When Taylor Hicks told his dad he was auditioning for "American Idol," his father replied, "Why don't you just buy a lottery ticket?"
Nearly a year later, Hicks now has much better odds (50/50 to be exact) of winning what is essentially the musical equivalent of Power Ball. On Tuesday, Hicks and Katharine McPhee will face off in — if last week's voting totals were any indication — what could be the closest finale yet: The Soul Patrol vs. the McPhans.
Like all four previous seasons, the two finalists are a yin and yang of musical styles: Taylor the 29-year-old, silver-haired soul man with an arsenal of dance moves but no formal training, and Katharine the 22-year-old Hollywood heartthrob with big pipes perfected by her vocal-instructor mother.
"We're really different, so it just depends what America wants," McPhee said Friday (May 19).
Taylor and Katharine do have similarities, though, including their "Idol" journeys. Both started out red-hot in the final 24, cooled off some during the middle of the finals and then came on strong with stellar nights on Tuesday. Hicks, however, never made the bottom two or three, while McPhee was there a few times and was convinced last week she was going home.
"Being able to go to Graceland was fun and everything, but when I found out it was Elvis week, I was like, 'Oh jeez, I'm the only girl. When are they going to give me a theme that's a little easier on me?' " Katharine remembered. "The week before, the judges were really hard on me, when I sang 'I Have Nothing.' I just felt defeated. And in terms of my performances, I was feeling like I couldn't get it right."
"It was just as hard for me," she explained. "I felt like, 'Poor Chris, he should've been the one to stay.' I know in the media it was 'Oh, Chris was going to win. How could this happen?' It kinda made me feel pretty sh--ty, to be honest. But the next week I fired back and I'm still here, so ..."
Determination is another common factor among the two contestants. Taylor has been struggling as a touring musicians for more than decade, and Katharine has been trying to crack Hollywood since leaving college two and a half years ago.
"You have to really love music to do it as often as I've done it," Hicks said. "I would play high school basketball and then sneak into local clubs to play harmonica. When I went out for 'Idol,' I was at a crossroads, whether I was going to keep singing or go work at a bank."
"I definitely had a hard time booking stuff," added McPhee. "I did have a pilot in my first pilot season, but it's not what you think it's going to be."
Taylor and Katharine may have been favorites since their auditions, but both also have something going against them.
For Hicks, it's that although he's shined on the show, there's concern about whether his unique style will translate in the marketplace. He certainly doesn't fall under a particular radio format.
"I'm worried about my fans as opposed to what's mainstream," Taylor responded. "I'm a musician and I'm gonna be a musician and a soul singer the rest of my life. In this business, I've been denied many times. Mainstream music is a very interesting beast, and if I play a part of that in the next year or so, then fine, but if I don't, somebody will be seeing me be funky somewhere."
As for Katharine, some have wondered whether she's overconfident. Questioning the judges on Tuesday, for instance, could be taken as cocky.
"I think that's ridiculous to say," she replied. "I have never once said, 'I'm going to win this thing.' I think the fact that I have not ever stated that is part of the fact I'm still here. The people who get too confident are the ones whose fans get too confident. [As for Tuesday,] the judges had been really hard on me, and I didn't pick the song. I said it really kindly, and that's all it means. People see us on TV, but they don't know us. It's part of the business, but I just laugh at it."
The competition is likely going to come down to Tuesday night's performance show, which will feature three songs from each finalist, two of which will be their favorites from earlier in the season. Producers are not allowing them to reveal their songs, but Taylor said he has something special in store, and Katharine said she's going with two judges favorites.
"I don't have any gimmicks or silly things I say," McPhee said. "I'm just gonna have a really hot dress and a nice pair of shoes and just go out there and look fabulous and try to look my best and try and be as modest as I can be. I am confident in what I do, but that's it."
Another person confident in Katharine is Taylor. "She has amazing vocal runs," he said of his competition. "She's had some great moments on the show. It's so cool to see somebody that talented, just to be able to watch her. I'm a fan."
And, of course, the feelings are mutual. "I think Taylor is really free onstage," Katharine said. "If I get nervous, I can scrunch up and not be as free and spontaneous, and that's something he's really good at."
For the finale, however, Katharine is already feeling freer than she has all season.
"It is still a competition, but we both have won," she said. "We both have record deals and will be getting the same amount of press."