It was a sweet but feeble rendition of Adele’s “When We Were Young” that granted Claudia Conway, the 16-year-old daughter of former Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway and professional Never Trumper George Conway, her golden ticket to Hollywood. But this path—an American Idol audition—was paved in shit, courtesy of adults who should have known better.
What was most appalling? Was it Kellyanne cheering on Claudia via webcam cameo? Was it the B-roll footage depicting George as the aloof but caring father figure, stuck between the warring women in his life? Was it Katy Perry, new mom and Idol judge, acting as surrogate Child Protective Services for the sake of the show’s 6.69 million viewers?
“Does [your mother] still hug you?” Perry asked Claudia.
“I mean, yeah,” Claudia replied, sounding guarded. “She loves me, I love her, it’s just, I feel like our relationship’s a little... it’s a little iffy.”
The answer is all of the above.
After fumbling an attempt at “Love on the Brain” by Rihanna, Claudia decided to try her hand at a much more ambitious song: Adele’s “When We Were Young.”
“When you sing this next song, think about... when you were young,” Perry recommended. “There’s a sadness there. It’s like you lost your youth because you weren’t able to experience it on your own without all of this noise.”
Certainly, noise is all the public was exposed to back in November, when this audition was filmed and Claudia was still just a prolific TikTok teen, shitting on her mother’s boss and racking up followers. But by the time this episode aired on Sunday, a lot had changed.
In January, Claudia pleaded for help via TikTok, begging for an escape from her mother’s cruelty. She posted a series of damning videos in which Kellyanne allegedly hurled abuse at Claudia, calling her an “asshole,” a “dumbass,” and other alarming epithets. At one point, Kellyanne allegedly called Claudia an “ungrateful bitch” who should be “lucky [her] mom’s pro-life.”
Police officers arrived at the Conway home soon after; another TikTok video showed Kellyanne telling an officer that this ordeal “came out of nowhere.” Claudia immediately refuted this claim, insisting that this dysfunction has been ongoing.
Not long after, a topless photo of Claudia was allegedly posted to Kellyanne’s Twitter account. It was quickly deleted, but Claudia was immediately made aware of the situation from her TikTok followers. An alarmed Claudia uploaded a TikTok video accusing her mother of uploading the photo as payback. Claudia has since retracted this claim and says she believes her mother’s account was hacked.
Knowing this, a cameo of Kellyanne offering saccharine words of encouragement to her daughter on national television felt sinister, even if it was filmed before the January allegations.
“There’s a lot of noise in your life,” Perry told Claudia following her audition. “You have to calm the storm that is around you, meaning, before you sing you need to get off your phone, you need to stop reading your comments. Push it aside, because if not, you may not ever rise up above your dad or your mom. It’s your choice.”
While country star Luke Bryan was reluctant to advance Claudia to the next round of competition, his was the lone “no” vote: Music legend Lionel Ritchie approached Claudia with the enthusiasm of a proud grandfather, and Perry was willing to give Claudia a shot as well.
Claudia’s sincere interest in music isn’t in doubt, and it’s easy to imagine she’s long been interested in auditioning for American Idol. But it’s impossible to watch the clip of her audition without coming to the conclusion that this is exploitation and damage control at the hands of both Claudia’s parents and American Idol.
It’s disturbing enough that Idol obviously used Claudia’s accusations to draw viewers into the show’s season premiere. But more disturbing was that, during the episode, the relationship between Claudia and Kellyanne was depicted as merely fraught and frayed, a typical prickly mother-daughter relationship forced into an atypical situation.
Critic Daniel D’Addario made note of this tension in Variety:
There’s a winking insistence that all is well here that rankles; this may indeed have been where the Conways were on that day, but using this snapshot as the story of the family’s life in public is both incomplete and unfair to the girl herself. Why, one wonders, is she having such a hard time, if her parents are just so supportive when the cameras are on? The denial of conflict becomes a new sort of conflict — butting up against what we’ve read with the force of state media. In this case, it seems less an endorsement of Kellyanne Conway’s agenda than an endorsement of the concept of not blowing up the story too early; if Claudia were to go on, the producers might play out the string of her family saga for weeks or months to come.
Yes, this footage is months old, but it renders Kellyanne into a misunderstood parent at best and Claudia into a shameless grifter at worst (a narrative which is already sprouting legs online). This is an unfair read of Claudia, of course: At the end of the day, she’s a child with a TikTok account. There were countless adults whose questionable decisions led to this moment, from Idol’s producers and editors to Claudia’s own parents. American Idol wants juicy television, Kellyanne Conway wants to be redeemed in the public eye, and George Conway... well, he apparently just really wants to see his little girl sing?
“She loves music, and I’m really thrilled that she’s here because, you know, maybe this gives her an opportunity to pursue it at another level,” George Conway told the American Idol cameras, wiping away tears. “It makes me happy to see her here, doing this, one way or the other.”
Deciphering Claudia’s relationship with her father has been tricky, but even if it is healthier than the one with her mother, there is still a layer of ickiness to the dramatics, and it’s hard to stomach. George and Kellyanne present themselves as supportive and proud parents, a happy little family with a viral sensation of a daughter. How quaint. Meanwhile, as Perry asks prying questions about Claudia’s home life, Claudia is left to shoulder the weight of truth.
Following her American Idol debut, Claudia posted TikTok videos dismissing those who clowned her performance (“i literally had strep throat bye”), and self-deprecating skits about her alleged abuse and PTSD. In one video, Claudia mimes a made-up conversation between herself and the Idol judges: “Oh so ur mom is abusive whats that like?” “It’s kinda—” “Sing for us.”
“I kind of want to get out of the controversy, get out of the drama, get out of the political... whatever,” Claudia said in an American Idol confessional.
That dream will have to be put on hold. Some Fox producers are going to benefit from her trauma first.