The topic du jour on the red carpet at the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards was who would emerge the big winner on... American Idol? Yes, Britney's ex wasn't the only Justin in the spotlight this year.

"I'm voting for him," confessed best female video nominee Michelle Branch of Justin Guarini, who attended the VMAs alongside Idol rival Kelly Clarkson. "I think he's a star. I love the whole '70s vibe."

Survivor: Africa champ Ethan Zohn also was throwing his support behind Guarini — but for strictly superficial reasons. "You know I've got to go with Justin — he's rockin' the afro," laughed the similiarly mop-topped reality star. "Even though I was the one who started that [whole curly hair trend]." Sporting a nearly identical shag wasn't enough to win over MTV VJ Quddus, who conceded that he's often compared with the Idol sensation. "I guess it's a compliment, seeing as he made it all that way, but I like Kelly."

Actually, an informal VMA poll conducted by TV Guide Online found that the majority of celebs in attendance favored the Texas cocktail waitress. "I'm rooting for Kelly," raved actor Jesse Bradford, star of the upcoming teen thriller Swimfan (due out Sept. 6). "She reminds me of Janis Joplin, a little white girl with a voice you just wouldn't expect."

Clarkson also found a loyal fan in Rosie O'Donnell's talk show successor Caroline Rhea — but mostly because she wasn't buying Guarini's polarizing sweet-guy shtick. "I think Justin will make a wonderful actor," she cracked. "He's a good dancer, but he lost me with the Michael Jackson [homage] two weeks ago." Laughing, she added: "I'm not sure that's Justin's real hair either."

Then there were those who simply refused to play favorites. "I can't pick it," shrugged Justin Timberlake, who copped to catching a few Idol episodes. "I think it's good." Hedged MTV correspondent John Norris: "I think Kelly's got the voice, but I wonder whether Justin isn't more of a performer."

Other exclusive soundbites from Idol's famous fans:

"My wife forces me to watch it," sighed former Hootie and the Blowfish singer Darius Rucker. "I think Justin's gonna win." Rucker's wife Beth quickly interjected with her own pick. "I think Justin's really charming, but I think Kelly's got it." Hmm... sounds like there's a little tension in the Rucker household. Responds Darius: "The tension is that she makes me watch it. That's enough tension."

"I haven't watched it yet, but I heard about it," said multiple nominee Shakira. "Everybody is talking about it, so it's kind of hard to escape it."

Dashboard Confessional frontman Chris Carrabba caught one episode. "It was the one where the British guy was a pretentious p---k &#151 oh, wait: that's all of them."

"I love that guy Simon," gushed R&B superstar Brandy, making her first public appearance since giving birth to daughter Sy'rai on June 16. "He's just honest and I like that."

Best New Artist nominee John Mayer hasn't been bitten by the Idol bug, but said he understands "the crack-like addictiveness of it. When you watch pros on TV, you know they've got it down. But when you watch American Idol, you know that these aren't professionals yet... they're still clinging onto that tightrope. And it's really, really exciting to watch."

So, what do the finalists at the center of the hoopla think of all the high-profile attention? "It's great," grinned Guarini, who was seeking out childhood pal Pink. "We were friends in junior high and music was our link. Now, we're finally in the same spot and I cannot wait to see her." Just out of curiosity, we had to ask: Does he worry about male pattern baldness? "No," he laughed. "This thing is, like, attached. I don't think it's going anywhere."

Clarkson, meanwhile, seemed like a fish out of water at the annual VMA spectacle. "It's really exciting," she beamed. Asked what category her first album would fall under, the R&B/country/pop triple threat revealed: "Fans don't expect one genre, so I can kind of get away with doing all of them."

She'll get no argument from testy Idol judge Simon Cowell, who after some light grilling, finally confessed to TV Guide Online that he's rooting for Clarkson to win next Wednesday. "If it's based on voice," he said, "you've got to give it to Kelly."

Right about this time, Jennifer Lopez made her entrance and promptly snubbed the press line. When we asked Cowell if Ben Affleck's sweetheart qualifies as an American Idol, he sniped, sarcasm dripping: "She's certainly friendly."

What can we say — when he's right, he's right.