09.21.11

X Factor’s Controversial New Judge

Nicole Scherzinger is a two-time reality-show winner and former lead singer of The Pussycat Dolls. But can she pull off critiquing TV’s biggest competition ever? By Jaimie Etkin.

Nicole Scherzinger’s career has taken an 180-degree turn. The former Pussycat Doll is one of the judging foursome on Simon Cowell’s reality show The X Factor, where she’ll decide, along with Cowell, Paula Abdul, and L.A. Reid, who will take home the largest prize in TV history: a $5 million record deal.

It was only a decade ago when Scherzinger was standing on the other side of the judges’ table. The then 22-year-old had driven from her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, to Chicago to audition for a WB reality series called Popstars.

During a time when The Real World, Survivor, and Big Brother were the only games in town, Popstars, produced by Grammy-winning record producer David Foster, was one of the first shows to incorporate talent into the reality genre. Scherzinger, who had grown up on the stage, was looking for a solo deal after leaving Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio to tour with a band called Days of the New. “It was my mother who had heard about the audition for Popstars,” she said recently in a phone interview. “I was like, ‘No, Mom.  I’m from the theater; I’m not going to be a Spice Girl.’  She said, ‘Just give it a shot.’ And honestly, coming from humble beginnings, I had no way of getting to Hollywood.”

Scherzinger’s rendition of “I Will Always Love You,” by her longtime idol, Whitney Houston, wowed the judges. She earned a spot in Popstars’ group, Eden’s Crush. “It was the forefront of reality TV,” Scherzinger said. “It was crazy. I wasn’t used to the camera always being on me and having to leave Kentucky and move to Los Angeles. It was really scary. I was very green and very sensitive. If anyone watched those tapes back, I was usually crying. But it was a great learning experience for me.”

Eden’s Crush’s debut album was certified gold, but by the end of 2001, their record company folded and the group disbanded. Scherzinger found herself without a deal and regretting a missed opportunity: She had been asked to be the female singer for the Black Eyed Peas. “Will[.i.am] asked me to join the group and I was under contract [with Eden’s Crush] and unfortunately, I couldn’t,” she explained. “It’s OK because I was a huge fan of the group and Fergie was meant to be.”

After the Black Eyed Peas phenomenon passed her by and the curtains fell on Eden’s Crush, Scherzinger took a break. When she was ready to work on a new demo, she transitioned into more of a folk sound. Scherzinger was preparing to shop it around, but then, in 2005, she heard about another audition—this time, for a group called The Pussycat Dolls. The Los Angeles-based burlesque dance ensemble had attracted celebrity hosts and musical guests for years. When it was Gwen Stefani’s turn to take the stage, her record label was looking to turn the show into a recording group. Enter Scherzinger’s headlining moment. She ditched her folksy new sound for irresistible pop tunes and the scantily clad look of The Pussycat Dolls. “Growing up with a strong Catholic family and having a very conservative background, I wasn’t used to wearing clothes like that, so it was scary for me at first,” Scherzinger said. “My mom always tried to get me to convince everyone to change the name of the group to The Dolls. But once they heard the music, they were huge fans.”

With their successfully scandalous image, The Pussycat Dolls went on to release two albums, both of which cracked the Billboard Top 10. They collaborated with Snoop Dogg, Timbaland, Busta Rhymes, and Missy Elliott, toured with Britney Spears, and spawned their own reality TV show, The Search for the Next Doll.  But by 2010, the Dolls’ time in the spotlight was over.

“The Dolls had been together for six years and at the end of the day, we’re individuals and we want to do our own thing. A few of the girls actually left the group and I didn’t want to be in a group with different girls,” Scherzinger said. “I figured that was the right timing to go back to the studio, back to the grind, and do my music.”

The pop star was fresh off winning yet another reality TV competition, Dancing With the Stars, when she met producer RedOne, who cowrote Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance,” while doing a remake “We Are the World” for Haiti. “At that time, I was wanting to do an album and music as an artist that was just going to be explosive live,” Scherzinger said of her longtime-coming solo debut, Killer Love. “We got in the studio and we did so many songs together,” she said. “Then I worked with other producers because they bring out other things and personalities in you as an artist.”

And that’s exactly what the world is about to see from the now 33-year-old seasoned performer. November brings her first solo album, Killer Love, and she’ll be on TV twice a week on The X Factor, one of fall’s most buzzed about premieres. Scherzinger says she first met notorious music industry grinch Simon Cowell when she guest judged on the British version of The X Factor. “I was a huge fan of Simon,” she said. “He tells the truth and he’s himself and that’s actually why I like him so much.”

Her new gig didn’t come without a little commotion. She was originally attached to the show only as a cohost, but when British pop star Cheryl Cole was booted from the judging panel,Scherzinger was made a full-time judge. “I wanted to be a part of the show because I believe in Simon and I had an amazing time when I was part of it in the U.K.,” she said. “When they asked me to be a judge, I was ecstatic because I can actually give back and be a mentor and have a voice in that way.” Though Scherzinger said she’d met Cole previously, she added, “I honestly didn’t know her…[but] she’s a lovely girl.”

“I feel like that whole panel is just a force to be reckoned with… Simon always says, ‘I lock the doors. You can’t escape. Anything goes. There are no rules.’”

In the aftermath, there were reports that the shake up was a set up (which she adamantly denied) and some questioned whether or not Scherzinger was up for the challenge. Entertainment Weekly called her “the very embodiment of Unearned Entitlement,” adding, “The immortal description of Clive James regarding Liza Minnelli holds true of Scherzinger: ‘She can’t even descend a staircase with sincerity.’” Even Cowell already poked fun at the pop star. “Paula can be a bit wacky at times,” Cowell told the New York Daily News recently, adding that Scherzinger adopted the accent of each city in which they held auditions. “But Nicole isn’t far behind, in a fantastically self-centered way, which I found amusing.”

Scandalous shuffling aside, since Scherzinger has won two reality TV shows and judged another [The Singing Bee], she claims to know what the winner of The X Factor needs: “I’m looking for someone who inspires me. And that’s not only going to take talent, but also it needs to be someone I can connect with, through their performance and through their energy.”

As far as the reports of a lack of chemistry among the judging quartet, Scherzinger said, “I feel like that whole panel is just a force to be reckoned with… Simon always says, ‘I lock the doors. You can’t escape. Anything goes. There are no rules.’ And he means it. And that’s what he encourages everyone to be like and do. And when you create a space like that, anything is possible and anything can happen—you’re living in a spontaneous world and that’s what makes great television.”