Who is 'The Idol' based on? All about the inspiration behind the HBO series

Britney, Christina, Kesha—who is 'The Idol' based on exactly? Lily-Rose Depp stars as a troubled pop star in the scandalous HBO miniseries

Who is the idol based on? Pictured: Lily-Rose Depp HBO The Idol Season 1 - Episode 2
(Image credit: Eddy Chen/HBO)

It's the story of an ambitious but troubled pop star, but who is The Idol based on exactly?

The HBO miniseries, which kicked off on HBO and Max on Sunday, June 4, was one of the most-anticipated TV titles of the year, thanks not only to its high-profile cast—Lily-Rose Depp portrays Jocelyn, a wannabe pop superstar who becomes entangled in a relationship with Tedros (Abel "The Weeknd" Tesfaye), a nightclub impresario turned modern-day cult leader—but also to the behind-the-scenes controversy surrounding The Idol, which reportedly included much toxicity on set. (Yes, that public spat between The Weeknd and Rolling Stone magazine is part of it.) 

We've all been tuning in every Sunday to the buzzy six-part series (here's how to watch The Idol from anywhere in the world, in case you don't have access to HBO or Max where you live), but before you dive in, here's everything we know about the inspiration behind the show. 

Who is 'The Idol' based on? Here's what inspired the series

First and foremost: The Idol is not a true story. 

"When was the last truly f***ing nasty, nasty bad pop-girl?" Troye Sivan, playing Jocelyn's creative director Xander, asks in the show's trailer, which, of course, conjures up images of IRL blonde pop stars of the past, from Britney Spears to Christina Aguilera to Kesha. However, despite clear influences from those real-life figures, both the character of Jocelyn and the details of her story are "fictional," star Lily-Rose Depp confirmed in an interview with Extra. (Yes, apparently that includes The Weeknd's famous ex, in case you were asking yourself, "Is The Idol about Selena Gomez?")

“It's not based on anyone in particular… We’re definitely not trying to tell anyone else’s story, but definitely create one of our own," Depp said. "There were a lot of different people that I was inspired by for this role. Some that were pop stars, some that were not."

She continued: "I wanted Jocelyn to feel simultaneously like a modern-day pop queen of today but also like somebody that kind of existed in her own world and in her own kind of time so I drew a lot of inspiration from actresses like…Gene Tierney and Sharon Stone and women like that that I find really inspiring.”

Instead of emulating one specific musical artist, the miniseries confronts the seediness and exploitation of the music industry as a whole. 

“The way that we idolize people in the public eye today. And the way that we almost convince ourselves that we know them," Depp told Extra when asked about what the show is trying to unpack about the industry. "We build them up to these god-like statuses and then we kind of relish in taking them down. I think there is a big conversation around that in the show.”

The Idol's executive producer Francesca Orsi concurred, saying in a statement, per Entertainment Weekly: "When the multi-talented Abel 'The Weeknd' Tesfaye, Reza Fahim, and Sam Levinson brought us 'The Idol,' it was clear their subversive, revelatory take on the cult of the music industry was unlike anything HBO had ever done before."

Catch Lily-Rose Depp as Jocelyn in The Idol, airing Sundays at 9pm Eastern on HBO and Max.

Christina Izzo

Christina Izzo is the Deputy Editor of My Imperfect Life. 

More generally, she is a writer-editor covering food and drink, travel, lifestyle and culture in New York City. She was previously the Features Editor at Rachael Ray In Season and Reveal, as well as the Food & Drink Editor and chief restaurant critic at Time Out New York

When she’s not doing all that, she can probably be found eating cheese somewhere.