Tuesday, March 16, 2004

'American Idol' puts 12 finalists on stage

By Lynn Elber
The Associated Press

So far, breathtakingly untalented William Hung is the big hit of this season's American Idol.

The situation should change as the 12 freshly minted finalists take the stage for a two-hour show and the chance to really let TV viewers see what they've got (8 p.m. today, Channels 19, 45).

It's about time, say some discontented observers and tough-love judge Simon Cowell, who's dripping more acid than usual in the third season of the Fox series.

"You'd probably agree that the heats have been fairly lackluster," Cowell said. Even standout finalist La Toya London, 24, of Hawthorne, Calif., earns his gimlet eye.

"She was good, but there's another part of me that thinks we thought she was great because everyone else is so terrible," he said.

But the TV audience is unfazed. Ratings are up 31 percent in total viewers and 26 percent among the advertiser-favored group of adults 18 to 49, reports co-executive producer Ken Warwick.

He and the finalists insist viewers know what's good.

"Honestly, I think the competition this year is more tough because everybody is so (musically) diverse in this top 12," said Jasmine Trias, 17, of Hawaii.

"I think everybody is so, so talented," said Jennifer Hudson, 22, of Chicago. "I don't think America's seen our best yet."

Hudson, making a Betty Boop fashion statement last week with curls and a pink frock, wowed judge Randy Jackson with her performance of "I Believe in You and Me." She became his wild-card pick, one of four who got a second chance to keep competing.

"This is the first bunch that we've had that wasn't boring," Jackson said. "With this bunch there definitely will be sparks and wild, crazy antics going on."

They include several poetically named songbirds (Fantasia, Jasmine, Camile) and a contingent of teenagers who still have to get in their daily schooling.

In this third go-around, what is Jackson looking for in an idol? Rich-voiced Kelly Clarkson and "velvet teddy bear" Ruben Studdard were the first and second season winners.

"I'm looking for uniqueness. Unique voice, unique sense of style and a unique star kind of ability," Jackson said. "I think that, for me, this is the first group that I've actually seen two people that I think are stars."

Guest judges will be on hand, with Elton John, filmmaker Quentin Tarantino and Donna Summer among the prospects. The series ends with a May 25-26 finale.

This year's contestants are acutely aware of the top 10 releases from Studdard, Clarkson and Clay Aiken, Warwick said.

"They know the prize and how successful they can be. It's something else to spur them on to be as good as they can be."

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