Katharine McPhee (season 5, second place)
McPhee could sing like a bird. She shone on standards like ”Come Rain or Come Shine” and ”Over the Rainbow” (the tune that become her moment and signature song). That’s why her fans were not shocked when she sailed past popular contestants like Chris Daughtry and Elliott Yamin. But despite stellar vocal performances, she lost to gray-haired Taylor Hicks, who Katharine’s fans felt not only fell short in vocal ability, but looked like he could be Kat’s father. Blame Taylor’s massive legion of mostly female soul patrollers who voted their fingers off for their man, leaving some to wonder if a female contender could win in an Idol demographic that was becoming increasingly female.
Pia Toscano (season 10, ninth place)
In the early weeks of season 10, Pia Toscano seemed to be the Idol contestant to beat. With her big, belty voice, Pia was an odds-on favorite to be the first female Idol winner since Jordin Sparks took the crown in season 6. But fans were left dumbstruck when the earthy beauty was booted suddenly in ninth place. Pia was the fifth woman to be eliminated from the Top 13. The only male booted up to that point, Casey Abrams, was saved by the judges two weeks before. Women were falling left and right and the judges used their one and only save on a guy. The women just could not catch a break that season.
Melinda Doolittle (season 6, third place)
The devine Ms. Doolittle was an early front runner. Simon Cowell adored her. And it seemed the golden voiced contestant could sing anything, whether she was belting out Bon Jovi or caressing her lovely vocals around the Spanish flavored ”Sway.” She was the ideal Idol contestant in the sense that she not only had a one-of-a kind voice, but was so very versatile. With Doolittle and Jordin Sparks in the competition, fans anticipated the first battle between female powerhouses since Fantasia and Diana DeGarmo faced off in season 2. But it wasn’t meant to be, as Blake Lewis—a talented musician and beatboxer who lacked Doolittle’s vocal ability—took that second spot alongside Sparks. What does a talented female vocalist have to do to get ahead?
Allison Iraheta (season 8, fourth place)
When Allison Iraheta and Adam Lambert closed the classic rock-themed season 8 Top 4 episode with a blazing duet of Foghat’s ”Slow Ride,” fans of the red-headed rocker figured she had the Top 3 in the bag. Her Southern California hometown must have immediately began fast tracking plans for her visit — especially after Danny Gokey ended his solo performance of ”Dream On” that night with a hideous, earsplitting scream that would not make future Idol judge, Steven Tyler proud. Yet, despite scaring dogs, cats, and other small animals with his tuneless wail, Danny’s faithful fans made sure he advanced to the next round, while Allison was sent packing. How well does a female Idol have to sing to beat out her male competition?
Haley Reinhart (season 10, third place)
Haley Reinhart eventually made it to the top 3 but not without a fight. While she wasn’t booted early like her fellow season 10 contestant, Pia Toscano, Haley spent the early weeks of the finals landing in the bottom 3 while males with arguably less vocal ability—James Durbin, Scotty McCreery, and Jacob Lusk—breezed past her without a struggle. In the Idol world, it’s a man?s world.
Carly Smithson (season 7, sixth place)
Considered by some to have the best voice of season 7, Carly struggled nearly every week of her Idol run. Part of the problem was the constant criticism from Simon Cowell that seemed to mess with her head. But instead of earning her sympathy votes, the audience picked on Carly right along with the surly judge. When David Archuleta, who ultimately made it to second place, forgot the words to his song ”We Can Work It Out” during Top 11 week, he was forgiven. Some of Carly’s fans had to wonder: Are women contestants held to a higher standard than their male counterparts?
Crystal Bowersox (season 9, second place)
Bowersox had it all. She was a musician, a beautiful, soulful singer, and a songwriter. She brought original interpretations to all the covers she sang on the Idol stage. So how was it that a pitch-challenged former paint salesman beat her for the Idol crown? And how could it be that Idol saw a man win the competition for a third year in a row? Season 9 was when fans seriously began asking themselves if a woman could ever win Idol again.
Katelyn Epperly (Season 9, Top 16)
Some fans considered Epperly an early frontrunner who could go all the way when she appeared in the semi-final round. Her cover of Coldplay’s ”The Scientist” had critics raving. But all it took was one misguided performance — a version of Carole King’s ”I Feel the Earth Move” — to deprive Katelyn of a spot in the Top 12, while Tim Urban was able to sail through on the male side.
Lilly Scott (season 9, Top 16)
Lilly Scott falls into the same category as Katelyn Epperly. An impressive first performance wasn’t enough to gain Lilly a loyal fanbase who would see her through when she bombed on Patsy Cline’s ”I Fall to Pieces” two weeks later. Some male contestants earn strong, loyal followings that see them through a few rough weeks. Women have seemed to get less wiggle room.
Erika Van Pelt (season 11, tenth place)
Idol fans and pundits wondered if season 11 would finally be ”the year of the woman,” but those hopes began to crumble when Erika Van Pelt, a masterful and consistently excellent vocalist, was eliminated earlier than the vocally challenged-but-funny (Heejun Han) and inconsistent but cute (DeAndre Brackensick). These fellas hardly have to try, and they amass followings, while the girls struggle despite singing their hearts out. The optimist in me thinks we’re finally going to have a female winner this year — but my cynical side is banking on Colton Dixon vs Phillip Phillips for the final showdown.