Photo Credit: Courtesy of FOX
"You're very good at this," Simon Cowell told Britney Spears at one point during the premiere of The X Factor (Fox, Wednesday and Thursdays, 8 p.m. ET). And he was right.
The much hyped premiere -- typical for a Cowell affair -- placed a lot of focus on Spears, the most iconic (and expensive) member of his new judging panel. The first episode showcased a carefully calculated revamp, including a documentary-style feel in the segments prior to the auditions. But the addition of Spears (and to a slightly lesser extent, the bubbly Demi Lovato) was Cowell's ace in the hole.
When the four judges -- Cowell, L.A. Reid, Spears and Lovato -- took the stage, Spears was introduced last. And the camera's careful attention to her made it clear: Lovato is a fun, feisty spitfire, but Spears' opinions are the most valued. And happily, the 30-year-old pop icon rose to the challenge. As Cowell has mentioned several times, she did indeed dismiss contestants she didn't care for -- to soul-crushing effect. But overall she came off as equally likely to praise vocal talent when she heard it. She's certainly not known for being the most articulate artist out there, but in this setting (maybe due to editing?) she did just fine.
During one notably heart-lifting audition, Reed Deming, a small, 13-year-old boy with a big personality, performed with gusto. Then he waited for the judges' opinions, and producers saved Spears' comments for last. Deming was praised all down the judging table, but his bright future was sealed when Spears, after a long pause, declared him to be "adorable."
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Another of the night's big moments came when Spears recognized a contestant, a vocal coach who had sung a duet with her on her first album. The man was visibly shaken and emotional, and regaled the uncomfortable judges with his back story of a life gone downhill fast. Spears clearly pitied him, and tension rose when he asked her directly how his audition had gone. It was a big test for Spears -- one she passed by conveying sympathy and truth in just the right measure.
But Spears was perhaps most winning during the final audition, when Jillian Jensen, a young victim of high school bullying, cried her way through her opening package, and then nailed her audition. When the audience gave her a standing ovation, she burst into tears, leading to one of those TV moments Cowell loves: Lovato walked on stage and hugged the sobbing girl.
Touching as the moment was, Jensen didn't seem able to close the floodgates. "I really don't think you should be crying right now," Spears said.