'Idol' Worship

Simon Cowell never lets you see him sweat, but at the moment he's looking a little damp. It's Tuesday afternoon, hours before the "American Idol" semifinal, and the last rehearsal is just beginning. Paula Abdul shows up with her ubiquitous Chihuahua, Thumbelina, chats with Randy Jackson and half-listens to the performances. Finally, Cowell can't stand it anymore. "Can I give you some advice, Paula?" he says. "You look nice. Just don't talk." Simon's never been much for chitchat, but he's particularly on edge now because of something strange occurring onstage. Kimberley Locke, who most everyone believes is a long shot to make it to the finals, is singing the pants off Ruben Studdard. Clay Aiken isn't at his best, but Studdard is really off. His rendition of Peabo Bryson's "If Ever I'm in Your Arms Again" is so obviously uninspired that the judges are clearly worried. They even tell him to take off his distracting hat and sing again, even though the judges almost never comment on performers before the show. "We have a problem," Cowell is overheard carping outside the soundstage later. "I want Ruben to be in the final two, and Kimberley just had a great rehearsal."

By the next night, Cowell has gotten his way. America has voted--or at least 19 million "Idol" worshipers have--and it gives Locke the boot. Minutes after the show, Aiken is in the famous "Red Room," crying. He can barely speak to a reporter. "Um, let's wait just a minute," he says, ultimately taking a half hour to steady himself. Studdard is as close to becoming 350 pounds of emotional Jell-O as you'll ever want to see. Locke is actually the most composed; she's expected this all along. "The judges play to who they want to win," she told NEWSWEEK the night before. "I believe they want Ruben. Simon says that every opportunity he gets." And where is Simon? Sitting on a metal bench outside Stage 36, smoking a Kool menthol and doing what he does best--playing the cynic. He's not moved at all by the hysterics inside. "If there's tears," he says, "it's tears of relief." Cowell is feeling relieved himself. While Ruben was clearly better on camera than he was during rehearsal, Kimberley still outsang him. Yet Cowell muzzled his praise for her and spared Ruben his trademark venom. "When there's only three left, you are going to be slightly tactical," Cowell admits. "What you're trying to do, if you can, is to tell the audience who you want to be in the final. You're not getting accurate judging. You're not."

Let that be a lesson, America: stop listening to what Simon says. Of course, it's already too late for that. Cowell's mighty mouth has helped turn "American Idol" into the biggest thing on television since Richard Hatch went native--and naked--on "Survivor." Wednesday's finale could well draw more than 30 million viewers, and many of them will buy the contestants' albums, go to the upcoming "American Idol" movie, check out the "Idol" concert tour and even sign up for the pint-size spinoff, "American Juniors." (No wonder Fox is getting away with charging as much as $950,000 for a 30-second ad.) The show has already made mini-stars out of "Idol" alums named Kelly, Justin and Tamyra, nobodies who became famous so fast that they lost their last names in the whirlwind. To get a sense of just how big "American Idol" has become, consider this: over the past 10 weeks, viewers have voted more than 230 million times. If Al Gore had that kind of get-out-the-vote campaign, he'd be president.

And you thought this was just another TV talent show. Well, it is--except that "American Idol" is also one of those addictive, unpredictable, heartbreaking programs that come around about as often as a leap year. The secrets to its success are wonderfully simple. First, there's the fact that the viewers vote for the winner. It's an ingenious way to get us empathizing--make that obsessing--with these contestants to the point where we fall in love with them, spending hours phoning in or text-messaging our all-important votes. "You end up giving a damn. You feel as though you've enabled that person to realize their dreams," says executive producer Nigel Lythgoe. Although the show was designed for teenagers, "Idol" tends to feature songs from the '60s, '70s and '80s, because the rights are cheaper and easier to obtain. That means the show also snags a sizable number of parents. "When you talk to people with families," says executive producer Cecile Frot-Coutaz, "they say this is the only show they actually watch with their kids." Case in point: more than 600,000 people have voted via text messages, and since the average AT&T wireless owner is in his early 40s, lots of parents are clearly helping their kids vote. That's not just happening for the American idols. Foreign versions of the show are running in 13 countries and counting. "In our finale, we're going to include clips of the bad Polish auditions, the bad Arabic auditions, the bad Norwegian auditions. It's going to be a riot," says Frot-Coutaz.

There is, fortunately or unfortunately, only one Simon. When "Idol" first became a phenomenon last year, the main event was waiting for Dr. Evil to spit out some nasty put-down. He advised one woman to hire a lawyer--and sue her vocal coach. He famously told a young man, "I can honestly say you are the worst singer in America," then topped that by telling another guy he'd bring about the end of popular music as we know it. "People tuned in to hear how he was going to destroy these innocent kids and their dreams. It was jaw-dropping," Abdul says. Abdul quickly became Cowell's foil as the "nice" judge, and a made-for-TV Manichaean drama was born. "We became cartoon caricatures of ourselves, and then we'd play it up," says Abdul, whom Katie Couric parodied last week during her "Tonight Show" gig. ("You really made the song your own!" Couric said--to every single contestant.) "Simon and I would get on a plane, look at each other and say, 'I'm not sitting next to you.' Half of first class would be laughing. The other half would be like, 'Oh God, they really don't like each other!' Pretty soon, it would be in the tabloids."

This week the spotlight shifts to Clay and Ruben, though it's hard to imagine the tabs gossiping much about them. In a world where people will marry strangers, eat bull testicles or maroon themselves in the Amazon just for the chance to be on TV, Aiken and Studdard are refreshingly normal. Aiken, 24, is a college student in North Carolina who teaches special-ed children. Studdard, 25, is a struggling musician from Alabama. Neither of them looks like a pop-music star. Ruben is 6 feet 4 with a 54-inch --waist and even bigger dimples. Gladys Knight, who served one week as a guest judge, nicknamed him the Velvet Teddy Bear, and you can imagine hearing his warm, sultry voice oozing from your favorite smooth-jazz station. When power-crooner Clay first started on "Idol," he had red hair and Coke-bottle glasses. After Simon warned him he'd never win looking like that, he got contacts and a spiky do. He's still more geek than chic--he'd be perfect as the nerdy guy in "Rent." "Ruben and Clay are not poster kids. Kelly Clarkson wasn't, either," says Jackson. "If the record people study the show, it's proof America's chosen the talent over the look. I love that." Even better, although these idols aren't studs, they've become tween heartthrobs. "Did you watch the show last night where this girl knew everything about me?" Aiken says. "It's just odd, because I don't understand why people like me that much." That, too, is part of the charm of "American Idol." Not only are the winners utterly un-MTV, they're so innocent that they don't quite comprehend fame, though they're onstage grabbing at it with outstretched arms.

That could change now that Studdard and Aiken are competing for a $1 million recording contract. Kelly Clarkson, the first "Idol" winner, saw her debut album, "Thankful," hit No. 1. Even Tamyra Gray, who finished fourth last year, got an acting gig on Fox's "Boston Public." This year's finalists are already asteroids, if not full-blown stars. The governor of Alabama declared March 11 "Ruben Studdard Day." (The governor of North Carolina offered to name a bridge after Aiken--if he wins.) Fans have become so obsessed with them that when Ruben almost got eliminated a few weeks ago, it stirred up an extra-large controversy. Even "Good Morning America"--on rival ABC--did a segment about whether the vote against him was racist. Studdard insists he wasn't bothered in any way by the vote. "I wasn't worried," he says. "I had prepared myself for it. I made it so much further than I thought I would." Not everyone was so low-key. "Last year when I got voted off, I read an article about a guy saying he wanted all the black people off the show. --It was a little shocking," says Tamyra. "It's just unfortunate that people are still looking at color as a basis for whether someone's talented."

"American Idol" fans have always had a taste for conspiracy theories. When trashy Nikki McKibbin beat out Tamyra last year, many people thought it was because her backers used computerized power-dialers to make massive numbers of phone calls. (The vote was unaffected, say the producers, though they did install a "phone cap" that keeps an individual from placing hundreds of votes during the two-hour call-in window.) The conjecture started again last week, when the three contestants each sang a song chosen at random from a bowl containing hundreds of choices. Kimberley miraculously chose "Band of Gold," a number she'd performed on the show before. What are the chances of that? It turns out that the "random" round was much more stage-managed than it appeared. Despite all those papers in the bowls, there were only four songs per contestant, all carefully chosen to suit the singers' vocal style and range. "There wasn't 'The Macarena' in there or anything," says Lythgoe. "It wasn't going to be stupid."

Despite all the insanity, Aiken and Studdard appear to have kept their egos in check and their friendship intact. They still have a prayer circle before every show, and they still goof off backstage. One day a couple of weeks back, Aiken was teasing contestant Josh Gracin. So Josh began chasing him around the theater, causing Clay to scream "Ruben! Ruben!" and then duck for cover behind the big man. And after Clay's near-fatal flubbing of "Vincent" last week, Ruben was waiting backstage to give him a 20-second Velvet Bear hug. It helps that Studdard and Aiken are both Southern gentlemen, despite the cutthroat competition. "Sometimes I feel really bad, like I took someone else's spot," Aiken says. "To see my name in lights has never really been a dream of mine. I'm perfectly happy teaching. I really, honest to God, am." Not that all the attention hasn't turned his head. "I'll be honest, when I got to the 'X-Men' premiere, and everyone's looking at me, and when I go home and I'm on the front page of both the papers, there is a little bit of me that doesn't want it to stop," Aiken says. "After you've finally seen how cool it can be, it is kind of contagious."

And now for the big question: who is going to win? It almost doesn't matter. Aiken and Studdard (and Locke, too) will undoubtedly get record contracts. Even Frenchie Davis, who was kicked off the show when it was revealed she'd posed for a pornographic Web site, got a number of TV and acting gigs. "Idol" is so big that the three judges have deals to develop their own programs. Pretty-boy host Ryan Seacrest is working on a show, too, though it will naturally star himself. (Cowell, who created CBS's upcoming reality show "Cupid," says he's seriously considering not returning to "Idol." "I personally think that I have more to offer as a creator of shows than I have just being a controversial person on TV," he says.) Some people argue that the "Idol" runner-up may actually be the lucky one. "There's a lot of pressure that comes with being, you know, the top dog," says Ruben. "Just ask Kelly." And who does he think will be top dog this time around? "I don't know, man," he says. "Hopefully it will be me." Clay is even more diplomatic. "I really don't know. I could not be in better company," he says. Simon, not surprisingly, is the only one gutsy enough to offer an opinion. "Clay by a whisker," he says. "But I could be wrong." You hear that, Paula?