Entering its 19th season of diminishing returns on viewership and cultural relevance, the new season of American Idol debuted on ABC this Valentine’s Day. In a clear ratings pushed that has only served to court controversy, the singing competition featured an audition by Claudia Conway and an appearance by her mother, former Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway. Almost immediately, the show was called out for its gross and potentially damaging whitewashing of the former White House official’s image.
The 16-year-old Claudia has became a social media celebrity of some infamy, posting revealing insight into her politically complicated family life. (Her father, George Conway, is a prominent anti-Trump lawyer.) Her TikTok videos have revealed troubling insight into her home life, including how Kellyanne contracted COVID-19, lied about it, and exposed her family to the virus.
The American Idol segment was filmed back in November, after the coronavirus story broke but before things got really bad. Recent videos Claudia posted to TikTok have captured abusive scenes in which Kellyanne was seen screaming at and physically hitting her daughter. The worst of it came last month, when Kellyanne allegedly leaked a topless photo of her teenaged daughter on social media in an apparent act of retaliation.
Even after all that, ABC chose to air the Conways’ American Idol appearance in a way that carelessly, cynically ignored the troubling personal truths of both Kellyanne and Claudia. When the teen first took the audition stage, judge Katy Perry asked, “Are you okay?” “No,” replied Claudia, laughing like an uncomfortable teen going through the trauma of a public life she didn’t choose might.
Perry and her fellow judges Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan continued to treat Claudia like a ratings booster, telling her to block out the realities of her too-exposed life even as they thrust her center stage on a reality show. Worse yet, Kellyanne appeared twice via video chat, playing the role of a caring and supportive parent that contradicts the behind-the-scenes videos Clauida herself has frequently shared. Of course, the pair’s acrimonious relationship doesn’t exclude real familial love, but American Idol’s decision to ignore the harsher aspects of who and what Kellyanne is has drawn the Internet’s ire.
“Good work by American Idol in their efforts to rehab the reputation of a horrible human @KellyannePolls,” tweeted journalist Soledad O’Brien. “Do any of those kids that Kellyanne Conway helped lock up in cages get a chance to be on ‘American Idol’?” asked comedian Noel Casler.
Indeed, this isn’t the first time reality competitions have crassly tried to treat “the pursuit of fame as the cure for infamy,” as Daniel D’Addario wrote for Variety. Recall Sean Spicer’s or Bristol Palin’s appearances on Dancing with the Stars, for example. D’Addario contends that Claudia Conway’s American Idol role is particularly distressing, however, as she’s a teen and the show is simultaneously feigning interest in her regaining control over her own story while usurping it themselves.
“If the show is concerned that Claudia lost what has elapsed so far of her youth, the way to redress it would not be by having her spend some small portion of her teen years practicing her persona for millions on TV,” he wrote. “If it wanted her to be able to suss out who Claudia is, it might allow her to do it elsewhere and then come back for season 21.”
As D’Addario concluded in his editorial,
“What ABC has done here is wrong, and should merit deep reflection on the part of producers and executives. I suspect that will only come, though, if the ratings aren’t good, at which point young Claudia and her story of woe will quickly become expendable. She will have simply have found that a certain sort of moral swamp extends even as far as Hollywood, and met one more set of people willing to let drama play out in public as long as it sells.”
Of course, Claudia made it through the audition round despite giving a frankly fine but not “pop star worthy” performance of Adele’s “When We Were Young”. She previously tried performing Rihanna’s “Love on the Brain”, but was given a second chance by the judges following a pep talk about drowning out the noise of her family and taking off her high-heels. After getting her golden ticket, Kellyanne cheered her on for going to Hollywood, a stark contrast to her years slamming the city as the den of liberal swamp monsters.
Even Claudia seems to recognize the way her family’s image is being used by the American Idol producers, hiding the real traumas therein. On her TikTok account, she posted two clips of her reacting to Perry’s “are you okay” question, both times giving a knowing side glance and and self-deprecatingly mocking her own answer of a cheery, “No.”
Watch Clauida and Kellyanne’s American Idol segment below.