Nicole Scherzinger debuted as an "X Factor" judge at a taping in New Jersey last night, introduced by Simon Cowell as the "Cruella de Vil" of judges but actually proving the most encouraging of the lot.
I attended the taping to grade the show itself and see whether a longtime "American Idol" fan could be won over. The hour's wait in stifling heat outside the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., was worth it, it turned out, for a breath-of -fresh-air panel that was constructive, entertaining and unmistakably hard-hitting. Unlike the revamped "American Idol" and NBC's new singing competition "The Voice," "X Factor" is no lovefest.
That started with the audience, a tough crowd -- this is "The Sopranos" state after all -- whose tickets instructed us to dress as if we were attending a restaurant or club. In many cases, folks seemed to take that to mean clubbing with Snooki. Even some of the contestants came Jersey-ready, appearing on stage in tank tops and spandex pants. (I live in Jersey, so I'm allowed to say that . Anyone else, I wouldn't advise it.)
We were told to cheer -- monstrously -- if we loved someone, getting to our feet to offer adulation. If we didn't like them, we were to obey our mother's advice -- if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.
The privilege of negative comments was reserved for the main judges, who entered to thunderous applause and were seated behind what appeared to be Pepsi Max cans when Simon announced, "No more Mr. Nice Guy."
The "Cruella de Vil" moniker didn't fit Scherzinger, who filled a vacancy on the panel after the show parted with British "X Factor" judge Cheryl Cole, apparently over concerns her accent wouldn't translate in the U.S. "You are like a whole field of daises," Scherzinger told a contestant at one point.
But "cruel" could have stuck to fellow judge L.A. Reid, who was downright frightening in his assessments. "I live for music quality... We have nothing in common," he said to one particularly off-key contestant. "I forgot you already," he told another.
For those worried that Simon and Paula have lost their chemistry since their "American Idol" days -- don't be. The pair played off each other better than ever with lots of love, teasing and sparring. Paula, who had her share of ditzy moments on "Idol," was really on her game, offering not just praise and encouragement but some bald and very smart criticism, delivered with only a small sting.
And then there was Simon at his finest, raising his hand to cut particularly horrid performances off in mid-note. "That's the most insane version of that song I've ever heard," he told one group. "I will not remember you in five minutes' time," he told a singer. "It's not the song, it's you," he said at another point, cutting off a hopeful begging for another chance.
I won't spoil it by giving details on performances in advance, but there are a few things worth mentioning. Like "Idol," there are a lot of sob stories -- relatives who recently died or people who worked for others their whole lives and now have this one chance to shine.
There's also a lot made of the $5 million prize. Simon often asks what the winner will do with it, throwing in a lot of delightfully inappropriate questions for good measure. "You are divorced?" he asked. "Why did you get divorced? Do you still speak to him?"
There were several laugh-out-loud auditions, but there was also a Susan Boyle moment, when a person with a shy and whispery speaking voice let rip with a performance that brought the whole place to its feet, screaming and cheering so much that the foot-stomping disrupted the cameras. There were unbelievable performances by kids as young as 12 and as adults old as what appeared to be 70.
At the end of the taping, well past 11 p.m., Simon stood and told us all, "You are now official 'X Factor' judges." Considering that some reports have said "Idol" offered him $144 million to stay, I guess I'll take the job.