Thump, thump, thump. Here that? That's the sound of The X Factor limping back for another season. And the big question on everyone's mind is: Will the third time be the charm?
The show certainly hasn't given up hope, touting itself in the opening credits as having launched "more global stars than any other singing competition in the world," from Leona Lewis to Cher Lloyd to One Direction. Of course, all those acts came out of the U.K. version.
In reality, the U.S. version has failed to create any bona fide stars so far (past winners Melanie Amaro and Tate Stevens have already pretty much vanished). And for the third time in as many seasons, the show has shaken up its judges' panel, bringing newbies Kelly Rowland and Paulina Rubio to the table alongside returnees Simon Cowell and Demi Lovato, who last season struck up a love/hate relationship that proved to be more entertaining than anything former judges Antonio "L.A." Reid, Britney Spears or Nicole Scherzinger ('memba her?) could muster.
We're sure some people will disagree, but the addition of Kelly and Paulina doesn't strike us as lightning in a bottle – Rowland is an ex-Destiny's Child member who lives in Beyoncé's shadow (and a former judge on the U.K. show) while Rubio is a Latin pop star whose massive international success has yet to filter into the mainstream in the U.S. It seems like self-proclaimed ladies' man Simon just wanted to surround himself with a harem of exotic women. However, we'll give the first female-dominated judges' panel on U.S. TV the benefit of the doubt. For now, anyway.
But enough about them, let's get to what the show is really supposed to be about: the contestants.
In a mostly positive premiere, the revamped judges' panel – along with returning host Mario Lopez, who was successfully able to slough off last season's dead weight Khloe Kardashian – hit several cities looking for potential winners during its first round of auditions: Los Angeles; New Orleans; Long Island and Charleston, South Carolina. And right out of the gate, they may have discovered two acts that could go the distance.
The clear victor of the night was 54-year-old Lillie McCloud, who must have discovered the Fountain of Youth (or a really good plastic surgeon) because she doesn't look a day over 30. Sporting a giant afro and a skin-tight leather catsuit, the gorgeous grandmother of seven (real name: Nicole McCloud) belted out a soulful rendition of CeCe Winans' "Alabaster Box" that left Demi in tears. "It ripped my heart of out my chest; it felt like listening to Whitney," Demi said, later adding that she'd bet all her money on Lillie making it to the finals. And we couldn't agree more; the woman was amazing. Plus, we need more time to figure out her beauty secrets.
Then there was cutesy 20-something couple Alex and Sierra, who stepped out onstage holding hands and acting like an impromptu stand-up comedy act before performing a unique, Americana-ish take on Britney Spears' "Toxic." Think: The Civil Wars, only a little more rough around the edges. While Sierra came across as awkward and nervous (she broke down in happy-tears at the end), Alex exuded a kind of John Mayer-meets-Phillip Phillips vibe. Before handing them an E-ZPass to the next round, Simon said of the duo: "I thought it was gonna be quite corny, but you're both cool and quirky."
Middling out was 23-year-old Carlito Olivero, who stormed the stage stating he wants to be a "Latino Chris Brown." (We say, aim higher.) His performance of Rihanna's "Stay" was decent, but his over-confidence was a little distracting. Instead of focusing on the judges, he walked right past them and tried to work the crowd. The only problem was, he's not Chris Brown; he's just a guy auditioning for The X Factor. So, it was a bit anti-climactic. But the cocky move paid off, since Simon said, "I saw your profile and thought, this boy looks like a real star" before sending Carlito off to the next round.
The requisite tug-at-your-heartstrings moment came when 13-year-old Rion Paige bounced onstage with big curly hair and an even bigger smile despite sporting an obvious disability and being blind in one eye. She did a somewhat shaky rendition of Carrie Underwood's "Blown Away" that the judges ate up, easily giving her four yeses. "Music heals everything," Paulina pointed out.
And then there was 55-year-old Sally Hessnice, who strutted out wearing a form-fitting cocktail dress and a gigantic grin (and looking 55, unlike the age-defying Lillie). Poor Sally was clueless, even when Simon dryly quipped that she was a dead-ringer for 21-year-old Demi – which made Sally squeal and Demi squirm. After Sally butchered Whitney Houston's "Greatest Love of All," Simon announced: "I've just been told that 8,000 dogs just tried to get into the venue." And with that, Sally and her smile were sent packing.
Tonight, two more hours of auditions will give us a better idea of how the new judges' panel might pan out. In the meantime, tell us: What did you think of Kelly and Paulina?