She was supposed to be a lawyer. This lanky, toothy New York girl, a poli-sci grad out of Duke with a rich mind but shaky self-esteem, was "going to take the more accepted path." She would give in to her innate shyness, her paralyzing self-doubt. Never mind all those hot melodies swirling in her head. Like most of us who squat in front of the radio and TV instead of thrive inside them, Kara Elizabeth DioGuardi would simply decline to shine.
But as it turns out, those melodies, those hooks — all unlocked circa 2000, when Aussie sprite Kylie Minogue recorded one of her songs — beat the stuffing out of her insecurities. She wasn't going to be a lawyer after all. After selling ads at Billboard magazine for a few years, she decided to go full-tilt into songwriting, becoming a hot pen coveted by Christina Aguilera (Ain't No Other Man), Pink (Sober), Kelly Clarkson (I Do Not Hook Up), Gwen Stefani (Rich Girl). That spawned other titles: publisher, producer, pinup.
And yes, despite the terror of standing in front of crowds, she became a judge on American Idol, the most watched television series of the 21st century. She's the Italian chick from New Rochelle who talks with her neck, saying things like "You're believable, you come from the heart" as if she's laying bets at a dog track. Couple that gig with 32 writing credits on 21 major albums in 2009 alone, and it's safe to say DioGuardi is one of the most dominant tastemakers around — even more so than fellow Idol judge Simon Cowell.
And for the first time in her life: "I would kind of agree with you on that," DioGuardi says.
• • •
Tuesday morning, 10:15. Phone rings. It's DioGuardi, setting a record for earliest celebrity interview ever. She's dialing from Boston, where she's giving a speech on how someone becomes Kara DioGuardi. Step 1: Go, go, go. She sounds tired, but conspiratorially so, as if we're all beaten down by life, not just the rich and famous. A few minutes with DioGuardi and you want to be her pal. Or at least get the poor thing a pillow.
"Hair and makeup is the bane of my existence," she sighs. Her "quadruple life," as she calls it, hinges on the precision of filling every minute of every day. Even when the show is rolling five months out of the year, "I try to schedule two songwriting sessions a week. Good Girls Go Bad (a club hit she penned for glam-rockers Cobra Starship) was written right before a live show."
As well as being a TV star, a songwriter and a producer, the recently married multitasker has a bold new title with Warner Bros. Records: executive vice president of talent development. Her most recent signing is Jason Derulo, a 20-year-old Miami native who rewarded her with a big fat No. 1 hit, Whatcha Say.
"Kara is the perfect record executive," Derulo tells me in an e-mail. "Not only does she understand the business aspect of the 'music biz,' she is fully in tune with the creative-artistic side." Derulo says DioGuardi can be honest — at times brutally so — but also fun. "I can't even count the times Kara has had me crying laughing. She just likes to have a good time."
That may sound like a young charge kissing up to his boss, but DioGuardi has a gift for working with young stars, from Idol grads (Adam Lambert, Allison Iraheta) to Disney stars (Miley Cyrus, Ashley Tisdale).
"Ultimately, I'm still a child inside," says DioGuardi, who turns 40 in December. "I'm inspired by going back to being a child. It's easy for me to channel — almost scarily so. I'm in touch with the pureness of it." She vaguely nods to a less-than-Barbie upbringing; it's more fun being a kid now than it was then.
In her earlier songwriting days, DioGuardi would write by herself. Maybe the deeply personal songs would find a home, maybe they wouldn't. Now she has the luxury "of working with these young artists, getting in the room with them." In other words: getting inside their heads.
For Aguilera's Grammy-winning No. 1 Ain't No Other Man, "Christina and I found a common denominator. At the time, I wasn't in a loving relationship, but she was. We wrote the melody and lyrics to the track (beats, samples). We evolved the song. If you can dream it, she can sing it."
DioGuardi is intensely loyal to her pop pals. But when asked to pick one person to sing one of her songs, she doesn't hesitate. Her choice is not young; in fact, he's not even alive. "Frank Sinatra. I'd love to hear him sing it in a darkly lit restaurant with candle lamps on the table and velvety maroon couch seats, all while I'm having a pasta dinner. Yeah," she adds, enjoying the idea of relaxing almost as much as the listening part: "Frank Sinatra."
• • •
"Songwriting is where I go to download," says DioGuardi. "Idol is where I go to push myself."
DioGuardi has "always been camera-shy," struggling "my whole life with body issues." So the decisions she makes often come from her desire to snuff out fear. Last season, on the finale, she flashed her remarkably ab-ripped body to show up snotty contestant Katrina "Bikini Girl" Darrell. It went a long way in winning over skeptical fans. This month, DioGuardi appears in Maxim men's magazine in a red bikini. "I made an effort to make it tasteful, classy. I'm almost 40. I didn't want it to be suggestive."
DioGuardi admits to a certain awkwardness in her first year on Idol. But she's different in her second go-round. Charley Belcher, the Idol reporter at Tampa's WTVT-Ch. 13, has spent time on and off-camera with DioGuardi, and he sees a change, too. "During the audition process this year in Orlando, you could see she was much more relaxed," Belcher says. "She was no longer the rookie. She rubs a lot of fans the wrong way, but she brings a great credibility with her resume. A lot of fans dismiss her, not realizing she probably wrote some of their favorite songs."
It's also easier sitting at the judge's panel knowing you're an equal. DioGuardi says: "Simon and I are both doing the same thing now. I'm thinking more like a producer than a judge. I can go out and find a Jason Derulo. I'm also in the studio fighting with the artists, saying this isn't what you want to do. I've learned from Simon. There's a craft to it."
DioGuardi is careful what she says about the show itself, especially regarding Cowell's departure after this, the ninth season. "Of course, it's going to be a different show," she says. "But people will still love to see other people's dreams come true." She's not buying the rumors of Howard Stern as a replacement, although she adds that "somebody from the South would be cool. Brad Paisley. Vince Gill. Or somebody like Harry Connick Jr."
When asked who she thinks will win this year — St. Petersburg native Michael Lynche, perhaps — she blurts, "Do you want me to get fired?" But then she relents . . . a little: "It would be nice for a girl to win. But the thing with this show is, you never know what's going to happen."
• • •
When this season of Idol ends in May, DioGuardi will find time — somewhere, somehow — to get away to her vacation home in Prospect Harbor, Maine. "I go there and feel like I'm in another world," she says, as if every word is punctuated with a stretch. "I can spend a whole day shopping for dinner. I can make a whole afternoon out of picking blueberries. I nap when I go to Maine. I eat lobster. We can get it for, like, four bucks a pound there. I don't write songs in Maine. I don't do anything having to do with music. Instead, I get in touch with my life. I get back to who I am."
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.