The arrival of season 19 of American Idol came with strong political clickbait. In its first episode which aired Feb. 14, the long-running reality competition featured the audition of Claudia Conway, daughter of former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway and anti-Trump lawyer George Conway.
In recent months, Conway showcased the strained relationships within her family, particularly between her and her mother, through TikTok videos. In January, Conway accused her mother of abuse and of posting a nude photo of her online. Instead of focusing on her singing, the first episode of American Idol capitalized on Conway’s story by reducing her talent and identity to the whirlwind of her family life.
Before the 16-year-old TikTok star introduced herself, Katy Perry, one of three judges on a panel with Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan this season, asked, “Are you okay?” to which Conway replied, “No, but yes.” In typical American Idol fashion, details about Conway’s life were revealed in her backstory reel, where she spoke about how her life was uprooted from her home in New Jersey to Washington D.C. when she was 12 years old, and how this changed her relationship with her mother.
This season of American Idol introduced a new feature that allowed every contestant to video call their family members who could not be backstage at the audition venue due to COVID-19 protocols. While Conway was accompanied by her father, a founding member of a conservative committee against Donald Trump, her mother offered her some words of advice via video call. “This is your time to shine, but remember honey, winners are people that are willing to lose,” she said. Some pointed out that Kellyanne Conway’s message seems highly ironic, considering her support of former President Trump who refused to concede the 2020 presidential election for months.
Despite the prominence of both her parents, Conway voiced what she hoped to achieve in her audition during her backstory reel. “I want to get out of the controversy, get out of the drama, get out of the political whatever, and let people know that I am a singer,” she said.
Conway then announced that she chose “Love on the Brain” by Rihanna as her audition song. She only sang a few lines before being interrupted by Perry, who asked if she could sing a different song. Conway then went with “When We Were Young” by Adele, eliciting a comment from Perry that put Conway’s personal life in the spotlight: “When you sing this next song, think about when you were young […] It’s like you lost your youth because you weren’t able to experience it on your own without all this noise.”
The judges each offered a critique of the young singer after her performance, commenting on her lack of range, her underdeveloped voice, and the likelihood of her being unable to compete with the other talent in the competition. Yet, only Bryan voted “No” on Conway’s audition, with the majority — Perry and Richie — voting “Yes,” sending Conway through to the next round. Instead of chanting the famous line, “You’re going to Hollywood!” Perry instead drew attention to Conway’s political life once again, saying, “Claudia, you’re not going to D.C., honey, you’re going straight to Hollywood.”
Unfortunately for Conway, the heavy political messaging on the part of the production of this episode of American Idol will make it difficult to see her as a genuine singer. American Idol, as a reality-style television competition, is known for offering background information — usually a tragic story that taps into the audience’s pathos and gives them a reason to root for the singers beyond their talent. Instead of giving Conway a platform to free herself of her heavily political family life, they chose to make that her identity, politicizing her audition.