All the way back in 2002, American Idol was just getting started. The very first winner was Kelly Clarkson who, today, is 39 years old and who was just 20 back then. The singer took the world by storm and kicked off a long music, movie, and television career. The first season also solidified American Idol as the biggest singing competition on TV and it effectively changed how competition shows work. It truly was the first of its kind.
But the 2002 American Idol looks quite a bit different from the 2020 American Idol and a big reason for that is the age limit change. The contestants who are auditioning today may not have been able to in that first season.
The age limit on 'American Idol' has changed a lot, creating the limit we have in 2020.
When American Idol first started, the only people who could audition were between the ages of 16 and 24. This range lasted until the end of the first three seasons of the show. After that, the decision was made to raise it to 28. However, it was raised pretty grudgingly and Fox's programming chief at the time, Gail Berman, told the Television Critics Association that she didn't see the benefit of raising it higher than 28.
"I’m sure there are people who are tremendously talented above that but we’re talking about people who hope to have pop careers afterwards,” she said.
In 2010, the lower age limit was also changed. Instead of only allowing kids 16 and up, they would start allowing 15-year-olds as well. The change started in Season 10 and many believed it was strange timing. It was a common complaint during the prior season that some of the teen competitors were unprofessional or simply could not connect with the music much because of a lack of life experience.
However, many outlets chalked it up to the "Justin Bieber effect." At the time, the young singer was topping the charts at barely 16 years old, but had been making waves since he signed to Island Records at just 14. It would make sense for American Idol, which, as Gail admits, is about finding someone who can have a successful pop career, to do all they can to mimic the success of other pop stars.
How has the new age limit worked out for 'American Idol'?
Honestly, it hasn't had too much of an effect. Between Season 4 and Season 9, the age limits were between 16 and 28. At their time of winning, only two winners were between the old age limit of 24 and the new one of 28: Taylor Hicks and David Cook, neither of which went on to have the enduring pop career Gail wanted.
Nick Fradiani won Season 14 at the age of 29 and Trent Harmon won Season 15 at the age of 26. The age limits at the time of their wins were the current limits of 15 to 28.
After the age limit was lowered to 15, the average age of the winners stayed virtually the exact same. Prior to Season 10, the average age was about 22 and a half. After Season 10, the average was about 22 and a quarter. Jordin Sparks currently ranks as the youngest winner at the age of 17 and her season occurred before the age decrease even happened.