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Top 15 'Australian Idol' Moments

28 January 2023 | 11:26 am | Jeff Jenkins

As Australian Idol returns to our screens, we remember the magic moments from the show that took the nation by storm when it started 20 years ago.

When Australian Idol premiered in 2003, judge Marcia Hines remarked, “This show is going to be bigger than anybody could imagine.”

Marcia was right. Idol was a blockbuster. The first winner’s single – Guy Sebastian’s Angels Brought Me Here – sold an astonishing 128,679 copies in its first week. And the show helped to create stars such as Guy, Shannon Noll, Jessica Mauboy, Anthony Callea, Casey Donovan, Lisa Mitchell, Matt Corby and Casey Barnes.

As we wonder if Idol can recapture its former glory, let’s count down Idol’s 15 greatest moments …

15. That’s the standard

Guy Sebastian’s mum wants him to cut his hair before his Idol audition, but Guy decides to go with the fro. “You’ve got a hell of a fro going on there,” judge Ian “Dicko” Dickson says when Guy arrives at the Adelaide audition. Wearing number 10230, Guy sings Ribbon In The Sky, a song by his favourite performer, Stevie Wonder, and Dicko is blown away. “Head and shoulders, the best voice we’ve heard today.” Marcia is speechless before adding, “What a beautiful gift. Thank you.” As Guy leaves the room, Dicko declares: “That’s a voice. That’s the standard.”

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14. I think Australia will love you

Shannon Noll thinks about pulling out of his Idol audition – it clashes with his weekend game of footy, and he doesn’t want to let the team down. He calls the coach, who says, “Don’t worry about it, mate; you go to the audition.” When Shannon wanders into the Sydney audition, he chats with Dicko about the drought, and Shannon explains how he lost his dad in a farming accident. He also speaks about his fiancée and their two little boys. “I’m sort of at my wits’ end at the moment,” Shannon says, “because I’ve been a farmer my whole life. I’m not qualified for anything else.” Shannon sings Southern Sons’ Hold Me In Your Arms, and Mark Holden is blown away. “You just won me 100 per cent. That’s a big yes from me.” Dicko adds: “I think Australia will love you, I really do.” Shannon’s footy team lost, but he won big.

13. The first touchdown

Cold Chisel’s When The War Is Over, written by drummer Steve Prestwich, hit number 25 when it was released in 1982. It was also the final Little River Band single to feature John Farnham. But having the biggest hit with the song was Cosima De Vito, who took it all the way to number one in 2004. And her Idol performance generates another first – Mark Holden’s first touchdown.

12. In like Flynn

The Melbourne auditions uncover an intriguing artist in Idol’s second year – 18-year-old Zhuo Liu, known as Flynn. Wearing a pink shirt and furry jacket, Flynn turns his back to the judges, stamps his feet, and holds an imaginary microphone. He then delivers an astonishing hip-shaking version of Michael Jackson’s Beat It. After his audition, Flynn – a high school student who’d moved to Australia from China 18 months before – does 16 interviews in one day. Kyle Sandilands probes him on the radio, asking if he is still a virgin. Flynn replies: “Physically a virgin and technologically a virgin.” Flynn promised to return in 2005, but he hasn’t been sighted since.

11. The kinda freak they should be discovering 

Captivating Idol’s fourth season, in 2006, is a space-age crooner whose cover of The Church’s Under The Milky Way almost turns Steve Kilbey into an Idol fan. “Oh, I’m almost ashamed of myself, but I can’t stop now,” Kilbey blogs after seeing the performance. “I have to say I have slightly adjusted my opinion of Idol. First of all, Bobby Flynn is just my cuppa tea – weirdly handsome, great hair, and you can see in his eyes this cat is gone, man … he’s a natural. He’s the kinda freak they should be discovering.” Bobby released Under The Milky Way as his debut single. It failed to chart.

10. The welcome Matt

Matt Corby is just a 16-year-old “kid from Cronulla” when he auditions in 2007, performing Stevie Wonder’s Superstition. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have a potential Australian Idol,” Mark Holden proclaims, calling him “a monster singer”.

9. Jack’s back

Melbourne’s Jack Maalouf doesn’t quite have the voice the judges are looking for, but they can’t fault his never-say-die attitude. Has an Idol contestant ever been more determined? When Jack auditioned in 2006 and 2007, Kyle suggested he lose some weight. So, Jack became a bodybuilding champ, revealing the secret of his success – sardines. In 2008, Jack performs When You Say Nothing At All, and Kyle shows he has a heart – offering to pay for Jack to perform in Sydney.

8. You exemplify what Australian Idol is about

“You sound very nervous,” Marcia Hines says to 16-year-old Lisa Mitchell when she arrives at her audition to sing Howie Day’s Collide in 2006. Kyle stops her performance after just 20 seconds, and Mark Holden starts singing “I’m in love”. The Albury singer then unveils an original, See It In Your Eyes. Marcia is also an instant fan, declaring: “You exemplify what Australian Idol is about – you’re an individual, you are gorgeous, without even trying.”

7. Jelly Belly bites back

Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful has become a staple of singing shows, but has anyone done it better than Jessica Mauboy in 2006? The week before, Kyle Sandilands dared to criticise Jessica’s weight, saying if she wanted to make it in the music business, she needed to “lose the jelly belly”. “I don’t think we’ve ever had a more appropriate song ever sung on this show,” co-host Andrew G says in his introduction. It’s time for another touchdown. A star is born.

6. Guy climbs every mountain

On Idol’s ’60s show, Guy Sebastian wears a white suit and sings Climb Every Mountain from The Sound Of Music. “It’s the best thing to see another singer just get moved,” Marcia gushes. “You are brilliant!” Mark is also buzzing. “You set yourself a mountain to climb – there were all kinds of ravines and crevices you could have fallen into, man, but God bless you, man. I have to do this, and I apologise to everyone in my family, but I need everybody’s help ... One, two, three ... Touchdown!”

5. The final touchdown

On her way to winning Idol in 2007, Natalie Gauci has the honour of receiving Mark Holden’s final touchdown. After Natalie performs How High The Moon on the Big Band show, Mark says: “You’re an artist; God bless you.”

Mark my words

Like Red Symons’ gong on Hey Hey’s Red Faces, the nation embraced Mark Holden’s catchphrase: Touchdown! As we prepare for this year’s judging panel – Harry Connick Jr, Meghan Trainor, Amy Shark and Kyle Sandilands – we come to praise Mark Holden. Has there ever been a singing judge more qualified? He was a teen idol in the ’70s – The Carnation Kid – scoring five Top 40 hits and starring in TV and movies. He moved to LA, where he worked as a producer and songwriter for artists as diverse as The Temptations, Belinda Carlisle and David Hasselhoff. And then he co-managed Vanessa Amorosi and worked with a young Delta Goodrem. This guy knows his stuff. And he also has a way with words.

Mark Holden’s Top 5 Idol put-downs

“You said your friends told you you should be a singer or a stand-up comedian – I hope you’re funny.”

“Too much binga-de-bangda-boom and not enough singing for me.”

“I'm sorry, I'm hearing cruise ships.”

“I just feel like I’ve been witness to a seal being clubbed.”

“I’m utterly, totally and completely bummed because you are so gorgeous, and you are such a bad singer. Have a voice-ectomy or something.”

Back to the countdown …

4. Cosima’s exit

The first series is down to three contestants – Guy, Shannon and Cosima De Vito. Guy is announced as the first finalist, as Andrew G builds the tension: “We have Shannon and Cosima awaiting their fate … there is less than .08 of a per cent between them.” But Cosima has an announcement of her own. She unwraps a piece of paper and drops a bombshell. “I’d like to thank all my supporters and the Australian public for believing in me,” she says with her voice breaking. “I’ve been extremely humbled by the support you have shown me. Unfortunately, I have a temporary condition that’s affecting my voice, and it’s forced me to make the decision to leave the competition.”

3. Casey wins

When 2004’s Top 30 is announced, Sydney schoolgirl Casey Donovan is the $101 outsider to take the title. Even when she makes the final two, Anthony Callea is the overwhelming favourite at $1.20. Casey is paying $4. But when Andrew G opens the envelope, he reveals: “Australia, here we go ... the winner of Australian Idol 2004 is Casey Donovan!”

2. A golden controversy

Just five would-be Idols are left in year one when Paulini walks out to perform Destiny’s Child’s Survivor, wearing a gold Charlie Brown frock. Idol’s biggest controversy is about to begin. After her performance, Mark asks, “What’s with what you’re wearing, girl?” As the crowd boos, he continues, “Whoever convinced you to wear that, I wouldn’t listen to ’em again.” Dicko jumps in: “You should choose more appropriate clothes or shed some pounds. I’m sorry.” Talkback radio goes into meltdown. 

Even Molly Meldrum enters the debate: “It can be devastating for a young artist to be dressed down like that. If Aretha Franklin went on Idol, would he say she should lose weight?” Paulini is shaken, later admitting, “I felt like going to some place where it was dark and hiding from everyone. I felt hammered.” A Victorian Government Minister bags the judges, saying their comments were “abusive and damaging”. Jacinta Allan, who’s now Deputy Premier, says: “This sort of treatment does not just harm the young people it is targeted at; it sends a terrible message that it is okay to abuse people because of their physical appearance.”

1. The Grand Royale Touchdown

Sunday, October 3, 2004, is “Idols’ Choice”. Anthony Callea chooses a song that’s never been a hit in Australia, a duet by Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli for the 1998 movie Quest For Camelot, which bombed at the box office. “I had this whole ‘Plastic Fantastic’ thing hanging over me,” Callea recalls. “I needed to show them something with a bit more depth, and, for some reason, The Prayer popped into my head. My gut feeling was telling me to do it, but there was also a voice in my head saying, ‘Don’t do it; it’s too risky.’” 

Dicko – who has been Callea’s biggest detractor – is nearly speechless when the song ends. “I don’t know what to say; I truly don’t. That’s probably the finest performance I’ve seen on that stage in two years. Mate, this competition is all about defining moments, and you just had yours. You may only be two-foot tall, but tonight, you’re a giant.” And Mark Holden concludes: “Tonight, man, I’m gonna invent a new concept – this is the Grand Royale, man. That was a Grand Royale Touchdown!”

And let’s not forget the one and only World Idol

At the height of Idol mania, there was the one-off World Idol, featuring 11 Idols from around the world, which Channel 10 showed on Boxing Day 2003, with the winner announced on a second show on January 2, 2004. Guy Sebastian sang What A Wonderful World and finished seventh. The winner was Kurt Nilsen, a Norwegian father of two, who scored 106 points out of a possible 112, receiving top votes from all but one of the voting nations. Dicko, Australia’s judge, said, “you have the voice of an angel, but you look like a hobbit”. Nilsen released a cover of Tal Bachman’s She’s So High, but it failed to crack the Australian Top 40.


2003 – Guy Sebastian

2004 – Casey Donovan

2005 – Kate DeAraugo

2006 – Damien Leith

2007 – Natalie Gauci

2008 – Wes Carr

2009 – Stan Walker


Whatever way you look at it – particularly if you put it in a head-to-head battle with The Voice – Australian Idol’s strike rate is remarkable.

You can argue about the order, but this is a pretty impressive list of stars from Idol’s first seven years:

1: Guy Sebastian (6 #1 singles, 3 #1 albums, 7 ARIAs)

2: Jessica Mauboy (3 #1 albums, 9 Top 10 singles)

3: Shannon Noll (only Aussie male to have 10 consecutive Top 10 singles)

4: Anthony Callea (3 #1 albums, 2 #1 singles)

5: Matt Corby (2 ARIAs, a #1 album and a J Award for Album of the Year)

6: Lisa Mitchell (3 Top 10 albums; only Idol to win the AMP for Album of the Year)

7: Casey Barnes (ARIA for Best Country Album in 2022)

8: Casey Donovan (a #1 single and #2 album)

9: Ricki-Lee Coulter (5 Top 10 singles; co-hosting this year’s Idol)

10: Courtney Act (runner-up on RuPaul’s Drag Race and Dancing With The Stars)

11: Damien Leith (2 #1 albums and a #1 single)

12: Paulini (a #1 album and single; starred in The Bodyguard and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat)

13: Rob Mills (a Top 10 single, starred in Neighbours, Wicked and Hairspray) 

14: Cosima (a #1 single and #2 album)

15: Stan Walker (3 Top 10 albums, 2 Top 10 singles)

16: Em Rusciano (radio host; runner-up in The Masked Singer)

17: Ngaiire (2 Top 50 albums)

18: Axle Whitehead (a Top 10 single, Cleo Bachelor of the Year, starred in Home and Away)

19: Dean Geyer (a Top 10 single and album; starred in Neighbours and Glee)

20: Wes Carr (a #1 single and #2 album)

21: Brooke Addamo (a Top 40 album as Owl Eyes)

Read more about each here.