It's two days before The X Factor's final five contestants take the live stage and Simon Cowell isn't happy. Sitting in on contestant Melanie Amaro's rehearsal, Cowell and the vocal coaches are debating the tempo for a dance version of Adele's "Someone Like You." "It needs to be bigger!" emphasizes Cowell, who — along with mentors L.A. Reid, Nicole Scherzinger and Paula Abdul — is gearing up for the Fox talent competition's December 22 finale. We caught up with the final four acts to dissect their keys to success — and their mentors weigh in on why their artist is worthy of the $5 million recording contract.
The 19-year-old student has blown audiences away with her powerful, ballad-belting voice. But Melanie still feels the pressure of getting a second chance after Cowell cut her during the judges' home rounds. "It does make me feel as though I have to work twice as hard," she says.
STAR-MAKING PERFORMANCE: Cowell and Melanie agree her rendition of Michael Jackson's "Earth Song" on November 30 might be the performance to beat this season. "I thought it doesn't get much better than that," says Cowell.
WINNING EDGE: Confidence is the key to her success, Cowell says. "The breakthrough for her came when she got emotional and spoke about her accent," he adds. He compares her to singers like Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey at their peaks: "I think she could be in that mold. She keeps getting better."
Josh, 30, is the final singer from the over-30 group. "I think if you work hard, not just in music or on a competition like this, good things will happen," he says.
PUSHING HIS LIMITS: The rocker had to challenge himself with softer ballads without the aid of an instrument. "I've never sung without a guitar or piano before, so it's good to stretch and learn how to do that," he says. Adds Scherzinger, "I said, 'The music needs to be not only through your voice, but it needs to be alive in your body as well.' He looks and feels so comfortable on stage now."
WINNING EDGE: Josh's raw emotion and powerful voice have catapulted him to the top. "He's this white dude from the Midwest and he's got the soul and the blues like some of the classics," says Scherzinger. "He has a unique voice that just rips through the sky."
The former addict, 28, took a worthwhile risk with his original song "Young Homie," which he cites as his favorite performance.
UNDER PRESSURE: Chris says he's feeling the heat and reminds himself to "work harder than I have and just be myself. I need this," he adds as he pounds his chest. "I need this!"
WINNING EDGE: Even though his vocals aren't the strongest of the bunch, his heart and compelling story connect with viewers. "A competition like this for a contestant like Chris is really tough because he is a superior artist when he does original material, and he struggles when he does cover songs," says Reid. "His gift and his genius is his ability to write and deliver his own music." Adds Chris, "Putting my spin on [someone else's song], I would have never done it without this show. It's teaching me to be better."
The 20-year-old with a soulful sound has been in the bottom two three times, but don't rule out an underdog victory. "I come from a different aspect of entertainment," says Marcus. "Now I've got to put on my boxing gloves and hit it up against these singers."
FLIPPING OUT: Marcus says the biggest risk he took was his backflip during his performance of Michael Jackson's "PYT." "I could have broken my neck," he laughs. "But maybe I can get a few more votes — who knows!"
WINNING EDGE: While he doesn't claim to have the best voice, Marcus' hot hip-hop moves and affable personality keep pushing him forward. "It's about stardom," says Reid. "It's about the people who have that intangibility, that lovability that makes them stand out. Marcus has to seduce the voters and charm them."