Nigel Lythgoe began his career as a dancer, performing with the Corps de Ballet after training in ballet, jazz and ballroom. He joined the BBC's Young Generation dance troupe in 1969, becoming their choreographer two years later.
In the 1970s, Lythgoe performed alongside Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, and also choreographed for Shirley Bassey and the Muppets, among others. He also studied many aspects of television production, later working with British broadcaster TVS, before becoming Head of Entertainment and Comedy at the former ITV affiliate London Weekend Television.
In 2000, he made his foray into television, becoming a judge on the talent show Popstars. There, he gained the nickname "Nasty Nigel" for his critiques, setting the template for Simon Cowell's similarly acerbic approach. In 2001, he developed a new talent show, Pop Idol, which would lead to American Idol in 2002.
In 2005 Lythgoe developed another reality series, Fox's dance competition, So You Think You Can Dance. He was also the show's judge, a role he also holds in the British edition which aired in 2010. He also produced the NBC series Superstars of Dance. Lythgoe was married to dancer Bonita Shawe, from 1974 to 2007.