Former “American Idol” Co-Host Speaks Out About Show’s “Very Cruel” First Season

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Meet Brian Dunkleman, The Former Co-Host Of American Idol

Did you know that American Idol host Ryan Seacrest used to have a co-host? If you didn’t watch the show’s first season, the answer is probably “no.”

Dunkleman is an actor and comedian who landed the job as the co-host of American Idol alongside Seacrest in 2002. While Seacrest has remained with the show for all 22 seasons, Dunkleman left after Season 1.

American Idol became an instant hit and ended with Kelly Clarkson being crowned the first winner. Since then, the show has helped launch the careers of artists such as Carrie Underwood, Scotty McCreery, Jennifer Hudson, and Chris Daughtry.

Kelly Clarkson won Season 1 of American Idol, which included co-host Brian Dunkleman (who left after the season's end).
Kelly Clarkson, the winner of American Idol’s first season, & runner-up Justin Guarini. Photo Credit: SGranitz  /WireImage / Getty Images


It’s long been rumored that Dunkleman was fired from American Idol. But he recently told the Still Here Hollywood podcast that he left on his own accord.

People still think I got fired. I didn’t,” he said. “I wish I would have. It would have been easier. [But] I’m sure I would have [been fired].

Dunkleman also left the entertainment world after leaving Idol, and focused on raising his son.

Why Did Brian Dunkleman Leave American Idol?

During his conversation with Still Here Hollywood host Steve Kmetko, Dunkleman explained why he left American Idol after just one season. He opened up about the things he witnessed on the show that influenced his decision.

Dunkleman recalled the auditions, saying:

“You’re spending a lot of time with these kids in the line, and you’re getting to know them, you’re getting to know their parents. There was a stretch for an hour straight where kid after kid came, [and] every one of them was bawling. And I thought, ‘What is going on?'”

Seeing the contestants’ tear-streaked faces after their auditions made Dunkleman emotional too:

At one point…I just went and found a corner behind the curtain,” he said. “I just started crying. I don’t know why it affected me so much. Maybe because I’ve auditioned so many times. I know how it’s not easy. It’s not easy to put yourself out there.”

Dunkleman detailed one contestant’s story. A carpenter sold his tools for the money he needed to drive his daughter to her audition. She was “so excited” to have the opportunity to sing in front of the judges.

But when the girl left the audition room, Dunkleman claims her “eyes were dead” and she felt “shattered.”

I just didn’t understand why that was necessary…” Dunkleman said. “But it was very, very cruel that first season. And that’s kind of what made the show such a hit, was how mean [judge Simon Cowell] was. He was hated.”

He added, “I don’t believe that you should set kids up to be humiliated like that. You’re putting them in front of cameras, and I can hear them [go]. ‘Oh, this girl, she thinks she can actually sing. We’re gonna crush her.’ She’s 16.”

Former American Idol Co-Host Shares How He Feels Now…

Despite his feelings about the “cruel” nature of the show’s first season, Dunkleman doesn’t want to “bad mouth anybody,” including the judges. In fact, he had many positive things to say about the show’s original judges: Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, and Paula Abdul.

Dunkleman said that despite public perception, Cowell is a “really nice guy” with a “great sense of humor.” He also “adore[s]” Abdul and says Jackson is “a really, really sweet guy.

The three original American Idol judges, Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, & Randy Jackson.
The three original American Idol judges: Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, & Randy Jackson. Photo Credit: FOX via Getty Images

Dunkleman returned to Idol for its 15th season in 2016 and reunited with Seacrest onstage. At the time, it was believed that Season 15 would be Idol‘s last. However, ABC revived the show, and it has been on the air again since 2018.

The former co-host is gradually returning to the entertainment industry after several years out of the spotlight. He’s currently working on a self-titled show and just finished its pilot.

Watch Dunkleman discuss his decision to leave Idol in an older interview below.