WEST HOLLYWOOD, California — Almost as challenging as predicting who's going to win the fifth season of "American Idol" was naming which contestant was the most excited to be the at the final 12 party Thursday night.
Perhaps it was 16-year-old Kevin Covais, who escaped the bottom three last week only get another lashing from Simon on Wednesday. "This is probably the greatest night of my life," he gushed as he and a giddy Paris Bennett walked the red carpet. " 'Incredible' is the only word I can think of."
Or maybe it was Rockingham, North Carolina, rocker Bucky Covington, a true fish out of water in Los Angeles. "Oh my God, this is a real red carpet," he marveled. "But heck, I'm game for any kind of party."
At the other end of the spectrum was local girl Katharine McPhee. "It's so cool being from L.A. and so close to all these events and now being able to be there," she said.
Then there was Taylor Hicks, a gray-haired 29-year-old who was told by Simon in his audition that he would never make even the semifinals. "I love proving people wrong," Hicks said, adding his signature "Wooh!" "This is a dream come true for me. If I can keep singing each week, I'll be doing good. I heard Ray Charles when I was 10 years old, and I've never looked back since. I've studied Sam & Dave and Otis Redding and James Brown. I'm trying to dance like James Brown, and I'm hoping it works."
Hicks worked the press line with Melissa McGhee, another contender for most-excited, considering the judges predicted she would be packing her bags. (For the record, Kinnik Sky, Ayla Brown, Will Makar and Gedeon McKinney were eliminated.) "This whole process hadn't sunk in until I sat down and looked over to Lisa [Tucker] and she was like, 'Oh my God, this is the top 12!' "
He's already been through the contest and did alright for himself, yet Bo Bice was quite thrilled to be at the Pacific Design Center soirée. He had just returned to the show to perform his single "The Real Thing," but even more memorable was meeting this season's rockers, Covington and Chris Daughtry.
"I told Bo he's the reason I auditioned," Daughtry said. "I always thought it was cheesy and pop-oriented, but he came on and did his rock thing and I was like, 'Alright there's nothing stopping me.' "
"That makes me feel good to know that maybe by taking a chance I inspired others to take a chance," Bo said.
Really, though, the most excited person at Thursday's party was probably Dean Banowetz, the "Idol" hairdresser.
"I can't wait to get my hands on these guys," he said. "They all have 'Dumb and Dumber' bangs. It's driving me crazy! Taylor, I want to give a cut and color, and I'm still trying to figure out what to do with Bucky."
Judges Simon Cowell and Randy Jackson certainly weren't vying for most-excited "Idol" player. The two downplayed the eliminations that took place a few hours earlier.
"It was nothing that mattered really," Cowell said. "No one was gonna win out of that group."
"Gedeon could've gone far, but he wouldn't have won," Jackson added.
The judges did sing the praises of Daughtry, Hicks, Kellie Pickler and Mandisa, but called most of the song choices during the semifinals terrible. And neither Cowell nor Jackson were optimistic about next week's Stevie Wonder theme.
"All the Stevie songs are hard to perform so it's going to be tough," Jackson said.
The judges also wondered whether "Idol" would crown its fifth straight Southerner, as eight of the 12 hail from the South.
So what's in the water down there?
"It's our Southern hospitality," Pickler theorized.
"I think it's the food," added Bucky, who has professed his love for biscuits and gravy on the show.
"The power of God is down there. We're bringing soul and sharing it with the world," Bennett said.
The other four finalists, however, are hoping to end the streak.
"I just do what I'm feeling, and if I can portray it you can feel it with me," Denver's Ace Young said.
"The North will prevail," Covais predicted.
The "American Idol" finals begin Tuesday.