WEST HOLLYWOOD — And then there were 12.
The third season of “American Idol” said goodbye to the semifinals Wednesday night and welcomed four more singers to compete for the title previously held by Kelly Clarkson and Ruben Studdard.
Jon Peter Lewis, a 24-year-old from Idaho whom Simon Cowell described in his first audition as resembling a pen salesman, was voted through to the finals, while each of the judges also selected a singer from the wildcard round.
Randy Jackson chose Jennifer Hudson, a 22-year-old cruise-line singer from Chicago, Paula Abdul elected 17-year-old Leah LaBelle of Seattle, and Cowell decided on 23-year-old George Huff from Louisiana.
The judges made it clear at a party after the show (click for photos) , however, that they are not necessarily rooting for the singers they advanced.
“They’re not favorites; we just had to choose,” said Cowell, who added that he agreed with Jackson’s choice of Hudson, but not Abdul’s.
|Photos: “American Idol” Top 12 Finalists Party|
“What?” Paula responded. “Leah’s very soulful.”
Cowell does have an early favorite, however.
“If I had to choose one of the 12 now to offer a recording contract without the competition, it would be Fantasia [Barrino],” he said of the 19-year-old from High Point, North Carolina, whose voice resembles Macy Gray, “although I think it’s going to be tough for her in the rounds.”
As for which of the four men will go the furthest, Randy and Paula agreed on Lewis, while Simon named the other John, 16-year-old John Stevens from East Amherst, New York. “If I was making a record, I would pick the ginger-head kid,” he said. “The guy who sings the Dean Martin stuff.”
Among the contestants, who talked Wednesday to the media for the first and last time before each is eliminated, none would admit to any front-runners.
“I think everyone has a great chance to win,” 18-year-old Camile Velasco from Haiku, Hawaii, said. “We’re all from different parts of the country. We all have different sounds.”
“I could not be America,” added 16-year-old Diana Degarmo from Snellville, Georgia.
“I don’t know who I’d vote for.”
“Some people outweigh others vocally, some outweigh others with originality and personality. Everyone is so diverse,” 25-year-old Matthew Rogers from Rancho Cucamonga, California, said. “Everyone’s bringing something different to the table.”
Rogers, a former college football player, has been surprised by the support he’s received from his ex-teammates.
“I thought all my football buddies were gonna call me a pansy, a prima donna, ’Oh you’re going Hollywood,’ but they’ve been saying, ’We’re really proud,’ even the ones I didn’t get along with,” he said, flashing a huge grin. “So I’m trying to bring everyone with me for the experience.”
Rogers, whose personality has been praised from the beginning, said he owes his smile to his mother. ” Life’s too short,” he said. “My mom’s been battling cancer for seven years, and she wants to do so much and she can’t. I always think about that and I’m on a high all the time. And this is over the top. This is what I always wanted and I’m here.”
Huff, another bright personality, agreed that being an “American Idol” finalist is a dream come true. “All the singing I’ve done has paid off,” he said. “There’s only one ’American Idol,’ but Clay got to number two and he’s doing very well. So it’s all about just being supportive of each other and singing from the heart.”
|Complete ’Idol’ Coverage|
All of the contestants were, of course, thrilled Wednesday, although the nerves are starting as the competition enters the theme week portion.
A lot of the spotlight will be on Stevens, a reserved Frank Sinatra-inspired crooner who left the judges wondering if he could exceed at other styles.
“I have to admit I am a little worried, but I’ll take whatever’s coming,” he said. “There’s talk about a disco week — that could be tough — but I could rip out some John Travolta.”
Tuesday’s two-hour show will focus on soul tunes, which excites 17-year-old Jasmine Trias from Mililani, Hawaii. “I love all the genres, though,” she said. “Country is going to be a little weird for me, but I think my voice is versatile.”
Fantasia is also up for Cowell’s challenge during the theme weeks. “Any style is going to be exciting for me,” she said. “I even have a country song in mind.”
As for who will be her biggest challenge, she was quick to answer.
“There’s a girl on there, her name is Fantasia — you gotta watch her,” she joked.
Twenty-four-year-old Amy Adams of Bakersfield, California, and 24-year-old LaToya London of Hawthorne, California, are also finalists.