From Ellen Degeneres to Simon Cowell: Every ‘American Idol’ Judge Ranked

Catherine DiMeglio
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American Idol JudgesFrank Micelotta/Getty Images

American Idol will premiere its groundbreaking 20th season next year. Since the show’s beginning, a number of judges have claimed a seat on the judging panel. While some lasted much longer than others, we cannot forget their place in Idol history. Heartfelt moments, bickering brawls, and laugh out loud commentary have all been part of the American Idol experience. Check out the best and worst judges of the show’s history, and let us know what you think.


14. Ellen Degeneres (season 9)

We all love us some Ellen, but girl, you did not belong here. The comedy legend had a difficult time passing judgement on vulnerable performers. Her lack of technical knowledge within the music industry also made it hard to offer constructive criticism to the contestants. She, like Paula Adbul, tried to find the good in every performance. Degeneres has admitted that becoming a judge on American Idol was one of her worst career decisions.

The seasoned talk show host also used comedy to tiptoe around the show’s serious moments. While she reportedly got along well with the Idol family, it just was not a good fit for her.  

13. Nicki Minaj (season 12)

The rap icon joined the judging panel alongside Mariah Carey and Keith Urban back in 2012. Minaj was booted from the show after only one season. The constant tension between the panel’s two divas made for an awkward viewing experience.


Some critics even said that her honesty and occasional bluntness in critiques was very off-putting. Others went so far as to say that Minaj drove away the show’s core audience.

12. Mariah Carey (season 12)

The iconic singing sensation also quickly left the show. Her constant bickering with co-star Nicki Minaj got old quickly. The constant tension did not make for an enjoyable environment on the show. Carey even admitted that she and Idol were not suited for one another. Though she is more than qualified to offer expert critique, the drama on the judging panel overtook the tone of the season.

11. Kara DioGuardi (seasons 8-9)

While Kara DioGuardi sure has Idol-worthy credentials, her time on the show is little remembered today. She is a Grammy nominated singer-songwriter, record producer, music publisher, A&R executive composer. While her expertise on the show was helpful and constructive, she just didn’t seem to fit in with the vibe of the show. To me, she seemed like an outlier in comparison to the already established veteran judges.


10. Steven Tyler (seasons 10-11)

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee joined the Idol panel in season 10 alongside Jennifer Lopez and original judge Randy Jackson. The Aerosmith vocalist brought his spunky personality and classic rock edge to the judging panel.

Tyler was always in search of a fellow rocker like himself to grace the Idol stage. He often sang along with contestants in the audition room, especially when they sang his own hits. Tyler even performed “Dream On” on the season 10 finale, a song that many ambitious Idol contestants have tried to do justice to. While Tyler may not have been American Idol’s best judge, he was sure fun to have around for a while. 

9. Lionel Richie (seasons 16-19)

The seasoned musical veteran is still standing strong beside fellow judges Katy Perry and Luke Bryan. Richie is best known for his career with the Commodores, and later as a solo artist. With a career in the industry dating back to the 1970s, I would say that Richie has the chops to sit at the judging panel.

While his soft spoken demeanor can at times be outshined by the boldness of co-star Perry, he manages to maintain his individuality among the judges.

8. Harry Connick Jr. (seasons 13-15)

The American Jazz singer joined Urban and Lopez on season 13 of American Idol. Connick Jr.’s honesty, humor, and southern charm were well-received by fans. His professional career as a musician and extensive technical knowledge made him a great fit for the panel. From Broadway to the big screen, he is an exemplary aspect of the entertainment world. While incredibly qualified, Connick Jr. has also been considered the toughest judge since Simon Cowell.

7. Keith Urban (seasons 12-15)

The kind-hearted country superstar was welcomed to the series with open arms. He served four seasons on Idol and was certainly a breath of fresh air. Urban’s gentle temperament was just what we needed on season 12. Among the constant battles between Carey and Minaj, he was a positive presence. His advice on the show was always constructive and never rude. He was a pleasure to watch at home, and I’m sure an even greater pleasure to work with.  

6. Luke Bryan (seasons 16-19)

Luke Bryan is one of the most popular and successful country artists today. Currently residing at the judging panel alongside Perry and Richie, his fun loving and free-spirited personality blends right in among his co-stars. He’s constantly offering himself up as a mentor to contestants and clearly has a loving relationship with his co-stars off-camera.

5. Jennifer Lopez (seasons 10-15)

The world class entertainer could not have joined the American Idol family at a more perfect time. Coming off two seasons that featured ill-fitting judges, the “Jenny From the Block” singer swooped in just in time to save the day. Joining the panel alongside fellow new judge, Tyler, the show attempted to revamp the American Idol brand. Lopez had a good run on Idol, and proved to be a valuable asset to the competition series.

Lopez was also a mentor on Idol during “Latin Week” on season six. Here, she showed a genuine interest in the contestants and was effortless in front of the cameras. Her decades-long career left the aspiring singers with expert advice.

4. Katy Perry (seasons 16-19)

Perry has been killing it on American Idol since its relaunch on ABC in 2018. The “California Gurls” singer has for sure been earning her multi-million dollar salary and generating a slew of viral moments. Katy’s quirky personality and unapologetic behavior sure make for some good TV. Based on her performance on Idol so far, I can’t see her going anywhere anytime soon. 

3. Randy Jackson (seasons 1-12)

It’s a ‘Yes’ from me dog! Lasting a whopping dozen seasons on the hit singing competition, Jackson was the longest serving judge. Also a member of the original American Idol panel, Jackson is definitely ingrained in Idol culture for all time. I would almost consider him Cowell’s right hand man, especially in the earlier seasons. Jackson’s career as a bass guitarist and producer stems back to the 1980s. His expert knowledge and hands-on experience in the industry was able to give the contestants valuable criticism.

2. Paula Abdul (seasons 1-8)

The American singer, dancer and choreographer, famous for her single “Straight Up” helped set the tone on the inaugural judging panel. Abdul was known for being the sweet and compassionate judge, especially compared to Cowell in those days. The chemistry between Cowell and Abdul caught the attention of fans early on. Their constant bickering, snarky comments, and flirting at times, made us all wonder if there was something more going on between them.

1. Simon Cowell (seasons 1-9)

Leader of the original American Idol panel. Cowell is probably the best talent judge not only on American Idol, but on any series, period. The seasoned talent show veteran has had a major character evolution through the years. From blunt and harsh to adoring and charming, Cowell has always been able to keep audiences hooked. Some of the most memorable Idol moments of all time have stemmed from Cowell’s direct delivery in criticism. He was truly the king of metaphors on the judging panel.

The history of American Idol really speaks for itself. From the old days of the original trio to a network change, many notable moments have emerged from idol’s soon-to-be 20 season reign. It wasn’t an easy job, but someone’s gotta do it. Who was your favorite Idol judge of all-time?

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