in law school. Then, during her junior year, she decided to move back home for a semester to confront an eating disorder and tend to her mother, who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer (she died in 1997). “It was such a rough time for me,” DioGuardi says now. “I was definitely feeling like an outsider. I was trying to be a person I wasn’t. But would I go back [to college] and not go to Duke? No, because Duke was a really important part of my process. It made me really take a good look at myself and say, ‘This isn’t really what I want to do, and I don’t really belong with this type of group.’ “
Near the end of her time at Duke, however, DioGuardi began singing with a local band (“We rehearsed out on that little street where Bruegger’s is”). After graduating, she moved back in with her parents, joined a grunge band called Gramma Trips, and earned money as a waitress until she heard of a vacant administrative-assistant position at Billboard magazine, the music industry’s leading trade publication. After one interview, she landed the job and began working for Billboard’s editor in chief, Timothy White (now deceased), and publisher, Howard Lander.
“This is when my life starts to change,” DioGuardi says. “I’m sitting outside Timothy White’s office, and I’m hearing all this music I’ve never heard in my life. I got to hear Alanis Morissette eight months before anyone knew who she was. This was riveting to me when I heard that emotion on those records. You could touch it. This is when I started to go, ‘All right, I can really figure out what I’m feeling and who I am and express it.’ “
Moonlighting as a singer with Gramma Trips, she also started writing songs in earnest. But it quickly became overwhelming. “I would go to work at 9, leave at 6, go to rehearsal and work in the studio until 1 in the morning,” she says. “And that was three or four times a week. And my mother was going through chemo. So that was my life: work, studio, mother, work, studio, mother.”
When the band broke up, DioGuardi, who had slowly transitioned from backing vocalist to lead singer, decided to pursue a career as a solo singer-songwriter. “My first sessions were in the Bronx at this producer’s place,” she recalls. “He had this stripper girlfriend and pit bulls. I’m from Westchester, and I’ve lived a life of privilege, and now here I am! He starts playing keyboards, and I start writing. The first song we did was called ‘Show Me Love.’ It was so bad.”
Still, her demo so impressed one of her Billboard colleagues, Larry Flick, that he introduced her to pop star (and future American Idol judge) Paula Abdul. “That was my big break,” says DioGuardi, who cowrote a song with Abdul called “Spinning Around.” Abdul’s version of the track was never released, but in 2000, it became an international hit for Australian singer Kylie Minogue.
For the first time, DioGuardi saw her own name on the Billboard charts as a songwriter. She also began networking with some industry heavyweights. “The minute she walked in my door and we spent two minutes together, I knew that she was destined for something great,” says Brooke Morrow, then an executive at music-industry giant EMI, now an executive at BMI, the publishers’ rights organization. “I really felt that in my gut. She’s so smart, she’s so quick, she’s so together. She’s in control.” Morrow quickly signed DioGuardi to a “sub-publishing” deal, meaning EMI would collect and distribute her international royalties, and the two have remained close friends since.
Within a year, DioGuardi would have three songs on Celine Dion’s Taking Chances CD and seven on Enrique Iglesias’ Escape, including the smash title track. “She’s really penetrated all types of music,” says Morrow, whose organization represents DioGuardi and her company, ArtHouse Entertainment. “I don’t think there’s anything she can’t do. She’s had country hits and R&B hits and pop hits and rock hits. There aren’t many writers who can do that.”
There also aren’t many writers who can sing as well as DioGuardi can (search her on YouTube for proof). In 2004, she even joined Eurythmics musician Dave Stewart to become the short-lived duo Platinum Weird. Though they never made it to the big time, Stewart introduced her to British media mogul Simon Fuller. When Fuller, the creator of American Idol, decided in 2008 to add a fourth judge to the show alongside record-label executive Simon Cowell, producer/musician Randy Jackson, and Paula Abdul, he turned to DioGuardi, who’d proved herself a telegenic presence in segments on shows like Access Hollywood. But although her background helped her bring an extra dimension of criticism to the judges’ table, she soon realized that being the new addition to TV’s top-rated show also meant being the subject of unparalleled scrutiny.
“I’m the most divisive judge on the show; you either like me or you can’t stand me,” says DioGuardi, who contends she was misunderstood when she started on the show. “What happened to me last year was that I got pitted against Paula, like I was there to replace her. And that’s not the truth. How could ‘Karla DellaGuardia’ replace Paula? I mean, people couldn’t even say my name. How was I going to replace America’s Sweetheart?” But she also admits the polarized response was partially her own doing. “I’m an intense character. I’m definitely not light and airy and breezy. I went through a lot to get to where I am. No training, no help. Had to go through tremendous pain, tremendous self-examination. So I look [back] at episodes of the show, and I go, ‘I know I’m right, but maybe I should’ve been a little bit more smiley or supportive.’ “
Still, her contributions have impressed her Idol colleagues. “Her biggest challenge was making herself relevant,” says Simon Cowell. “The show had worked really well with three people, and so she was under tremendous pressure to make herself relevant. There are a thousand vocal coaches in America who would tell you whether something is sharp or flat. You’ve got to make yourself interesting, and, most importantly, you’ve got to ensure that people actually listen to you. Otherwise, it just becomes noise. So I think she’s coped well. She’s much more confident this time around.”
Not everyone has been so supportive. Of all the Idol judges, DioGuardi certainly seems to have the most personal confrontations with the contestants, particularly young women who she thinks are trying to coast on their looks. (Her famous bathing-suit moment was a result of a season-long battle with one wannabe nicknamed “Bikini Girl.”) “I’ve seen these types throughout my career,” she explains. “I am so sick of these girls that are signed by men because they’re hot. And then they end up in my studio because they know some lawyer or whatever, and they have an attitude, no ability, don’t want to work. And I’m like, ‘All right, what do you have to say? Is anything going on in your life?’ ‘Well, yesterday I went shopping on Robertson Boulevard….’ “
Much of the media has had it in for her as well. Earlier this year, The New York Times wrote: “Ms. DioGuardi has been recast as, variously, a buffoon, a tart, and an emotionally tone-deaf den mother. Her awkward and disempowering scenes with celebrity guest judges during the early audition rounds … were difficult to stomach.” Even though she thinks of herself as self-confident, DioGuardi admits that some of her first-season gaffes were the result of stage fright. “I was scared. It was gut-wrenching fear.” And despite her long professional experience, the criticisms do sting. “It was horrendous,” she says of the scrutiny during her first season on the show.
But she says nothing was more hurtful than when “No Boundaries,” the Idol “winner’s single” she cowrote, received horrendous reviews after champion Kris Allen sang it on the show’s finale. “That was a disaster for me,” she says. “You can say I’m annoying. You can say my hair sucks. But I’m still a good songwriter. Here’s the thing with that song. Was it stupendous? Absolutely not. But it wasn’t written for a guy. Out of the whole season, that’s what killed me.”
DioGuardi’s role on Idol will only grow more important now that Cowell has decided to leave the show. “I’m sad,” she says. “The guy’s a superstar. He’s one of the most interesting characters to ever meet pop culture. Are there days where I disagree with him or we have our issues? Yeah. But I have mad respect for him.” Even so, she thinks the show, with new judge Ellen DeGeneres, can continue to thrive without him. “You take somebody who never had any access to their dream and you give them a shot, and you couple that with an emotional story. Who doesn’t want to see that?”
When she’s not filming episodes of Idol, DioGuardi looks for new artists in her capacity as an A&R (artists and repertoire) executive at Warner Bros. Records, or spends time in the studio with young singers hungry to write and record with her. “When we got together to write, it was really awesome, because we just opened a bottle of wine and started talking about our experience and laughing,” says Adam Lambert, who enlisted her to cowrite and coproduce the glam-rock track “Strut” on his debut CD, For Your Entertainment. “She’s so New York, I love it. She’s a really light-hearted, fun person.”
He’s also quick to defend her to people who just know her as the often-testy Idol judge. “If she comes up in conversation, the first thing I say is, ‘She’s an amazing writer. Did you know that?’ She can also sing. The thing that’s really unfortunate is that the media kind of gave her a hard time last year. To me, she was just being herself.”
And being Kara DioGuardi means being well aware that fame, while exciting, is also fleeting. “I’ve got a great life,” she says. “If they threw me off the show tomorrow, I’d just go to Maine and make muffins. I’m cool.”
Look at Her Now
Kara DioGuardi majored in political science at Duke, sang in a band that rehearsed on Ninth Street, and, after graduating, found employment as a waitress. But in no time, a combination of drive, ambition, talent, and luck helped launch a successful career as a singer, songwriter, and record producer and, not incidentally, propelled her into the hot seat as a controversial judge on American Idol.
June 1, 2010