Hayley Reinhart

The stunned look on her face said it all: Like so many others, Haley Reinhart had begun to believe that The Big Mo (momentum) was finally going her way and that she was headed for the American Idol finale.

She'd been in the bottom three four times — more than anybody else — but seemed to have a Teflon-coating: No matter how many dings from the audience or semi-harsh critiques from the judges, she was still on stage, competing. So what was going through her mind as the elimination show started on Thursday night? "I've been in [the bottom three] so many times and I'm still around," says Reinhart. "There's something going on."

That is, until Ryan Seacrest announced that the country kids, Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina, would be going toe-to-toe in the finals. Reinhart says it took a minute to process that her fight to the finish was over. She looked floored. "I knew I would only have seconds to think about it," says Reinhart. "So I took a second to think about it, and then I said, 'All right. Okay. This is it, and guess what, I have to sing a song in about five seconds. So let's show America why they kept me there so long and give them a good show.'"

Reinhart, at age 20, is one tough cookie. She's performed on stage with her parents — all over the world — since the age of 8. And she fought hard on the Idol stage for recognition. The judges batted her around a bit, Randy Jackson saying that he was confused about who she was trying to be as an artist, or reacting to her vocals as "screaming." Reinhart stood her ground, and decided she was getting tough love. 

"The only thing that I can try to get out of that is that they really just wanted to push my buttons, push me as far as I could possibly go to get whatever they wanted to get out of me. And most of the time, that was fire, so I would get all aggravated and try to take it all out on the stage. Randy and [the other judges] are always telling me, 'It's all love.'  And I said, 'I understand. You want to see what you can get out of me.'"

Still, Reinhart is looking forward to going out on tour, where she won't be judged, and letting her brand of soulful, bluesy rock rip on stage. Can she accept coming in third? "Everything happens for a reason," she says. "And this was a good thing. It only means that I'm going to start my career as a solo artist even sooner."

Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!