As American Idol's "elite eight" await their fate, TV Guide calls a time-out to ask and get answers to some of the more-popular-than-ever contest's burning questions. Such as:
1. Is it us, or are Paula and Randy trying to be tougher this season?
Seems so. "People aren't stupid," says American Idol executive producer Nigel Lythgoe, explaining that Simon's brand of brutal honesty has rubbed off on both of his less-acidic sidekicks. "Paula and Randy are not just going to sit there and say, 'Oh, you're wonderful' when they know some of the singers aren't." So that explains why Pollyanna Abdul keeps getting tongue-tied: She's just trying to find the sweetest insult possible without having to "dawg" anyone!
2. Was Simon forced to apologize for taking a jab at Mandisa's size?
"It was absolutely organic," swears Lythgoe of the surprisingly earnest mea culpa that proved Simon was a bigger man than we imagined. "We left the cameras rolling and he said what he said. Then later, she said what she said. That's what I love about American Idol. We're a dysfunctional family. That's why we're loved!"
3. How do early faves like Ace Young end up in the bottom three?
Have we mentioned song choice? Some singers start off strong in the early rounds with tunes they know they can nail, but then they lose steam in genres outside their expertise. Think crooner John Stevens covering 'N Sync. But don't write off your faves just because they have a weak week; it's happened to the best of them. Literally. Aside from Kelly, Carrie and Clay, every top finalist has endured Ryan Seacrest's "after the break" shtick, including Season 3's bottom-three diva triumvirate of LaToya London, Jennifer "Dreamgirls" Hudson and Fantasia and we know what happened to her.
4. With all the talk about song selection being so key, how come some ditties keep turning up each season?
Despite the exposure a song can get from a show that pulls in a gazillion viewers check out the new TV Guide for a report on how Idol selection has boosted the digital download of some recent picks there are still some artists who aren't down with lending their wares. Simon even had to tsk-tsk Clarkson into OKing the use of her biggest hits. "Finalists submit their song choice for each week, and we tell them what we can and can't get the rights to," Lythgoe says.
5. Who would the finalists name Miss (or Mister) Congeniality?
Last season, third-place finisher Vonzell Solomon won the backstage popularity contest. Ironically, head hairstylist Dean Banowetz hands Season 5's honor to the one hopeful who gives him the least amount to work with. "Chris Daughtry is one of the sweetest, greatest guys," Banowetz reveals of Idol's shaving grace. "The day he gets voted off, there'll be a lot of tears." But with the rocker's fan base growing faster than his goatee, that may not be a day any of us have to worry about.
Additional reporting by Margy Rochlin