LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Acerbic "American Idol" judge Simon Cowell said on Wednesday the apparent suicide of a former contestant and obsessed fan forced him to think "long and hard" about his blunt comments to hopeless singers on the show.
But in his first detailed comments about the fan's death in November, Cowell said the U.S. top-rated television talent show was "not inherently mean" and that the hundreds of thousands of people who audition every year knew they would be criticized.
"I have thought long and hard about this...I think we will continue in the way we have always done. We have tried to have a sense of humor. The show is not an inherently mean show. It is an American dream show where the whole purpose is to find somebody who through the process becomes a star," Cowell told reporters in a telephone conference call.
The British judge said the death in November of Paula Goodspeed, 30, a fan of fellow "Idol" judge Paula Abdul who was ridiculed when she tried out in 2005, "hit us like an express train. It upset me a lot".
Goodspeed's audition was greeted with laughter by the judging panel and Cowell, who often makes fun of tone-deaf or eccentric performers, commented on her braces, questioning how she could sing with "that much metal" in her mouth.
Referring to her suicide, Cowell said: "What happened was awful. My regret is that we didn't know how troubled this person was. If I had gone back in time and known what she was going through, I wish we could have spent time trying to help her, but we genuinely didn't know."
Goodspeed's overdose in a car outside Abdul's Los Angeles home made worldwide headlines and sparked heated debate on the harsh comments meted out to bad singers in early "Idol" audition rounds and later broadcast on national TV.
Abdul said last week that "Idol" producers had dismissed her fears about letting Goodspeed audition for the sake of making an entertaining show.
Cowell defended the producers of the show, which after more than six years as America's most-watched TV program, averages around 30 million viewers. It begins an 8th season on January 13.
"The producers have the utmost integrity as human beings," he said, noting the two "Idol Gives Back" charity events in 2007 and 2008 which had raised $120 million for mostly children's charities in the United States and Africa.
Cowell said that after seven seasons, the singers who audition knew they would be criticized if they were no good.
"When something like this has happened, it does make you take a step back," he said. "I've always thought it important to show people at home that when bad singers come in and they are not very good, that it is time to give up that type of dream and take a normal job."
"American Idol" producers say the 8th season will focus less on early auditions and bad singers and give more time to talented performers when the show returns on the Fox network.
But they said these and other tweaks were made to make the show more interesting, and help maintain slipping ratings, rather than as a reaction to Goodspeed's death.
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and David Storey