It's the first day of shooting American Idol Season 12's Hollywood Week, and the judges are on their best behavior. Sitting side by side at the dais, five-time Grammy winner Mariah Carey and three-time nominee Nicki Minaj listen patiently, compare notes and whisper suggestions to each other as dozens of male contestants step forward to sing. Flanked by Aussie country crooner Keith Urban and Idol mainstay Randy Jackson (the only returning judge), the divas reveal a camaraderie that's a far cry from the antagonism they displayed just a few months earlier.
In October, when auditions rolled through Charlotte, North Carolina, cell-phone-video footage of Carey and Minaj arguing over a contestant's performance was leaked on the Internet. "If you say one more disrespectful thing to me, off with your head!" Minaj threatened. "Why do I have a 3-year-old sitting around me?" countered Carey. The tension escalated further when The View's Barbara Walters reported that Carey had hired extra security in response to an alleged death threat from Minaj involving a gun. Minaj fired back on Twitter: "I guess it hurts 2 have the producers tell u to ur face that nicki is the best judge we've had since simon. Awww, poor u. Keep them lies cmn." As auditions continued in four more cities without further incident, some Idol alumni — including Jennifer Hudson and former judge Steven Tyler — questioned if the argument was nothing more than a publicity stunt.
Despite (or perhaps because of) the turmoil and cast changes, Idol continues to outshine the competition as the dominant leader in ratings (more than 21 million viewers tuned in to last year's finale) and chart success (Season 11 champ Phillip Phillips' debut album has sold more than 475,000 copies). Backstage during a break in taping, it was all smiles when the new quartet gathered for a sit-down along with host Ryan Seacrest. In fact, when asked about the fight, the judges made light of the incident.
TV Guide Magazine: Ladies, there were reports of fighting early on. How are things between you now?
Mariah Carey: To me, the show is such a freakin' massive entity that nothing should matter to the public but that. It's American Idol. It's bigger than life and bigger than any stupid whatever.
Randy Jackson: If you look at Keith, he looks like a mild-mannered guy, but we have so much drama.
Carey: Keith is the problem!
Jackson: We're getting along. It's just a lovely family, and in a family, there's never drama.
TV Guide Magazine: Ryan and Randy, you've been with the show since the beginning. What does this panel bring that previous ones didn't?
Keith Urban: Should I leave the room?
Ryan Seacrest: No, you should stay. This panel brings a very broad, spirited and unique perspective with each individual artist. There is never a dull moment. We look at this as a fun new beginning.
Jackson: You have a broad range of very passionate advice and opinions. You want everybody to stand in their lane with passion and conviction.
TV Guide Magazine: Whose opinion usually wins?
Urban: Sometimes there's swaying. Like when Nicki has passionately believed in someone and we've all said no, she's managed every now and then to turn us around by pointing out a few things we might not have been thinking about.
Seacrest: But that's true with all the judges. When they believe in a contestant, they don't want to back down.
TV Guide Magazine: Mariah, why did you sign on to the show?
Carey: For me, it's about finding brilliant talent. If you look at the record, it's unparalleled; no other show even comes close. I was approached by basically every other competition show there is, and it just didn't feel appropriate. But this could be really cool, because I could play a part in the career of someone who may not have gotten that same type of attention had I not joined the show. Not to say it's all about me, but, as an artist, to be able to participate in someone's career like that is such a great thing.
TV Guide Magazine: What do you bring to the panel?
Carey: I have an ear for what we're looking for in terms of listening to someone's pitch or their delivery. It's nice to see genuine talent meet the pure spirit of a young artist.
TV Guide Magazine: Keith, you left a judging gig on Australia's The Voice to join Idol. Why is Idol the better fit?
Urban: The fact that it's given birth to legitimate artists, not just people that were popular that season and then faded away. In a lot of cases, those who didn't win — the Daughtrys, the Adam Lamberts — have gone on to sell records and have real careers. There was the credibility factor I really loved.
TV Guide Magazine: Nicki, how did you get involved?
Nicki Minaj: I never thought I would do something like this, because I'm from the hip-hop culture, and I thought it was maybe something that would be frowned upon. [To others] You guys are on TV and the radio every day, and that's so scary to me, being seen everywhere all the time. I don't know if I want that.
Seacrest: Too late!
Jackson: Try to pick up that dry cleaning now!
TV Guide Magazine: What's your style of judging?
Minaj: I try to use comic relief. Everybody wants to come in there talking about "inspiration." Ugh! That's not real to me. Maybe I want to know what color socks you have on because that's going to spark something in you. Nobody says, "I want to inspire the world and I am going to stand on the mountaintop!"
Jackson: Ryan says that every day.
Minaj: Hell-o! It's the real world! I don't want to be a part of a show that's cheesy and corny. My role is to bring some sort of a twist so that [singers] don't come in here with these cliché answers all the time. Today when we were judging, there was this one little boy that everyone thinks is really cute — and he is — but that cuteness started irritating me.
Carey: When he suddenly became Mr. Showbiz! He became that kid who took his raw talent and turned it into an Off-Off-Off-Broadway play.
For more with the American Idol judges, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, January 10!