TV | Updated February 17, 2021 8:49 am
Originally Published February 16, 2021 1:49 pm

The Problem With Claudia Conway’s “American Idol” Appearance Isn’t Political

Viewers have called out the show for exploiting Conway's family life for ratings

Claudia Conway on American Idol
Claudia Conway appears on "American Idol"
ABC

Exploiting people for ratings isn’t exactly new for American Idol, which spent many of its early seasons airing bad auditions from woefully tone-deaf hopefuls like William Hung or eccentric characters who never stood a chance like the “Pants on the Ground” guy for laughs. But Sunday’s season 19 premiere has sparked some controversy for featuring an audition from Claudia Conway, daughter of former Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway and The Lincoln Project co-founder George Conway.

The 16-year-old Conway has made a name for herself on social media, amassing a huge following on TikTok and speaking out about the physical and emotional abuse she claims she has endured from her parents. Back in August, Claudia put out a call for a pro bono family lawyer to help her become emancipated “because of years of childhood trauma and abuse.” Even when you take politics out of the equation, her home life is a famously tumultuous one, and many viewers took to social media to call out American Idol for “commodifying the unresolved trauma of a child.”

Though Conway claims in her audition that she wants to pursue music as a way of stepping out on her own and escaping her family drama, American Idol refuses to let us forget it. As soon as she walks in front of the judges, before even identifying herself, Katy Perry recognizes her and blurts out, “Are you okay?” She doesn’t let up from there, asking later, “With your mom being the figure that she is, I mean … does she still hug you?”

Both Kellyanne and George Conway appear in the segment to cheer their daughter on, but Perry still does her best to wedge the ways they’ve allegedly abused Claudia into her critique of her singing, telling her to draw on her own trauma when performing Adele’s “When We Were Young.” “There’s a sadness there,” Perry explains. “It’s like you lost your youth because you weren’t able to experience it on your own without all this noise.”

“There’s a lot of noise in your life,” she continues. “You have to calm the storm that is around you, meaning before you sing, you need to get off your phone, you need to stop reading your comments, push it aside. Because if not, you might not ever rise above your dad or your mom.”

It’s exploitative, no doubt. But it’s also a case of stunt casting that flies in the face of what American Idol claims to be about. Conway’s singing is mediocre at best. (Luke Bryan, who voted “no” on sending her through to the show’s Hollywood round, tells her she sings “like a 16-year-old” and points out her limited range.) She botches her first attempt and is allowed the opportunity to sing a second song with Perry coaching her through it. It’s clear the show wants her to go through to the next round, despite the fact that she probably doesn’t deserve it.

They know that she has a massive social media following and that folks will tune in to gawk at her crazy family, and so they give her a golden ticket. But whose spot is she taking? That ticket could have gone to someone truly gifted, an undiscovered talent just waiting to be scooped up from obscurity and launched into superstardom. Instead, they’re stringing along a kind-of-okay teen so they can milk her family saga and massive follower count for all they’re worth.

Update: Page Six reports that ABC is in “crisis mode” after the backlash to Conway’s appearance, and the network is apparently “rethinking how they are going to position Claudia and Kellyanne with promotion.” “They were big on putting Claudia in all of the promos, but now they are thinking of not putting as much focus on that … to not make as big a deal of her being on the show and focus on other contestants,” a source tells the publication.

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