by Jennie Noonan | Thu., Jul. 26, 2018 4:19 PM
When Australian Idol premiered on Ten on July 27, 2003, audiences tuned in to watch herds of performers be whittled away over 19 weeks in the search for the nation's next singing superstar. More than a talent show, Idol's first season was a rollercoaster ride of headline-making drama and controversy.
Ahead of the premiere's 15th anniversary, E! News tracked down the inside story of that unforgettable season, as told by the contestants, hosts and judges who lived it.
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Scores of hopeful singers auditioned for judges Marcia Hines, Ian "Dicko" Dickson and Mark Holden in Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Adelaide and Darwin.
Stephen Tate (then Ten Executive Producer, now Head of Factual and Entertainment): I don't think any show has had people queue up the way that they did for Idol. There was one city, I think it may have been Perth, where we actually had to put a helicopter up to see the end of the queue. It was amazing.
Mark Holden (Judge): I loved every bit of it. I loved the that you could see some ordinary talent, and then a Guy Sebastian would suddenly walk into the room or a Nollsy. I loved every minute of it. I really did.
Marcia Hines (Judge): I was amazed at how many crazy and deluded people there were out there who thought they had talent and had decided to make a public spectacle of themselves on national television.
Guy Sebastian (Winner): It was freezing. I was sick. I nearly left! Jules [his then girlfriend, now wife] convinced me to stay. To be honest, I never in a million years thought I would win. Up to that point I was told by several labels I didn't have the "look" to be in the industry, so I kind of gave up because I knew I could sing, but I was a chubby bogan from Adelaide with bad hair. I looked around and saw these really good looking people who could dance, and I was very intimidated.
Cosima De Vito (Top 3): I woke up at 3am to audition in Perth, and I was the 20th person that was seen that day. I got through, but I remember going home and deciding that it was too much. I was an extremely shy person, and I was petrified at the idea of performing on national TV and being judged—but I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it.
Paulini Curuenavuli (Top 4): The most overwhelming feeling was walking into a room and seeing a sea of hopefuls each in their little corner rehearsing. I just remember the energy in the audition room—because no one expected anything. I think everybody just came in and was like, "I love to sing."
Rob "Millsy" Mills (Top 5): I remember arriving on the Saturday morning and being told to come back the next day because they already had too many applicants. I did two gigs that Saturday night, got some takeaway and lined up again from about 6am on the Sunday. I didn't get seen till about 11am. That was a long wait, but worth it in the end.
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International versions of Idol were already sensations overseas, but no one predicted the juggernaut Australian Idol would become after its July 2003 premiere.
Stephen Tate: We didn't know how big the show was going to be when we acquired it. Because when you think back, the UK had done a successful series of Pop Idol and the US was halfway through their first series of American Idol, which was obviously doing really well. But God, we didn't see that the show would be as huge as it was in the Australian market. In a way, it kind of over-indexed, certainly on a per-capita basis, over and above the UK or the US version.
Mark Holden: Literally, I remember the very first day after it had gone to air, Marcia and I were walking around in Sydney and BOOM it was instant. It was literally overnight. I'd been away for 20 years, and the generation who had come up post the 1970s had no idea who I was, and all of the sudden, we were an absolute smash hit. It was a wild, fabulous ride.
Osher Günsberg (Host, then Andrew G): The last thing that we had seen as far as a singing competition show in Australia had been Popstars Season 3, which was shot on probably a [handheld HD] camera in a backyard. So, there was always some trepidation about, is it gonna work? But on that very first day, executive producer Greg Burness just thought, yeah, we have a show.
It was a time that will never exist in history again: Appointment viewing was appointment viewing. 7.30pm Sunday we all sat down and watched the same thing. That I got to be a part of what has become a cornerstone of modern Australian popular culture is still an incredible, incredible privilege.
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A DARING DOUBLE ACT
When 21-year-old Shane Jenek auditioned in Sydney, he didn't make the TV judges' cut. But he bent the rules—and his gender—to return the next day as Courtney Act, making it through to the semi-finals and becoming one of the first openly queer and gender diverse contestants on a reality talent show.
Ian "Dicko" Dickson (Judge): Mark and I really fought hard for her to go into the Top 12, and the production company and the network were really nervous about it. I don't think it would be the same today. I think they probably would fall over backwards to have a drag act in the Top 12 now.
Courtney Act (Semi-finalist): Dicko's support of me publicly was such an important part of my journey on Idol. I think because he's British. They have a different relationship with drag and camp and gender and sexuality in the UK. Dicko wasn't afraid of it and embraced it and realised that talking about how hot Courtney was wouldn't take away from his masculinity or heterosexuality.
I wasn't aware of any backlash. We didn't have the internet, we certainly didn't have social media, and we didn't have a comment section. So, back in those days people had to come and say it to your face and no one ever did. I was always overwhelmed by the support.
I remember being in Melbourne doing a photo shoot in Little Collins Street, and they were doing construction work and a guy in the bulldozer saw that we were trying to take these photos and then he was suddenly like, "G'day Courtney, how are you doing, love?" and held up the traffic so that we could do the photo. And I was just like, wow, that is so cool, that some workman in his high-vis gear is blocking the street so a drag queen can get a photo for the newspaper.
Mark Holden: Courtney was groundbreaking. That was one of Dicko and mine's only true attempts to collaborate because we both absolutely believed in Courtney and could see that she was something utterly unique. We really thought she could have a really great record career if she won. Unfortunately that didn't happen, but she's had an incredible career and gets bigger every year.
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Judge Mark Holden's signature seal of approval—yelling "touchdown!" while miming a referee's hand signal—quickly became a staple of the show, with audiences and contestants holding their breaths each week to see who would earn his quirky turn of praise.
Mark Holden: It was the Rugby World Cup in 2003 in Sydney at the time of the first Idol and, having spent so much time in the US, I mashed up the terms [of the American football phrase with the other hand gestures] and pulled it out of the air. It became a symbol of quality. Something to strive for. It's now on T-shirts and memes. My daughter bought two "touchdown" T-shirts, and we each wore one for her graduation this May—and I gave her a massive "touchdown" for graduating with honours.
CLE MORGAN TO THE RESCUE
Before the concept of ‘going viral' existed, a moment of kindness between competitors did just that. When 19-year-old Lauren Buckley, the youngest singer in the competition, was unable to make it through her farewell encore of "Lady Marmalade" after failing to make it to the Top 10, fellow singer Cle Morgan (then Cle Wootton) jumped on stage to help her through.
Cle Morgan (Top 10): I was a single mum from the age of 17, so it was natural for me to take Lauren under my wing. I remember her being a nervous kid who was overwhelmed by the big Idol machine and rightly so. When she stopped singing I didn't think, I just went to be with her. The thought of her crying on stage alone as the music continued to play was just something I couldn't stand by and watch. I haven't spoken to her in years but would love to hear from her, and I hope she is doing well.
James Mathison (Host): I'm a massive sports fan, and I love watching those sports videos where a competitor falls down and then is helped by their rival. Twenty percent of the show is like, "Let's mock people who have no idea how awful they are and then humiliate them," so I think moments like [Cle and Lauren's] are necessary for a show that starts off with a little tinge of meanness to it. From then on, it turned into this fantastically uplifting show.
THE INFAMOUS GOLD DRESS INCIDENT
In the Final Five week of the competition, Paulini Curuenavuli's powerhouse performance of Destiny's Child's "Survivor" was overshadowed by her figure-hugging Charlie Brown gold dress. Mark Holden wailed, "What are you wearing?" But it was Dicko's remark ("You should choose more appropriate clothes or shed some pounds, sorry.") that got the nation talking.
Ian "Dicko" Dickson: Fifteen years on, that still follows me around. Eleven banal words. And that was me with a filter on. I was trying to be polite. I didn't realise then that it was going to have such repercussions. I was really fortunate because there was no social media then, so the kicking that I got from media was in some ways touchingly old school. It was just Alan Jones losing his mind over it and people absolutely baying for my blood, but if there had been social media, I would probably have had my permanent residency revoked and sent off to live on bloody Norfolk Island.
Paulini Curuenavuli: For me, it was such a shock. I remember when I was trying on the dress, I was like, "This is really cool, I like it." It was very Beyoncé. [Dicko's comment] did hurt because he basically was saying I looked fat in it. My family were there, and it was hard for me to hear that in front of them and everyone watching on TV. It was hurtful, but I'm the type of person that once you talk about it and you apologise, I can get over it. I don't hold grudges.
Osher Günsberg: Dicko's job was to be the pantomime baddie. He had been a very, very, successful music industry executive. He knew what he was talking about. What he said to Paulini on television is the kind of thing that gets said to artists behind closed doors. Full credit to Dicko that he had the balls to have that conversation on camera. Did he say it in the right way? Maybe not. Was he able to bring an uncomfortable reality of the record industry at the time to light? Yes. Part of the show was showing what goes into creating a pop star and those conversations are a part of it.
Mark Holden: I think that was probably Dicko's finest hour. It's what he's remembered for. That's what the show was all about, too. The show wasn't all about the singing. It was about that battle between the judge and the audience and the contestants.
Stephen Tate: I think it affected the show because, even Dicko will admit, he got into trouble at home. His partner Mel was really angry with him. I think that was the first time that he realised the power that his word had.
Cosima De Vito: The preconceived notion of what a pop star should look like was challenged that night, and the response from Idol fans was that they loved their diva and it didn't matter that she wasn't a size 6. Paulini owned the stage and her right to be there.
SHANNON'S "WHAT ABOUT ME" MOMENT
"Australia is going to love you," Dicko predicted after Shannon Noll's first audition in Sydney. During the Top 10 round, with a theme of Australian No. 1s, the Condobolin-raised country singer sealed his fate as a fan favourite with his rendition of Moving Pictures' "What About Me" After the series, Shannon's version of the ballad went on to be Australia's highest selling single of 2004.
Shannon Noll (Runner-up): It was a song everybody around me told me not to choose, but I stuck with my decision. When the crowd got really into it during the last choruses, it was amazing! I got the first ever "touchdown" from Mark Holden. It was so much fun.
Ian "Dicko" Dickson: The interesting thing was that Peter the Pig Farmer, Peter Ryan, who was like a young John Farnham, had gone in first and had nabbed "What About Me". Peter was going to do it on that Australian episode, but he got voted off the week before, which left Shannon free to sing it. It's on moments like that that careers pivot, don't they?
Osher Günsberg: That was the magic of the show and what we did with a backstory: Here's a shot of Shannon in Condobolin. Here he is with his brothers, and, look! He's got a hat on! Here he is in a field and then BANG! Shannon walks out. He even wore a truckie singlet on the night. When Shannon sings "What About Me" you believe every word he says, and you are weeping for his pain. Not a dry eye in the house. He just has this ability to connect emotionally with people through his voice.
James Mathison: I remember Shannon's brothers, who were his biggest fans, standing in the back of the auditorium during one of the rehearsals and they were just singing along with him, belting it out with him as he hit that high note.
Stephen Tate: Shannon tragically lost his father at an early age, and he and his brothers subsequently had to sell the farm. He was the absolute the epitome of an Aussie battler. He'd moved his wife and two young sons to the city. He had nothing, and he had nothing to lose. Everything came together in that one moment.
GUY HITS NEW HEIGHTS
Guy Sebastian's rendition of "Climb Every Mountain" during the Top 3 show cemented his position as frontrunner going into the finals and scored him his first "touchdown!" from judge Mark Holden.
Ian "Dicko" Dickson: You know what? Everyone lost their s--t over that performance. I hated that to be honest. To me it was perfect for television, but in terms of what I wanted him to be as an artist, I thought it was cabaret and naff. It was a great vehicle for his voice, but it was just too kitsch and camp for me.
When Shannon did "What About Me" you thought, that's you. That's where you need to be. But Guy singing "Climb Every Mountain"? Nah. Now Courtney Act doing "Climb Every Mountain"? Yes.
Paulini Curuenavuli: I remember watching backstage and just getting goose bumps because it was just so uplifting, and it really did talk about everyone's journey, climbing every mountain and just taking up every opportunity and just going for it and not looking back.
Osher Günsberg: The last few bars when there's that big fireworks finale of that song, James Mathison just, as if he'd suddenly lost his balance, just clutched my body like he was trying to find a light switch in the dark, just grabs my wrist and holds on to me, like, "Oh, oh, here it comes!" As he hit that note, 600 people's asses left their chairs. It was an extraordinary moment. It will live on clip shows until the end of time.
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COSIMA FALLS AT THE FINISH
In the penultimate round of the series, Guy Sebastian was named the first contestant through to the finale, and Andrew G announced that only 0.8 percent divided the audience votes for Cosima De Vito and Shannon Noll. James Mathison then announced that Cosima had something to say. "I'd like to thank all of my supporters," she shakily read from a note pulled from her pocket. "Unfortunately, I have a temporary condition that's affecting my voice. It's forced me to make the decision to leave the competition."
Cosima De Vito: After visiting an ENT specialist, I was told I had soft nodules, which with rest and speech therapy would disappear without the need for an operation. Out of fear, I did what I thought was the best thing to regain my voice. It took years before I could watch the playback from the night. I have no regrets. I placed my health ahead of my vanity. The idea of losing my voice indefinitely was my greatest fear.
I would have preferred that my decision to exit had been announced earlier in the day. People were still voting, and I had already made my decision. It was the timing that made people angry. They announced Guy through to finals, and then I announced I wasn't going through. It appeared as though I was making the decision on the spot because I might potentially not go through. Obviously, that wasn't the case. The backlash that followed wasn't pleasant.
Stephen Tate: We were just gutted for her. I can tell you there were some very late-night meetings about what we were going to do and what it meant for the voting and what it meant for our number of episodes. It certainly threw the spanner in the works.
Marcia Hines: I felt relieved for her. She could have done major damage to her vocal chords.
Paulini Curuenavuli: I knew that she wasn't feeling well. There were four of us left in the house and she was getting quite sick and struggling. But I didn't expect her to pull out at all. Just because of her personality. She's so strong. I was like, "Jeez, why didn't she do it on my week!" No, only joking.
Mark Holden: There are some people who, when you shine a light on them, they grow, and Guy was one of those. The further he went into the competition, the better he got. The more light that was shone on him, he just grew like a flower. Other people, the more light you shine on them, they shrivel and crack.
Osher Günsberg: In her heart, she may have thought, "If I can't give absolutely everything, I shouldn't give anything." But I think she absolutely would have been Top 2. Even If she was on 75 percent of her tonal range, she still had such an emotional ability in the way she sang. I felt that Australia would have forgiven her for not being 100 percent. Even if she had gone out and missed some notes, the chance that Australia would have given her for redemption after the show was over would have been different. It was really tough.
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On November 19, 2003, a record-breaking 3.3 million viewers tuned in to watch the back-to-back finale episodes: Australian Idol Live from the Opera House and Australian Idol Final Verdict. The total audience for the entire show peaked at 3.65 million shortly before the winner's name—Guy Sebastian—was announced.
Stephen Tate: We wanted to make the best possible talent vehicle that had ever been created in Australia, and for that, we used the Opera House as an ultimate finish line for a singing competition. That wasn't a cheap exercise. It cost us over a million dollars to buy out two symphony orchestras because the dates that we needed were already booked [by them].
That finale as a culmination of the vision that we had had, and the faith that we had had in the format…It was extraordinary. And we were exhausted.
Shannon Noll: All of the hard work had been done, all of the votes were in. It was all about enjoying the process. The Idol experience was one of the most amazing times of my life. It definitely changed my life forever.
Guy Sebastian: Shannon and I were told on the night we would both get a record deal, so to be honest, we were not stressed about the outcome at all because we both just wanted to be able to record music. There was a lot of disbelief that we made it that far. Two bogans, one from Condo and one from Radelaide driving to the Opera House in a Porsche stretch limo. Idol was the best thing that ever happened to me. Who knows where I would be today and what I would be doing without it. I went from studying Medical Radiation and only dreaming of being able to use my talent to having No. 1s, touring the world and performing for the Queen, Oprah and the Pope. Who would have thought?
Ian "Dicko" Dickson: It was a wonderful example of two faces of Australia. Australians have always had a misty-eyed and sentimental view of themselves. I think they saw Shannon as representing that traditional Australia, the "good on ya" rock idol. But then Guy was a Christian, multicultural, mixed heritage Australian and an R&B singer, which was obviously the new pop of the day. It was really a choice between old and new Australia in some ways.
Mark Holden: At the time, the finale was the most watched non-sports show in Australia. It was remarkable. It was such a pleasure working with Guy in every single way and there's a reason he has had the longevity that he has. He'll be doing this when he's 70. He'll be doing this when he's my age.
Marcia Hines: I had always known Guy Sebastian would win from the first time I heard him sing. He was the funky new, young, smart future of the music business…I am also waiting for the telephone to ring with another new series of Australian Idol. I'd be back there like a shot.
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