The integrity of “American Idol” as a contest for raw, undiscovered talent was called into question again after an Irish singer who once had a major-label deal, and solo album that flopped, advanced to the top rung of the competition this week. Dublin native Carly Smithson, who formerly recorded for MCA Records under her maiden name, Carly Hennessy, was one of the 24 “Idol” contestants who made it on Wednesday to the semifinal rounds voted on each week by the show’s home TV audience.
Online critics immediately seized on her initial success, and her professional recording background, as further evidence that “the fix” might be in for the top-rated show on U.S. television.
“‘American Idol’ is supposed to be all about giving undiscovered talent a chance,” wrote Lyndsey Parker in an entry posted on Thursday on her Reality Rocks blog site. “It makes me wonder if Carly is a prearranged plant.”
A spokeswoman for the News Corp-owned Fox network, which broadcasts “American Idol,” declined to comment.
Smithson is hardly the first “Idol” wannabe to have toiled professionally as a performer before appearing on the show.
“Idol” bars anyone with a current talent-management deal or recording contract from competing, but contestants are permitted to have signed professionally in the past.
Still, critics suggest that “Idol” producers appear to be deliberately obscuring Smithson’s background.
The show’s video profile on Smithson, now 24, acknowledges that she competed two years ago in Season 5 before she was disqualified over visa problems. But her on-air biography made no mention of her past relationship with MCA Records.
Nor did it mention that her 2001 debut album on that label, ironically titled “Ultimate High,” was such a spectacular flop that it was profiled in the Wall Street Journal as a case study in the shortcomings of music industry marketing.
Despite solid reviews and more than $2.2 million spent by MCA producing and marketing the album, the CD sold fewer than 400 copies in its first three months of release, according to the Journal.
MCA still has an official Web site devoted to Carly Hennessy — she took her husband’s surname, Smithson, after getting married — that outlines her career as a child performer in Ireland.
The daughter of a fashion model, young Carly landed the role of Little Cosette in the international production of the stage musical “Les Miserables” at the age of 9. A year later she recorded an album of holiday music that was distributed across Ireland and Britain.
She also played a small part in the 1990 film “Fools of Fortune” and at age 12 became a nationally recognized face in an Irish advertising campaign for a sausage company.
According to her MCA profile, she ventured to the United States with her father/manager at age 15 with a demo tape in hand, got an audition with MCA Records President Jay Boberg and “he signed her on the spot.”
But the resulting album, produced with the help of former New Radicals singer-songwriter Gregg Alexander, failed to gain ground in the flooded teen market, and Hennessy lost her deal.
If she emerges victorious on “American Idol,” Smithson will become the show’s first champion to have previously recorded an album for a major label.