Kara DioGuardi entered the collective consciousness of American pop culture when she was cast as the fourth judge on the reality show “American Idol” during its eighth season. Though well known within the music industry, DioGuardi remained a bit of a mystery to the American public even after two seasons on one of the biggest shows on television. Now, with the release of her first book and memoir, A Helluva High Note, she introduces herself to readers.
The bulk of the narrative is sandwiched between DioGuardi’s experiences with “American Idol,” beginning with the news that she was being fired from the show in 2010 and then ending with her reflections on her two seasons. It’s a smart move since, despite a résumé of industry names that would make even Randy Jackson envious, “American Idol” is what made DioGuardi a household name.
The actual experiences of those in the spotlight are rarely the fairy tales they are made out to be. DioGuardi walks us through the highs and lows of her “American Idol” journey, though truth be told, it comprised mainly lows, especially in her first season. DioGuardi writes, “As far as I am concerned, American Idol Season 8 might as well have been called Survivor. Every moment was mentally, physically, and emotionally challenging.”
According to DioGuardi, she was thrust into the spotlight with staggeringly little preparation, a fact that – along with her lifelong struggle with “extreme stage fright” – she claims contributed largely to an underwhelming debut season. But, she says, she was not the only one who was unprepared for her arrival on the show. Although Simon Cowell interviewed her in June 2008, she says that fellow judges Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul were unaware of the addition of a fourth judge until the day before auditions began.
DioGuardi describes her struggles to fit into a judging panel that had seven years of experience working together. Through her retellings, Cowell comes across as every bit the prima donna the public suspected he was. In addition to giving her the cold shoulder, Cowell often criticized DioGuardi both on camera and off, making a challenging situation nearly unbearable for the new judge. Although she was a successful music publisher in her own right, she recounts her desperate attempts to gain Cowell’s approval, stating that, “the key to gelling with the panel was Simon.” DioGuardi believes that it wasn’t until the finale of Season 8 that she gained that approval.
In that show, DioGuardi took to the stage to outsing and ultimately upstage Katrina Darrell, better known as “Bikini Girl,” by flashing her own bikini body. Though DioGuardi says that everyone outside the show urged her not to perform the skit, fearing it would damage her credibility, she eventually acquiesced after continuous pressure from Cowell and the producers. DioGuardi looks back on her performance in the finale fondly, calling it “a good thing” because it had shown America that she had a sense of humor and earned her a second chance. She writes, “Simon Cowell and the show’s executives had been right!”
DioGuardi, though stating that she believes a woman needs to use her talent rather than her body to get ahead, seems genuinely unaware that her attainment of a “second chance” and Cowell’s approval came at the cost of her own integrity. But as the memoir shows, this was not the first time that DioGuardi compromised herself with men in an effort to gain acceptance and success.
As a child, DioGuardi’s domineering father would force her to sing at a variety of family dinners and functions. Afraid to put more strain on an already frail parental relationship, DioGuardi would oblige, despite her anxiety and stage fright. Later in life, she quietly endured sexual harassment and misconduct by a famous performer, as well as date rape by a producer. In both cases she made the decision not to report the incident for fear of being ostracized in the business.
The decision to ignore violation for the “greater good” was likely a lesson taught to DioGuardi by her own mother. Though she does not draw the parallels, DioGuardi writes of being sexually molested by a close friend of the family. She finally gained the courage to report the abuse to her mother. But her mother, a subservient woman by all accounts, chose to ignore the situation. Though DioGuardi admits to feeling hurt and betrayed by her mother’s inaction, that willingness to look the other way is a habit that seems to have stayed with DioGuardi throughout her own life.
The memoir, in addition to these experiences, walks us through her life from childhood as a timid child, to young adulthood as a Duke University student struggling with an eating disorder, to a career as a successful record executive. She also offers interesting stories of her work with some of the most notable names in the business including Steven Tyler, Christina Aguilera, and Carrie Underwood, to name a few.
Bursting with statements like, “I believe there is a star in all of us,” and “If you tell me I can’t do it, just watch me,” it is clear that DioGuardi intends her book to be inspirational. Perhaps in some ways it is. Though readers might question some of her decisions, she herself views them as a means to an end: her impressive success and acceptance in an industry dominated by men.
Jodi Bradbury is a Monitor contributor.