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Ellen a Lot More Helpful Than Paula’s Verbal Diarrhea

Baby blues and a blue-jean jacket add spice to Hollywood Week

Take the bickering of “The Real World” roommates, mix it with the reluctant teamwork of “The Biggest Loser” contestants pushing each other in wheelbarrows and add enough coffee and insomnia to make you think that you’re watching an episode of “Celebrity Rehab With Dr. Drew.” What do you get? Hollywood Week on “American Idol”!

Last night kicked off one of my “Idol” favorite phases, because this is when our favorite classy yet cheesy competitive reality series mirrors some of its trailer-trash cousins. (No offense, Kellie Pickler.) Seacrest and Company keep it relatively tasteful throughout the rest of the season, but Hollywood Week is when the contestants provide us with more pathos than even the most dramatic rose ceremony … ever!

This episode was not so much about tantrums or intonation, however. The big draw was Ellen DeGeneres’ coming-out party, so to speak. Some have criticized her for not being a veteran of the music industry, but I found her to be quite effective. Among the performance tips she offered? “Don’t frighten your audience” and “You should put some shoes on.”

Pretty basic stuff, but you’ve got to admit it’s more helpful than any of Paula’s verbal diarrhea. (Plus, her eyes were gleaming like sapphires! Who knew that that staple of the ’80s, the jean jacket, would perfectly offset her baby blues?) 

All joking aside, Ellen really did have constructive things to say. Particularly touching was what she said to nervous Tennessee native Vanessa Wolfe, who was excited that she was, among other things, “gonna ride an aero-plane.” DeGeneres said, “You’re unique. I think you have a unique quality that you should embrace and just really accept who you are. You’re hiding inside and scared to death and you gotta let go of that …”

Hmmm, kind of reminds me of how it must feel to struggle with gaining acceptance as a lesbian woman in Hollywood. 

As for the contestants, I don’t want to be premature, as the real rose ceremony — er, that is drama — starts tonight. There were definitely more than a few standouts, though. And get this — they pretty much all accompanied themselves on guitar, which could make this the most talented season of “Idol” … ever!

At the top of the list was 24-year-old Andrew Garcia, who performed his own arrangement of — are you ready for this? — “Straight Up” by none other than Paula Abdul. It was risky, yes, but it definitely paid off. For me, it brought to mind last season’s winner, Kris Allen, and his interpretation of Kanye West’s “Heartless,” though Kara compared him to Glambert. (Huh?)

If Garcia continues on this path, he could really set himself apart from the competition. Might I suggest “Shake Your Love” by Debbie Gibson?

Also sporting guitars were platinum-haired sandwich maker Lilly Scott singing “Lullaby of Birdland” and waitress Didi Benami, who had the guts to tackle a Katharine McPhee song written by Kara herself, “Terrified.” I know that it may be blasphemous to say this, but I actually preferred Scott’s rendition to Ella Fitzgerald’s.

Not as surprising was that Benami’s cover of “Terrified” was far superior to McPhee’s. Both performances sounded like the kind of thing you’d hear on “The Coffee House” station of XM Radio, and I mean that as a compliment.

Then there were the contestants who weren’t exactly what you expected them to be. I mentioned Michael Lynch in a previous column. He’s the big burly personal trainer whom you’d never expect to be any kind of artist. But out he came last night with a guitar and a sensitive John Mayer tune. Oh, and his wife was in labor as he was auditioning… So maybe not sensitive enough to watch his first child being born, but sensitive enough to want a better life for said child. I can buy it. (Sell it to me, “Idol” PR Machine!)

Another parent wanting a better life for her child was Crystal Bowersox, a 24-year-old single mom from Ohio. In fact, in her interview segment she was getting tatted up with the name of her son, adding to the giant sunflower tattoo on her back. (They say they’re addictive!) Sporting facial piercings and dreadlocks, she came onto the stage and sang a classic, “Natural Woman,” with a power and confidence that I wasn’t expecting. Love her!

Also making the cut was 28-year-old rocker mom Mary Powers, who sang Pink’s “Sober” (sans guitar). My guess is that, should she make it to the finals, she will be the one to belt out the (practically “Idol” requisite now) “Alone” by Heart.

As far as those who didn’t make it, can I just say that the Rascal Flatts song was the perfect choice for a losers’ montage? “What hurts the most was being so close.” Classic! I hope they keep that for the elimination rounds!

I was not sad to see beatboxer Jay Stone leave Hollywood. Blake Lewis must be breathing a sigh of relief. (BTW, Jay Stone, can you take 16-year-old Haeley Vaughn with you when you leave? There is something a little bit cloying about her, not to mention how gimmicky her black country singer thing seems.) 

Speaking of gimmicks, I definitely think that Ellen will prove her worth to her doubters. Her presence adds humor and the heart that left when Paula resigned. While rumors of tension between her and Simon persist, I say bring it on! Tension between the judges has always added spice to the show, and with Simon on his way out the door, Ellen can secure her position as the biggest celebrity on the panel.

How do you think Ellen did last night?