Rhyme and Punishment

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FOX/AP

Aspiring star Stephanie Sugarman warms up for 'Search For a Superstar'

If it's true what rocker Nick Lowe sang?you've got to be cruel to be kind?then Simon Cowell is the kindest man on TV. A judge on Fox's hit singing contest American Idol: The Search for a Superstar, the British BMG Records executive eviscerates wannabe divas with insults that would make one reconsider singing in the shower, let alone in public. "Who's your teacher?" he said to one aspirant. "Get a lawyer and sue her."

Think of Idol (Tuesdays, 9 p.m. E.T. and Wednesdays, 9:30 p.m. E.T.), which landed two episodes in the Top 20 its first week, as Star Search Goes to Hell. At heart it's an ordinary music contest: hopeful talent, shattered dreams, hard-luck stories and more renditions of I Will Always Love You than you can shake Whitney Houston at. But what has instantly made it America's new favorite source of schadenfreude?or maybe second favorite after Martha Stewart?is the full-contact judging of Cowell, along with his kindlier partners, veteran music exec Randy Jackson and Laker Girl turned pop star Paula Abdul.

"There isn't a nice way of telling people they haven't got any talent," says Cowell, who is not one to agonize over his opinions. How long does it take him to know if someone can sing? "Five seconds." What does he have to say about the singers who got nixed because they were, um, big boned? "The biggest moaners are always the fat people," says the small-framed judge. Has he ever said something he wishes he could take back? "Honestly, no."

In the original version, Pop Idol, British viewers dubbed Cowell "Mr. Nasty" but made the show a national sensation. American Idol follows the same formula. The judges crossed the country and heard thousands of crooners and caterwaulers, narrowing them to 30 who are performing on the series over a three-week period. Viewers voting by phone (3 million last week) will winnow them to nine, plus a "wild card" picked by the judges. The final 10 will perform (and get re-critiqued) each week, with one ejected every Wednesday until Sept. 4, when the winner will score a recording contract with RCA.

Cowell wasn't worried about how well his British edge would translate. "Americans have always had this image of English people as evil anyway," he says. But Mr. Nasty can be nice. When someone wows Cowell, he'll gush, "You are talent. You are a star." (His praise, like many critics', isn't half as inspired as his insults.) And his put-downs can backfire. Jim Verraros, a likable young man who has two deaf parents and who accompanied his first audition by signing, was voted into the finals last week despite a subpar performance. It probably helped that Cowell had savaged his vocals: "If you win this competition, we will have failed."

Although producers encouraged the contestants to have snappy comebacks ready, some were still caught off guard. Others say they were set up, as did Rose Thom, who was lambasted for a nigh-unrecognizable version of My Heart Will Go On. "I can sound just like Celine Dion if I want to," says Thom. "[The producers] said to be very unique and make the song what you want it to be. They didn't say anything about staying on key."

There you have the magic of Idol: British headmasterly discipline running smack into the preternatural sense of self-esteem?often inversely proportional to talent?that Americans have hardwired into them from the womb. You may wince at Cowell's barbs, but you also welcome them when Abdul or Jackson offers a wimpy "Good job" to a singer who has scraped the fingernails of her ambition down the chalkboard of her limited ability. And many contestants give as good as they get. "Paula Abdul hasn't had a hit in 10 years," said first-round ejectee Mary Iaconelli in an interview. "The attitude is stronger [in the U.S.]," says co-executive producer Nigel Lythgoe.

Sometimes it's too strong for comfort. After the auditions in New York City, crew members spotted a couple of rejectees lurking outside the studio with baseball bats. The show has since hired security. Says Cowell: "I didn't want people to think they could get on TV by smacking me in the mouth." Imagine, becoming famous just for knocking someone around! Where ever would anybody get the idea that you could do that?

With reporting by Jeanne McDowell/ Los Angeles