LOS ANGELES – I was just about to ask Lionel Richie to reveal his true feelings about dancing on the ceiling when we were interrupted by a tap on the pop legend’s shoulder: Katy Perry wanted to sing.
A few minutes later, the two singers huddled around a hotel-lobby piano with country star Luke Bryan for a very loose version of the Jackson 5’s “I’ll Be There.”
“You’re welcome, ABC!” Perry boomed after the impromptu performance for roughly 100 cocktail party guests in January.
The network has shown its gratitude by forking over a reported $25 million for the “Roar” hitmaker to headline the reboot of “American Idol” that premieres Sunday and will go up against “The Voice” the following night.
That massive investment may pay off. Perry brings a playful, perky attitude to the judges’ table that’s been missing since Steven Tyler mistook the show — once a ratings juggernaut for the Fox network — for a speed-dating mixer. In the first episode, Perry calms the nerves of a teenage contestant by granting him his first kiss. And I think she liked it.
“I’m inspired by their raw dreams, their raw ambition, their hope,” said one of the most successful female recording artists of all time. “I’m watching and thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, I was there 10 years ago.’
“I had two cars repossessed. I had three labels drop me. I was couch-surfing. I was eating Trader Joe’s frozen chicken nuggets every day of the week. I know exactly where you are. And we have this ability to give them this incredible journey.”
Richie, who took a break from the 27-city audition tour to be feted during the Kennedy Center Honors, admits that he hesitated before joining the show, but eventually realized the series was the best way to share his wisdom with the next generation.
“I don’t know how many times in my career I’ve been offered opportunities to explain songwriting or explain performance or how to deal with the press or the pressure of the business,” he said. “I’ve thought about it and said, ‘Well, how many people are going to read it?’ And then I thought about ‘Idol’ and I got the call, thank God.”
Richie initially imagined himself as a no-nonsense, Simon Cowell-type, but you can practically see the former Commodores frontman’s heart melting on camera. In one early round, Richie changes his mind about a rejected contestant, forcing producers to hunt down the young man and tell him he earned a golden ticket after all.
“I planned on being the toughest guy in the world, but then we had this person come on and tell us that he was homeless,” Richie said. “Now, I’m not saying you should come on the show because you’re homeless and I’ll feel sorry for you. But that kid is incredible and is the hope for his entire family. Now, that story is compelling.”
Bryan may be the least known of the three new judges, but he’s no B-lister. The singer-songwriter was named top country artist at the Billboard Music Awards as recently as 2016 and has more than a dozen No. 1 hits.
“I’m in there on the emotional ride with these kids,” said Bryan, set to perform July 21 at Target Field. “When they start singing, I get wrapped up in the moment. I get wrapped up in the pageantry and the dreams coming true.”
Bryan hasn’t yet been moved enough to plant a smooch on any of the contestants’ lips. But the season is just getting started.