The former judge shows up in Oklahoma wearing a wig, a full face of makeup and a skirt

By Steve Helling
January 31, 2013 10:35 PM
Michael Becker/FOX

Former judge Steven Tyler made a surprise cameo on American Idol Thursday night – dressed as a woman.

Calling himself Pepper LaBeija after the famous drag queen featured in the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning, Tyler wore a blonde wig, snakeskin miniskirt and fake breasts that honked when squeezed. (There will be no “Dude Looks Like a Lady” jokes because, frankly, he didn’t.)

Looking eerily like Joan Rivers, Tyler blew kisses at the camera and reduced judge Keith Urban to hysterical laughter.

But Tyler’s appearance was actually not the most over-the-top performance on Thursday’s show. That distinction belonged to Zoanette Johnson, a 19-year-old Tulsa resident who performed an overblown version of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

It was unclear whether her audition, which featured exaggerated gestures throughout, was elaborate performance art or an authentic effort at singing. The judges looked ambivalent, too, but then unanimously (though reluctantly?) voted for her to advance to the Hollywood round.

Other odd auditions included Halie Hillburn a 26-year-old singing ventriloquist with a puppet named Oscar. He was either a bear or a dog. Whatever he was, the judges told her to lose Oscar and showcase her strong voice instead. Karl Skinner from Joplin, Mo., performed a fitful version of James Brown’s “I Feel Good.” His voice was pleasant, but he may be a contestant better in small doses.

There was none of the earlier drama between the judges during the show. Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj no longer interact, not even to roll their eyes when the other one speaks. It doesn’t feel like polite indifference – it feels like a calculated decision to ignore each other. Either way, their lack of drama has allowed for sweeter moments to shine through.

For example: Sign language teacher Nate Tao, who was raised by deaf parents, performed a version of Stevie Wonder’s “For Once in My Life” that impressed he judges. “You’re unassuming,” said Randy Jackson before the panel unanimously put him through. “You looked like you were going to do my taxes.”

The last contestant of the night was Kayden Stephenson, a 16-year-old battling cystic fibrosis. Looking years younger than his age – with looks reminiscent of a young Aaron Carter – he performed a nice version of Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish.” Minaj compared him to a “baby Michael [Jackson],” which may have been an overstatement.

In total, 45 singers from the Oklahoma auditions advanced to the next round. We only got to see five of them – which means there are surely some surprises in store when the show heads to Hollywood next week.