Melinda? Blake? Sanjaya?! Who will win ”Idol”?
Ladies and gentlemen, meet Maya Rosenberg. She may be only 10 years old and tiny, but this tyke from Philadelphia is the world’s biggest Phil Stacey fan. On this Wednesday evening in early April, as she sits in the American Idol studio in Los Angeles, she’s mere moments away from seeing her chrome-domed military-dad obsession in the flesh. (The main reason she’s such a Phil-istine, by the way? ”I love his baby!”)
As the show starts, Maya is only slightly more composed than that now-famous Jan Brady clone who left a puddle of tears under her seat last month. The lights go down, and Idol host Ryan Seacrest delivers the opening tease, ending with his signature salvo: ”THIS… is American Idol.” It’s simply too much for Maya to take. ”I love when he does that!” she squeals.
She’s not alone: Five years after its 2002 premiere, Idol‘s still got the magic. Fox’s slickly produced TV talent show has evolved from Star Search rip-off to bona fide pop-star factory whose winners have gone platinum (Ruben Studdard), hit Broadway (Fantasia Barrino), and even won music’s highest honor: a Grammy (Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood have two each). And it just keeps producing. ”The show is longer, there’s more people in the audience, there’s bigger guests,” says executive producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz, referring to some of the big-name mentors that have tutored the season 6 contestants (Diana Ross, Gwen Stefani, Tony Bennett, Jennifer Lopez). And on April 24 and 25, the show will test its ability as a fund-raiser when it gathers an impressive lineup (including Clarkson, Hugh Grant, Keira Knightley, and… Borat?) for ”Idol Gives Back,” a charity special to support relief programs in the U.S. and Africa. ”We’re still going to have fun,” says executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, ”but at the same time we’ve got to remind people that children are dying every three seconds around the world, and 50 cents actually saves a life.”
Yet this season has also proved that Idol isn’t invincible. Though it still tops the Nielsens with an average of 32 million viewers, ratings for the top 12 rounds are down 7 percent from last year. Producers fault everything from the weather to college basketball to the earlier onset of daylight saving time. Or are the finalists to blame? Many Idol fans have targeted the talent level, wondering whether the likes of Haley Scarnato can compete with previous standouts like Clarkson and Underwood. ”We’re doing as well as we are doing with not a great cast at the moment, to be honest with you,” says judge Simon Cowell. ”They’re not the best bunch of kids we’ve ever had.” He may have a point: You know there’s a problem when the most glowing compliment guest mentor Tony Bennett can muster about the contestants is ”They’re all very competent… ” Even the typically wimpy Paula Abdul has grown some claws this season. ”I just can’t say that they’re really good if they’re not,” she explains. ”I just can’t anymore.”
NEXT PAGE: Simon says: ”We suffer from Jennifer Hudson- and Chris Daughtry-itis… there’s part of me thinking, [contestants] genuinely couldn’t care less what we’ve got to say.”
That’s not to say the Idol Class of 2007 has nothing going for it: Melinda Doolittle, Jordin Sparks, and LaKisha Jones can belt it out with the best of them, while beatboxing Blake Lewis and the Timberlake-esque Chris Richardson are arguably the most current contestants yet. Stacey has an irresistible backstory, and Scarnato boasts the sexiest legs ever to strut across the Idol stage. Then there’s the phenomenon that is Sanjaya Malakar — we’ll get to him in a bit.
If there’s one thing this season’s contestants have in common, it’s the savvy that comes from watching Idol for five years. ”They’re students of the show,” says Seacrest. ”When they audition, I believe some of them have thought through the entire process. What do I need to say? Where do I need to stand? How do I need to look? Which camera do I use? ” That perspective, along with the advent of MySpace, where some of the top 12 had been promoting themselves, has produced an improbably polished group of amateurs. ”It’s hard to believe that many of them have never been to Hollywood before, the way they hit their marks,” marvels Seacrest. ”You’re talking about 30 million people watching, and sometimes, I don’t think that they’re even nervous!”
Perhaps that’s because they don’t even feel like they need to win. After all, season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken outsold Studdard, season 3 castoff Jennifer Hudson bested Barrino for the Dreamgirls role that won her an Oscar, and an album from season 5 evictee Chris Daughtry easily surpassed Taylor Hicks’ effort, and is dominating rock radio. ”You don’t have to win it,” says Richardson. ”To me I’ve already won, being in the top 10 and going on tour [this summer].” That attitude doesn’t sit well with Cowell. ”I think that we suffer from Jennifer Hudson- and Chris Daughtry-itis, which is people who didn’t win getting great careers and now a lot of the contestants believing it absolutely doesn’t matter,” he says. ”Sometimes there’s part of me thinking, You genuinely couldn’t care less what we’ve got to say; everything’s going to go your own way now.”
They’ll certainly continue to dominate the entertainment headlines through the May 23 finale, with perhaps the most wide-open field in Idol history. ”It’s as close as it’s been in any season,” says Cowell, who thinks it’s a five-way race between Lewis, Richardson, Sparks, Jones, and Doolittle. Presented alphabetically by first name, click through for a close-up look at the seven singers still vying for this year’s crown after the April 11 results show.
NEXT PAGE: Blake Lewis
Will Blake Lewis win ”American Idol”?
Originally presented as just an odd kid with a thing for vocal sound effects, the 25-year-old from Bothell, Wash., has stood out by exerting the most control over the arrangements of his songs — though it hasn’t always earned him praise. ”The judges contradict themselves,” he complains, citing his technofied rendition of the Supremes’ ”You Keep Me Hangin’ On.” ”’You’ve got to make it yours and keep it fresh.’ Then they gave me criticism about that.”
Lewis, who says he never watched Idol before auditioning, also hasn’t taken kindly to the chaperones and group-living arrangements that come with being a finalist. ”I have to share an apartment with three other dudes, which is terrible,” he says. ”[Producers] are like, ‘View this as your job.’ I’m like, ‘Well, you get to go home after your job.’ ” (”The show is not a prison,” says Frot-Coutaz. ”We just want to make sure they don’t get mugged or get in trouble.”) No surprise that Lewis admits to breaking their 10 p.m. curfew. ”I mean, what are they going to do? ‘You can’t sing anymore?’ ” he says. ”I went out until 1:30 a.m. I got reprimanded by singing last, which is probably the best thing that can happen.”
NEXT PAGE: Chris Richardson
Will Chris Richardson win ”American Idol”?
The second week of finals provided one of the biggest shockers when Richardson, 22, landed in the bottom two after his strong performance of Gerry and the Pacemakers’ ”Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying.” ”It gives you a reality check and just lets you know that you can be voted off at any time despite how good you did,” says the former Hooters manager from Chesapeake, Va. ”I thought that week was one of my best vocals.” Count Cowell in as one who definitely sees potential in Richardson. ”I think Blake is looking like the most contemporary recording artist out of all of them right now,” he says. ”If Chris could start taking himself and his vocals a bit more seriously, maybe him as well.”
NEXT PAGE: Haley Scarnato
Will Haley Scarnato win ”American Idol”?
Most Idol contestants crave positive feedback from the judges. But for Scarnato, one particularly harsh critique may have been the best thing that ever happened to her. In the last week of semifinals, Cowell said the 24-year-old Texan was so bland he couldn’t even remember her name. ”There was a backlash from the public,” says executive producer Ken Warwick. ”They thought that was overly rude, and she stayed in.”
But despite that — and her choices in clothing… or lack thereof — Scarnato hasn’t had an easy time since: She’s already logged major time in the back of the pack. ”Being bottom three the past couple of weeks, it doesn’t get easier,” she says. Especially when her hectic Idol schedule means she can’t rely on her fiancé for support. ”He’s here for three days and we can only see each other for 10 minutes each day,” she says. And you won’t hear Scarnato complaining about that curfew. ”I’m actually loving it because I’m so tired,” she says. ”We were at this party last night and I was like, ‘We have a curfew! I need to go!’ ”
NEXT PAGE: Jordin Sparks
Will Jordin Sparks win ”American Idol”?
The youngest finalist of the season was only 12 when Idol first began airing. ”When my birthday came around it wasn’t, ‘Oh my gosh, I can drive a car’; it was, ‘Oh my gosh, I can audition for American Idol!”’ says the 17-year-old, whose father, Phillippi, played cornerback for the New York Giants. While much of the early attention focused on Doolittle and Jones, Sparks has made the largest strides of anyone in the top 12. ”Every time Jordin sings I get chills,” says Frot-Coutaz. ”She’s every bit as good as Kelly was in the first season.” Endorsements don’t get any stronger than that, but Sparks herself seems perplexed by all the talk of momentum. ”When they say stuff like I’m gaining momentum, I’m like, ‘Really? Did I never have any?”’
NEXT PAGE: LaKisha Jones
Will LaKisha Jones win ”American Idol”?
For Jones, a 27-year-old former bank teller from Fort Meade, Md., the toughest part of Idol is going a month at a time without seeing her 4-year-old daughter, Brionne. But she has faith that the sacrifice is worth it. ”I just figure that God has not brought me this far to leave me,” she says. ”This whole year and a half, the stuff that I’ve been through, with being laid off my job, single mom — I don’t think He brought me here to say, ‘Here’s a little taste of what it might be like, but I ain’t going to let you go all the way.”’
Jones says she’s chosen to sequester herself somewhat from the other singers: ”It’s harder because it’s a competition and I never looked at singing as a competition.” Seacrest considers that a smart move. ”I ask them sometimes, ‘How is it going with the other contestants?’ he says. ”I often get the response, ‘We all get along.’ I’d like to hear them say, ‘I’m happy that I’ve made friends, but I want to beat every single person on this stage.”’
NEXT PAGE: Melinda Doolittle
Will Melinda Doolittle win ”American Idol”?
A backing vocalist who has worked with stars like Aaron Neville, Doolittle, a 29-year-old Brentwood, Tenn., resident, is this season’s closest thing to a front-runner. ”There’s Melinda Doolittle and then there’s a different competition,” says Abdul. ”She’s so in a different league.” Doolittle doesn’t want to hear it. ”Even the term front-runner, it can be a lot of pressure. It’s harder on me to hear it knowing that the rest of the group’s backstage like, ‘Okay, well, what about me?’ I want it to be fair for everybody.”
She certainly has received her share of online ribbing about her appearance (”I’ve been called Shrek, Platypus, you name it”), as well as from cynics who claim her constant humility is an act. ”Everybody keeps telling me, ‘Put your shoulders down! Quit acting so surprised every time something happens.’ I don’t think there’s a problem with being truly grateful. I don’t know how to stand there and take it right, but I’m working on it.”’
NEXT PAGE: Phil Stacey
Will Phil Stacey win ”American Idol”?
Stacey, 29, scored some of the choicest screen time early on when Idol cameras followed the Jacksonville, Fla., resident into the hospital where his wife, Kendra, had just given birth. After his dreary rendition of ”Night and Day” during standards week, Stacey said to Seacrest, ”I was trying to focus on my wife.” The comment very well may have spared him from being eliminated.
”I do believe that they realize the context of those statements when they make them,” Seacrest says, once again pointing to the polished nature of this year’s crop. ”The reality is they’re judged every moment they’re on television.” Stacey swears it wasn’t a calculated move. ”It was actually my excuse for why I was disconnecting [from the song],” he says. ”I’m too frightened on that stage to be witty.”
NEXT PAGE: Sanjaya Malakar
Will Sanjaya Malakar win ”American Idol”?
Who could have guessed that a quiet 17-year-old from Federal Way, Wash., who looks like a long-lost member of DeBarge would become the story of the season? And Malakar’s done it not with a repertoire of strong vocal performances but with a killer smile and an arsenal of wacky hairdos, including the now-infamous ”ponyhawk.” In fact, his singing and appearance have been so equally ridiculous that notorious prankster Howard Stern and the anti-talent site votefortheworst.com anointed Malakar as their pet contestant, and he has since been discussed and parodied on everything from NBC Nightly News to Saturday Night Live. After slamming him for weeks, Cowell and Randy Jackson became so frustrated at Malakar’s staying power, for a time they simply stopped offering any feedback at all. (Hence Simon’s sarcastic response of ”Incredible!”) ”I’m not sure there’s anything I’m going to say in the 20 seconds I’m allowed that’s going to change what he does,” Cowell says. ”People are going to talk more about his haircut than his singing, so I don’t think it’s necessary for me to give a proper critique.” Malakar has his own theory: ”I think they gave up because people in America at this point know what they think about me,” he says with his unique blend of bewilderment and cockiness. ”They’ve gotten to a point where they can judge for themselves.”
On stage at least, his personality has changed. ”I don’t know if you remember, but when we hit the top 24, he was very shy and reserved,” says Jackson. ”Now he’s come out of his shell.” Says Malakar: ”I’m shy until you get to know me, and then I’m really outgoing and kind of obnoxious sometimes.” What many viewers find obnoxious is that Malakar is still around at all. (One fan even brought a ”Buh-baya, Sanjaya” sign to the April 4 results show, though it remained under his seat after Malakar didn’t even land in the bottom three.) ”When you have 9 or 10 contestants, only one can go [each week],” says Cowell. ”So at this stage you’ve just got to relax a little bit. There’s always going to be that teen vote for the underdog. There’s nothing wrong with that, by the way. As long as they don’t win.”
Indeed, it’s one thing for Sanjaya to outlast Chris Sligh or even Gina Glocksen. But what if Melinda, LaKisha, or Jordin gets sent home before him? Will the show be forever tarnished? ”It’s not gonna happen. Trust me,” says Frot-Coutaz. ”Eventually America gets it right. We’re not worried. We love Sanjaya, but he’s not going to win.”
But as previous contestants like Hudson and Daughtry have shown, does that even matter? ”I’m turning 18 in September,” Malakar says. ”So basically I see it as, this is my training to be an adult. And when I’m 18, I’ll have the training in what I want to do for the rest of my life.” America, you’ve been warned.
For EW editors’ latest take on ”Idol” (as well as visits and exclusive performances by former Idol contestants), catch the newest episodes of EW.com’s video series Idolatry.