The Making of an Idol

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DAVID STRICK/REDUX FOR TIME

NOW SELL IT: Trias, left, rehearses with Lythgoe, musical supervisor Susan Slamer and Byrd

"Every reality show needs a mansion," jokes Patrick Lynn, a segment producer for American Idol. The rented eight-bedroom manse that houses Idol's finalists, in the mountains above Los Angeles, is like the show itself: big, showy and just tacky enough to be amusing. There are faux-castle turrets, an Egyptian-style horse statue, a gargantuan wooden wagon, a mammoth futuristic fake-suede couch—and three very ordinary teenage women battling America's largest case of butterflies. A few weeks ago, over a catered dinner of poached salmon and Chinese chicken salad, the contestants chatted with Time about taking the judges' critiques of their singing, especially the gleeful Simon Cowell's, in front of well over 20 million Fox viewers. "Simon's comments humble us," said Jasmine Trias. "We've been turned into celebrities overnight, but we're still the same people we always were."

Cowell's barbs, though, were nothing compared with the boos from the studio audience last Wednesday when La Toya London, instead of Trias, was ejected by the phone-in vote. The judges had praised London, 25, as polished, if a little safe. Trias, a sweet, button-cute 17-year-old from Hawaii who looks as if she were drawn by Disney animators, hit several off notes (in Idolese, she was "pitchy") and the judges pummeled her. She had been so sure she was gone that she brought the producers a basket of macadamia nuts and chocolate as a goodbye gift. Instead, America ditched the technically competent but detached London. That reduces the original 12 finalists to three: Trias, Fantasia Barrino and Diana DeGarmo. "I feel guilty and bad," Trias said backstage.

"But it's a TV show." Before the show, Trias said that London had assured her, "We all deserve to be here." Did Trias agree? "People should vote on performance," she answered quietly.

Or should they? Idol watchers take these questions seriously. After the talented Jennifer Hudson was booted in April, there were charges of racism (Hudson is African American) and vote fixing. USA Today editorialized, "Will this prime-time scandal further sour the public on other elections?" One suspects democracy will survive no matter what happens on the May 26 finale. But America's No. 1 reality show—up 19% over its red-hot 2003 ratings—is more than just a contest. It's a weekly interrogation by America of its tastes. We watch. We vote. Sometimes, we get angry at our voting. So we watch more and vote more, growing more familiar and engrossed with its out-of-nowhere aspirants but wondering if we're rewarding talent or popularity, if we're voting with our ears or our hearts. And because we have the power, the show implicitly questions the rest of our pop-culture choices too. American Idol asks, in an age of focus-group entertainment and instantly minted reality stars, Who deserves to be famous?

The Idols, of course, say the competition is about the music. This season, Time had exclusive access to the Idols throughout their week, from Thursday, when rehearsals begin, through the tearful goodbye dinner on "Weird Wednesday," as it's called, when one more candidate goes home. There certainly is an earnest, hardworking kids-from-Fame vibe about the group. Their week is grueling, filled with song-selection sessions, rehearsals, run-throughs, commercial and promo shoots, performances and interviews. (Minors Trias and DeGarmo, 16, also spend three hours a day with a tutor.) But in ways subtle and more blatant, the singers are also getting persona coaching. While they ultimately make their own decisions, they get advice on their song choices and performance to counter the judges' feedback, which often amounts to personal critiques: that DeGarmo is too girlish or London too staid. On one shopping trip for show-night clothes—the Idols get $450 a week for duds—stylist Miles Siggins encouraged London to "funk up" her look, saying that she sometimes mistook boring for classy. Conversely, the coaches discouraged Trias from selecting edgier music. As Trias puts it, "I had to learn to be myself."

Sometimes, the lessons backfire. Rehearsing for last week's disco night, Barrino was ready to perform the Emotions' Best of My Love. Vocal coach Debra Byrd, musical director Michael Orland and co-executive producer Nigel Lythgoe felt the song didn't showcase her well enough. "I'm just not sure what you'll gain from singing it," said Lythgoe. Instead, Byrd handed Barrino Holding Out for a Hero, the Bonnie Tyler anthem from Footloose. "That's the kind of song that gets you votes," said Lythgoe. It's easy to see why they felt that way: the song is dramatic, with big, brassy notes. It's also a gooey slick of '80s cheese whose histrionics aren't well suited to Barrino's funky style and slinky voice. (It's not really disco, either.) On the show, the judges singled out the song as a terrible choice, and Barrino finished second to last.

Nonetheless, Barrino is a favorite of the judges—"The best Idol ever," says judge Randy Jackson—and many viewers, perhaps because she has both a strong voice and a personality that pops. But personality, and a memorable personal story, can cut two ways. Barrino, 19, is the single mother of a 2-year-old girl, Zion, a fact some fans in online forums have tut-tutted. Others don't like her boldness. "People call me 'ghetto,'" she says, over a goodbye kiss-off dinner for John Stevens, Idol's Sinatraesque teenage crooner, at Mr. Cecil's California Ribs in Sherman Oaks. "I'm loud, and I have a big personality. People took me to be arrogant because I talked back to Simon."

Too loud, too ghetto—you don't need a sociology degree to read this as "uppity." Barrino is the last remaining African-American contestant, although many felt that she, London and Hudson, all African-American women, were easily the best singers. After Hudson's ouster, guest judge Elton John, among others, called the vote racist. Lythgoe rejects the charge—"We had five white kids kicked off in previous weeks"—and African-American Ruben Studdard squeaked by white Clay Aiken in last year's finale. This year the judges lumped the women together as "The Three Divas," as the pop market would have—which is at least partly racial but not necessarily racist—so they probably split votes. Co-executive producer Ken Warwick says Hawaii was furiously dialing and text-messaging votes for native daughter Trias (then again, we're talking Hawaii, which has less than 0.5% of the U.S. population). And on Idol, where viewers vote only for their favorites, it's better to be hated and loved by many than merely liked by everyone, which may have hurt London. For her own part, London says, "I don't like to blame racism."

But the Idols have to appeal to a broad swath of America. The show draws viewers from grade school through retirement, which is unusual for TV today. For the kids, it serves up a steady stream of fresh pop faces. For their parents and grandparents, the oldies playlist offers an idealized past: the '60s without the protests, disco without the cocaine. If Middle America has a silent-majority candidate this year, it could be perky, howitzer-lunged DeGarmo, from the wonderfully named Snellville, Ga., who dedicated a rendition of Someone to Watch over Me to U.S. troops for, yes, "watching over us." DeGarmo has a strange mix of babyishness and variety-show maturity—she's Dr. Seuss's Cindy-Lou Who in Kathie Lee Gifford's pantsuit and 3-in. heels—that has led Cowell to liken her to a "pageant contestant." But he says it with dry British admiration: we Yanks do like our pageants.

And we like to see ourselves in our Idols. What draws us through Idol's corniness—the embarrassing musical commercials, the results shows that cram 30 sec. of suspense into an hour—is the singers. Over a season, we learn their quirks, struggles, weaknesses and family stories. That preps them for a celebrity market in which traditional actors and performers are being supplanted by reality-TV personae: Survivor's amorous Rob and Amber, The Apprentice's villain Omarosa. On the cover of Us Weekly magazine, "reality stars sell, in general, better than regular stars now," says editor Janice Min. "They live real-life soap operas that you can see day in and day out." In contrast, says Charles Lachman, executive producer of Inside Edition, today's celebrities "are managed to the nth degree. I was in a focus group recently, and people were saying, 'I want to know about people like me.' These shows are tapping into that interest."

Perhaps too well. Idol was created in Britain by music executive Simon Fuller not just to make hit TV but also to find lasting talent for him to sign. So far the breakout star of this Idol season is William Hung, famous for butchering Ricky Martin's She Bangs at an audition; his debut CD sold nearly 38,000 copies in its first week. Jackson says he sometimes is worried that Idol the reality show will undercut Idol the music search, which in its first two seasons produced both salable talents and high ratings. "Kelly Clarkson was great," says Jackson. "Ruben—great. Clay—great. This is about being a serious talent competition. It's not just about voting for who you like."

Then again, when's the last time you bought a CD by someone you didn't like, just because you felt you should support their talent? The voting on Idol, says Fuller, represents "people power," just as record-buying does. "A lot of music purists don't understand that," he says. "The biggest stars are not always the best. Elvis had charisma. He was a good singer, but not the best ever."

Pop music is about popularity; performance is about personality. And an Idol contestant who gets over on charm or a touching story is in good company. Singers have always used biography, real or concocted, to bond with their audience: Robert Johnson selling his soul to the devil, Loretta Lynn growing up a coal miner's daughter. (If only Sid and Nancy had a reality show.) Who a singer is and how he or she lived don't just drive the audience's interest but, at best, inform the performance. In Porgy and Bess, for instance, Clara sings Summertime to her baby during a storm that will claim the child's father in a boat accident. Barrino says she never heard the famous lullaby before singing it on Idol. But as a young single mother, in a way she knew the song without knowing it, and her performance was her finest of the season.

Was she creating a persona or being an artist? If she and we are lucky, she will someday become a true performer, for whom there is no difference between the two. That is why it's a false choice to ask if American Idol is a popularity contest or a singing competition. Vocal coach Byrd has a better term for it. "Welcome," she says, "to Star School."