EW places bets on the next American Idol -- What we think about this season's finalists

By Nicholas Fonseca
Updated March 16, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

Melinda Doolittle
ODDS: 2-1
It’s almost too easy. Easy like rhyming Melinda and Alynda. Easy like going from backup to front-runner. Heck, it’s easy like Sunday morning. At least that’s how Melinda Doolittle (Mindy Doo, if you will) makes it look when she throws it down from center stage every night. From her music-major-brilliant ”My Funny Valentine” to her strutting performance of ”I’m a Woman,” the 29-year-old Tennessee native is clearly the class of season 6 — in more ways than one when you consider her deeply genuine, aw-shucks humility. In fact, the only time Mindy gets us worried is when we think about you, America, and those lazy dialing fingers that got Tamyra Gray, Mandisa, and Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson bounced before their time. So make her your favorite call of all, y’all — Mindy needs you. And we need us some Mindy, M-I-N-D-Y. — Alynda Wheat

Blake Lewis
ODDS: 4-1
Single-handedly restoring Seattle’s cool cred, beatboxing wunderkind Blake Lewis, 25, has managed, in just four performances, to take the tried-and-true Idol formula and strangle it with his microphone cord. Boldly original, surprisingly capable, and, let’s just admit it, pretty damn cute, Blake is a risk taker when it comes to song choice. He’s defied conventional wisdom — and perhaps his better judgment — by choosing music he truly loves (311, Jamiroquai, Keane) and paying little regard to the recognition factor. It’s a strategy that can backfire. When the judges — with decades’ worth of experience — don’t know the tune you’re singing, that certainly doesn’t bode well for the rest of America. Still, Blake pays no mind, because it’s all about the love: his love of music, and my love of him. — Shirley Halperin

LaKisha Jones
ODDS: 9-2
On paper, LaKisha Jones’ Idol repertoire reads like a depressingly predictable checklist of R&B classics — Aretha, Gladys, the Dreamgirls soundtrack…. And yet this 27-year-old single mother’s magic lies in her ability to reimagine even the most conventional song choices. In one gloriously understated closing note, LaKisha rendered irrelevant all the previous female finalists to cover Whitney Houston’s ”I Have Nothing.” Better still, unlike certain contestants (read: Melinda) who roll with stylists and vocal coaches, LaKisha’s blossoming realization of her superstar potential never feels forced. Take that moment right before reaching the top 24 where LaKisha, tears welling up in her eyes, said she’d return to her bank job with no regrets if she got eliminated. As Simon delivered the good news, he couldn’t suppress a delighted schoolboy grin. That’s exactly our reaction every time LaKisha takes the stage. — Michael Slezak

Chris Sligh
ODDS: 7-1
One look at Chris Sligh, with his shock of curly clown hair, his double chin, and his corpulent — or, as my mother calls it, ”hefty” — build, and you think to yourself, ”American Idol? Hell, no. Podunk Idol? Absolutely!” But from the moment the 28-year-old South Carolinian strode into the audition room and cracked up the judges with a droll joke about David Hasselhoff, Chris — like Taylor Hicks before him — proved that offbeat looks and a jovial demeanor can actually take you far in this unpredictable competition. He also knows his music, which is refreshing for a show chock-full of contestants who consider Bon Jovi an ”oldies” band. He’s given confident, powerful performances of songs by outfits as disparate as the experimental rock group Mute Math and up-and-coming folkie Ray LaMontagne. One caveat: I’m purposely ignoring his decision to take on dc Talk, and so should you. — Nicholas Fonseca

Stephanie Edwards
ODDS: 8-1
Melinda and LaKisha have flashier chops and a decade or so of experience on 19-year-old Stephanie Edwards, but ask yourself, which most evokes A-list pop-music artists of today? With her smartly close-cropped hair, elegantly modern style, and refreshingly hip (and new!) song choices — I personally never pictured ever hearing Beyoncé’s ”Dangerously in Love 2” on Idol — Stephanie is this season’s stealth missile. Of course, by keeping it current, her vocal delivery can feel like a bit of a carbon copy of the original artists, but Stephanie also pours more feeling into each note than any of her competitors, female or male. Make no mistake, that drop to her knees during her Feb. 21 performance of Alicia Keys’ cover of Prince’s ”How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore” wasn’t a plea; it was a proclamation. Fear not, Stephanie: I’ll be calling for you plenty. — Adam B. Vary

Chris Richardson
ODDS: 10-1
With his buzz cut, casual yet perfectly manicured facial scruff, and piercing falsetto, it’s easy to look at Chris Richardson as a mere Justin Timberlake wannabe. And what’s wrong with that? The Virginia native, 22, is — yes — bringing sexy back to the Idol competition, as well as a healthy dose of Timberlake-esque style (props for wearing a tailored jacket during his Feb. 20 performance of Gavin DeGraw’s ”I Don’t Want to Be”). Chris proved his mettle when he took Jason Mraz’s ”Geek in the Pink” and turned it into a funky, flirtatious crowd-pleaser, leading Randy Jackson to praise the performance as even better than the original. C. Rich’s one flaw might be that his range seems to hit squarely in the mildly boring white-boy pop/R&B genre; still, he’s handsome, marketable, and has soul (sans patrol) to spare — exactly what I want in an Idol. — Tim Stack

Gina Glocksen
ODDS: 15-1
Let’s see. 2007’s contestant field includes five ladylike ladies who enjoy pretty songs, six feeble guys with no discernible musical identities, and…Gina! Gina, who Simon called ”a breath of fresh air”! Gina, whose boyfriend Manic Panicked his hair to match hers! Gina, whose smoky lower range blossomed into a clear, shimmering belt for the climax of ”All by Myself,” and who could challenge the melisma ladies on their home turf if she wanted to…but she don’t want to! Gina’s Idol moment came on March 7, when she risked everything to rip through Evanescence’s angry-Goth anthem ”Call Me When You’re Sober.” ”This is me,” exhaled the relieved 22-year-old singer, wiping away tears of joy (and some dripping eyeliner) with one mesh-gloved hand. Aw, don’t cry, little rocker chick: In this year’s competition, being yourself might turn out to be all it takes. So skip the Celine. — Whitney Pastorek

Phil Stacey
ODDS: 25-1
If you love freedom, you love Phil Stacey. Because Phil, 29, a member of our armed forces, understands that basic right more than any other finalist. He feels free to wear beaded necklaces and knit hats even though that look went out with Seattle in the ’90s. He feels free to be sickeningly sycophantic with the judges even after Simon Cowell is nearly moved to gouge out his eyes. He feels free to go all sensitive soldier on us, like when he teared up before the cameras when he conquered a spot in the top 12. And he certainly felt free to miss the birth of his second daughter to audition, but we’re glad he did because he’s given us some of the most impressive high notes of the testosterone set (John Waite’s ”Missing You”). Granted, Phil has a bit more trouble with the lower register (LeAnn Rimes’ ”I Need You” being exhibit A), but sacrifices have to be made to let freedom ring. — Jessica Shaw

Brandon Rogers
ODDS: 30-1
Somewhere, hidden beneath the spotty Michael Jackson performance, beneath the limp Cyndi Lauper interpretation, and certainly beneath the manic Rare Earth tune, there is a very good singer. Maybe even LaKisha good. A belter who in a more liberated era could manhandle a Whitney Houston number with the best of the divas. How can we be so sure? For starters, he has those eyes that could seemingly illuminate the entire state of Montana. More relevantly, the 29-year-old California native made a captivating, pitch-perfect first impression with an a cappella version of Willie Nelson’s ”Always on My Mind,” and during Hollywood Week he breathed more life into Bryan Adams’ ”Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?” than the song deserves. He has also backed up vocal gymnasts like Christina Aguilera and Anastacia. So, Brandon, how about showing us that guy? — Henry Goldblatt

Jordin Sparks
ODDS: 32-1
Pick a genre. Any genre. Now watch Jordin Sparks swallow it up and spit it back out with ease. She auditioned with Celine Dion’s soaring ”Because You Loved Me,” before flipping the script with a funky rendition of Tracy Chapman’s ”Give Me One Reason.” Later, she channeled ’80s rock goddess Pat Benatar with ”Heartbreaker.” If anything, the 17-year-old’s choices haven’t been quite big enough for her explosive pipes (case in point: ”Give Me One Reason”), but continuing to prove her talents span the musical universe will only stave off any well-meaning but dooming worries about Jordin’s ”amazing potential” and youth. After crowning a dark gray horse in 2006, let’s show some love for a younger, bubbly chameleon. — Tanner Stransky

Sanjaya Malakar
ODDS: 100,000-1
Melinda may have the pipes, and Blake may be responsible for more vocal chicanery than the dude from Police Academy, but neither contestant shines even half as bright as the smile of one Sanjaya Malakar. It is a warm, inviting smile. A smile of the stars. A smile that says Hey, my singing voice may kinda suck from time to time, but that knowledge will soon fade from your memory as I proceed to hypnotize you with my huge mind-numbing pearly whites. Now, I’m not gonna lie to you — by the time you read this, Sanjaya may no longer be with us on the show. But while Simon keeps insisting that American Idol is first and foremost a ”singing competition,” personality counts too, and Sanjaya’s shy-guy act is simply irresistible. The 17-year-old has already emerged from his far more confident sister’s shadow, and now Sanjaya’s future is looking bright. Not unlike his teeth. — Dalton Ross

Haley Scarnato
ODDS: 100,001-1
She’s been branded with the scarlet F: ”forgettable.” Even Simon told her that he couldn’t remember her name. Let’s see if this helps jog the memory: Haley Scarnato is not the girl who required a personal stylist just to audition — and who egregiously compared herself to Oprah. She has not been accused of trying to mimic Chaka Khan. She does not get weepy while watching her own clip packages. Her personal style does not scream, ”I blew my paycheck on Manic Panic hair dye and this bitchin’ outfit from Hot Topic.” She is not, to our knowledge, afraid of animals. No, Haley, 24, is the young woman who names Celine Dion as her hero and whose stolid demeanor has barely cracked in the face of Simon’s withering dismissals. Haley is the one who gets on stage and demonstrates an old-fashioned American work ethic — clocks in and clocks out, as she puts it. So…is it all coming back to you now? — Kristen Baldwin