America was introduced to American Idol‘s season 11 top 13 this week: Phillip Phillips, Jessica Sanchez, Hollie Cavanagh, Joshua Ledet, Heejun Han, Shannon Magrane, Skylar Laine, Elise Testone, Colton Dixon, Jermaine Jones, and wild cards Erika Van Pelt (Randy’s choice), Jeremy Rosado (Jennifer Lopez), and DeAndre Brackensick (Steven Tyler).
Entertainment Weekly caught up with the finalists at Idol‘s top 13 party in Los Angeles Thursday night and asked them everything from thoughts on their strengths and weaknesses, to makeover hopes and fears, to their feelings about the judges so far this season.
We also caught up with Steven and Randy to get their opinions on the finalists this year — and asked Randy what he thinks about the show’s ratings being down this season.
What sets you apart from the other contestants?
DeAndre Brackensick: Other than my hair? [Laughs] I do have a big, big range. I have a low voice, and I have a very, very high voice. I try to use the high to my advantage, not too much. But hopefully the high can push me through at least to tour.
Skylar Laine: I’m the only country person left in the group, so that sets me apart.
Shannon Magrane: I definitely do think I stick out from the crowd being tall. [6-foot, ¾-inches tall, exactly]
Jessica Sanchez : I think we all have our different styles. I’m the more mainstream kind of pop urban singer. I love attitude and bringing new things to the table. I think what separates me from the other contestants is that I’ve done this before and I’ve been watching American Idol since I was a very little girl and I’ve been preparing myself throughout the years for this moment. And I’m here now and I’m ready to work hard.
Elise Testone: I have lots and lots of experience. I’ve been in so many bands. I’ve been a backup singer, a lead singer, I have a music degree. There are a lot of things the younger competitors have that I don’t have, so I do see a nice healthy competition going on.
Erika Van Pelt: I have sort of a unique tone and timbre. I like to belt it out and I sort of can pull it back and do sort of these more restrained tunes, but when I get going I like to rock out and I like to squall and I like to show people I have that rock edge, too.
Heejun Han: The fact that I’m a very good-looking guy. I love it… I’m just being myself all the time. That’s me.
Colton Dixon: I’m so different from everyone else. I’m the only rocker left, first of all. I’m so happy about that. Erika has a little bit of the rock thing going, but the guy-girl thing, it’s not going to matter.
Phillip Phillips: I’m just trying to change the songs up to make them my own. I don’t know if anyone plays the guitar on the show. I’m just trying to be myself.
Jeremy Rosado: I know that I have the favor of God, and that’s gonna get me farther than anything else.
Hollie Cavanagh: People don’t expect my voice to come out of me because I’m tiny. A lot of people say I have a big voice.
Joshua Ledet: My genre. I don’t think there is anyone in the competition who sings the gospelly type, so that is probably the big separation between me and other contestants.
Jermaine Jones: My deep bass baritone voice, my height — 6-foot, 8 ½ inches, and don’t take away my half! — my stature.
What do you need to improve to win the competition?
DeAndre Brackensick: Stage presence. Going to a live audience. Switching from three people staring at you going to a live audience, I was a little off. I need to work on being comfortable.
Skylar Laine: I need to work on how to put my country twang and making a ballad great or making other kinds of genres great…. [When asked if she’ll take a page out of Scotty McCreery playbook by staying in her lane each week no matter what:] Of course I will. I will do that too, probably. I will stay to my country roots. It’s something that I have to do. That’s how it’s gonna work for me.
Shannon Magrane: Next week I need to come out with something really powerful, and something a lot different. I’m gong to surprise people.
Jessica Sanchez: A lot of things. I’m not perfect. I wish the judges would give me more critiques so I can work on more things. [Laughs] I love critiques because I’m such a perfectionist.
Elise Testone: Um, I’m perfect. No! I’m kidding! I would like to be able to sing higher and really hold that out and have that nice vibrato.
Erika Van Pelt: To be honest, I’ve had one real vocal lesson my whole life, when I was 7. So I’m taking full advantage of the American Idol staff — all the amazing vocal coaches and musicians they have. I just want to learn some more things about my instrument. That’s why I’m here.
Heejun Han: Of course, the voice quality and voice, singing technique. I just have to keep myself humble all the time. That’s what I’m trying to do.
Colton Dixon: Vocally I want to make sure I kill it every week. I will get a standing ovation from those judges at some point. That’s my goal.
Phillip Phillips: Just to be able to read music.
Jeremy Rosado: I have to work on singing every week as if I’m singing for my life. That’s when America is going to feel it.
Hollie Cavanagh: I definitely think stage presence and performing more, putting on a great show, not just vocally.
Joshua Ledet: Being diverse. I can always sing ballads, which is my comfort zone, so I need to sing up-tempo, too.
Jermaine Jones: Getting more comfortable in front of the camera. I go through a lot in my own head because I’m tall and a bigger guy and I don’t want to look weird or awkward doing too many movements, so it’s just getting more comfortable with my movement in front of the camera.
What one thing about yourself do you most want people to know that hasn’t been covered on the show?
DeAndre Brackensick: I’m really into Hawaiian culture. I grew up with Hawaiian culture.
Skylar Laine: My idol is Miranda Lambert. I love her. I’m obsessed with her. I drive a big truck. Stuff like that.
Shannon Magrane: America’s been seeing me doing slower songs, so I’m gonna try to pick some really upbeat songs for everybody.
Jessica Sanchez: I’m very serious about my music and music always comes first to me. I’m always on top of that, 24/7, and I’m always practicing. I think that’s why my voice kind of went out because I was rehearsing too much. It’s still a bit sore. I have to be on vocal rest and taking medication, cough drops.
Elise Testone: I’ve sung opera. I did Italian, French opera for my senior recital. I’m fun. I’ll always tell you the truth. I’m a goofball. I can sing any kind of music and make it my own. I can play instruments.
Erika Van Pelt: Besides the fact that I’m not professionally trained, I didn’t think I was going to be a singer until I got to freshman year of high school. I sang in church as a kid, but I played a lot of sports and I always thought I was going to be an astronaut. I would still like to go to space!
Heejun Han: Only reason why I started off this competition is to show the world that there are so many people who need our help — not only in their country but in their own neighborhood, one foot away– and I just want them to realize [they can] just impact one person, just save one person.
Colton Dixon: A lot of people already know this if they follow me on Twitter or Facebook, but I love Jesus. I’m all about him. I was a worship leader before American Idol and I plan on being one again after I tour and do all that stuff. I want to share his love with the world. He’s the only reason I do what I do. He gave me a voice out of nowhere at 13 and I just want to glorify him with it.
Phillip Phillips: I’m not trying to sell an image or anything. I’m just trying to sell the music and hope it touches someone’s heart and soul and whatnot. [When asked if we’d learn his middle name on the show:] No. We don’t speak of the middle name. It’s a secret. Maybe you’ll find out. I haven’t told anyone else. I gotta keep some mystery here.
Jeremy Rosado: Man, I think they’ve gotten to know me really well and show the real me. I’m a worship leader at church and I’m just a person that loves to love people. That’s just me.
Hollie Cavanagh: I don’t think I’m showing my full potential yet, so maybe as we proceed you’ll see more of my goofy side, and more of me coming out on stage and having fun and letting loose.
Joshua Ledet: That I just love music. I live, eat, and breathe music. I sing from my soul. It’s my passion.
Jermaine Jones: I also have a high voice, a nice falsetto. You’re going to see that.
This is the point when contestants often get makeovers — anything you’d love or loathe to change?
DeAndre Brackensick: I’m dreading if they ever want to do anything with my hair — color it or flat-iron it. As far as style, I’m open, but I hope I can just stay me.
Skylar Laine: I would love for them to do anything that they want because they are professionals and they know what they’re doing. I’m just real excited to put myself in their hands.
Shannon Magrane: I wouldn’t dye my hair jet black, but I tell them all the time to make me look like myself, like I’m a true teenager living the dream here. They put me in the coolest clothes. They do my makeup really fun. I’m looking forward to the weeks after this.
Jessica Sanchez: [To the loathe part of the question:] Not at all. I am going to get a haircut, though, because my hair is not good right now. So watch out for the short hair coming up soon!
Elise Testone: They have really great ideas and I like what I’ve learned about them so far. I’m ready to take chances!
Erika Van Pelt: I’m not afraid of anything. I’m pretty fearless. I’m excited to see what they want to do.
Heejun Han: Whatever they do, they never could overcome my beauty.
Colton Dixon: I’m really excited, but I’m not gonna change who I am or do something I’m uncomfortable with. I’m stoked to see what they have to offer, and what works and what doesn’t, and fitting to the masses, and what people like or don’t like. [On his hair color:] We’ll see. I’ve already been called the Dennis Rodman of American Idol.
Phillip Phillips: I’m not really a flashy guy. I’m not about the image. I like wearing jeans and shirts, just wanna be myself. I hate wearing makeup. It’s very strange.
Jeremy Rosado: I love our stylist. She’s awesome. She’s amazing. I’m excited to keep going with her.
Hollie Cavanagh: I’m actually really excited. I know my style. I love stilettos, glitter, and dresses — all of it. High fashion stuff, so I’m just gonna stick to me.
Joshua Ledet: I’m a blazer guy, jeans, boots, not too crazy, not too fancy. I just like to stay in the background a little bit.
Jermaine Jones: I’m looking forward to it because I love fashion. I’m always into something new. I’m not set or stuck on one thing, I’m open to change.
Any specific theme nights you’re dreading or looking forward to?
DeAndre Brackensick: I’m looking forward to Motown week, hopefully. And, I’m not looking forward to my birth year, if they do that again, because it wasn’t really my time or my genre of music.
Skylar Laine: [Dreading:] stuff like pop, probably, because sometimes putting a country twang to pop songs doesn’t work out, so hopefully I pick the right song. I’m excited to do rock songs to put that country twang to it.
Shannon Magrane: I’m definitely looking forward to being able to belt out some really big notes and go up really high.
Jessica Sanchez: We don’t know what’s coming up next, but I think the hardest theme for me would be country because I’ve never had to sing a country song before. But I love challenges, so woo-hoo!!
Elise Testone: I love the funk and I love rock. I love some Black Crowes and Led Zeppelin and Jimmy Hendrix. There is nothing I’m dreading.
Erika Van Pelt: Of course I would be looking forward to any sort of throwback, rock theme. If we had ’80s I would love that. If we did country week that would be slightly out of my comfort zone. But then again, I feel rock and country can be very similar.
Heejun Han: [Looking forward to:] ’80s, ’70s, slow, slow, lovely, lovely, balladeer songs. I would not look forward to metal, rock, something hard.
Colton Dixon: I would be cool with either pop or rock, but honestly anything with any funk or soul in it, I don’t have a funky or soulful bone in my body! [So no dancing?] No, I head bang. Totally different.
Phillip Phillips: [Dreading:] probably a pop week, if there’s a pop week. I don’t know. I’ll try to figure something out. [Looking forward to:] any kind of jazz or blues stuff.
Jeremy Rosado: Probably surprising to the American public, I can’t wait for country week. I’ve got some Rascal Flatts songs that are probably the strongest songs I’ve got. I would probably be most nervous about opera, if they chose opera.
Hollie Cavanagh: Maybe one that I wouldn’t love would be rock because I’ve never sung a rock song, but I can try my best. And one I would love to do would be in the way of Mariah Carey and Christina, R&B soul, that would be really fun.
Joshua Ledet: I would say [dreading a] Michael Jackson style. I’m not too excited about that. I’m hoping they don’t put that as a theme. His music is so unique and it’s hard for others to sing his music. That would probably be a dreadful night for me. I’m looking forward to a lot of soulful nights, maybe James Brown, or something like that.
Jermaine Jones: I don’t know if they’re going to do a heavy rock & roll, or some rock & roll, I’m not really looking forward to that even though I can do “Sweet Dreams.” But I want a Motown week. I love the whole era of Motown.
Who gives the most constructive and helpful feedback: Steven, Jennifer, or Randy?
DeAndre Brackensick: Steven does. He gives a lot of compliments, but he tells me what needs to get done, performance-wise and vocally.
Skylar Laine: They all do, but Randy has been very, very vocal with his feedback. I love that. I’ve taken it to heart. They all have and I’ve really taken it and run with it.
Shannon Magrane: Jennifer gives me really great feedback. I mean, they all do because they are three iconic people. They know how we’re feeling on stage, so they’re not gonna say something too harsh or they’re not gonna let us off the hook. They are going to tell us what we need to improve on. Jennifer always says that as a true performer you grow and grow and grow, and that’s what I’m looking to do: continuously grow and show America that I can be better than I am now.
Jessica Sanchez: All of their comments are amazing. They are so sweet. I love them so much.
Elise Testone: I like that Randy actually gave me some criticism last night, that was nice. They’ve been really nice to me. Last night, he said it wasn’t my best. I’m glad he said that. If they are always positive, I’m never going to grow.
Erika Van Pelt: Jennifer has been the one to give me the most constructive criticism. All the positive feedback is great, but I like the constructive criticism so I can go home, work on something, bring it back, and try to knock it out of the park. I’m here to grow.
Heejun Han: Jennifer Lopez called me poppy and I love it. Thank you.
Colton Dixon: I’ve connected with Randy the most, for sure. In Vegas, he told me I’m not only a singer, I’m an artist. And he and Jennifer said that this week, it’s amazing. As far as constructive criticism, Randy said to never change who you are, just perfect it and make it stronger and that’s what I plan on doing.
Phillip Phillips: They all have given me good criticism. They all have told me that I’m a true artist. That really felt good for them to say that.
Jeremy Rosado: I’ve had nothing but amazing support and love from the three of them. Jennifer’s definitely… how do I describe her… let’s say a guardian angel.
Hollie Cavanagh: Jennifer Lopez. She told me I could win, so that’s a huge thing. But she’s still really tough on me. She really wants me to push forward and succeed.
Joshua Ledet: All three of them actually. They keep telling me to sing from my gut and my soul.
Jermaine Jones: The most constructive criticism I’ve got, I think, is from Randy Jackson. He said he loves my rich, lower voice but to show my upper register and show I have another octave. You’re going to see a lot of exciting things.
Steven Tyler on who will be in finals: Colton will be. Elise will be. Um, you know, Phillip Phillips. Come on, need I go any further? There are some that really stand out and some that have the magic, but can’t sing so good. Some sing really good but don’t have the magic. You’re just waiting for them to put the two together.
Steven Tyler on the wild card picks: A lot of letting go in this. It’s all based on what they do that night, everything is. Sometimes that bothers me because I know how good they were the night before. Then they are judged completely on how they f—ed up. It’s really interesting how grueling it is for those kids. They are not just standing up there giving it their all, they’re dying! They’re dying!
Steven Tyler on this group versus last year: I feel very proud about this year because halfway through the auditions, I started owning how good they were. If that sounds a little strange… I just realized — not for the first time, but very strongly this year — how great even Ryan’s and Randy’s and J.Lo’s picks are. It just felt really good to be a big part of that.
Randy Jackson on who could win: I don’t know. You’ve got some amazingly talented kids. You’ve got Jessica Sanchez. You’ve got Joshua Ledet. You’ve got Phillip Phillips. Skylar Laine. Where do you stop?
Randy Jackson on who his second wild card pick would’ve been: It’s hard to say. Creighton is a great singer. I even like Eben, even though I thought he was like a year off. I hope some of these kids come back.
Randy Jackson on being soft on the guys: I felt like we were little too lenient Tuesday night. I talked to Steven and Jennifer after the show, I was like, dude, I watched it back and we gotta keep it in there. We gotta keep it real.
Randy Jackson on American Idol ratings being down 20 percent this season: When you have, every few months, a new singing show, and now we have three or four of them on the air, it’s year-round singing. The one thing when you get a lot of everything — and all of these shows are great: The Voice is great, The X Factor is great, even Got Talent has singing — when you have that much singing [on TV], it’s like showing up at a river with more water. Does the world need more water? Does the world need more singing? So everything’s gonna level off a bit.”
More ‘American Idol’: