"It's a singing competition," Paula Abdul repeatedly declared on Thursday's "American Idol," frustrated that two of this season's weakest singers — Antonella Barba and Sanjaya Malakar — survived another week.
But is it?
Clearly, singing is the focus of "Idol," but even those closest to the show know there's more to it. "I've never wanted it to be a singing competition," co-executive producer Nigel Lythgoe said. "This is called 'American Idol.' And we would like the next one to be an idol. They need to be a great singer, but they also need a great personality if they're going to succeed. This isn't only just about having a great voice, it really isn't."
"Think about how many stars there are today that have great personalities that can't sing at all," added judge Randy Jackson. "I think the public falls in love with that. It's very infectious, the personality, and it plays a big part."
That might explain Malakar, a 17-year-old from Federal Way, Washington, who so innocently tagged along on his older sister's audition only to be brought to tears (all on camera) when he out-survived her.
But what about Barba, the 20-year-old from Point Pleasant, New Jersey? She's been tracked from the beginning — when she auditioned with her best friend, who didn't make it past the Hollywood round — but her personality hasn't exactly shined. Could it be that she built up a fanbase through the exposure (no pun intended) she received last week, when racy photos of her spread across the Internet (see "Sexy Pictures Won't Get Barba Booted From 'Idol' — But Wednesday Night's Song Could")?
"There's a certain hype that comes with her, and that's not really something I understand," said "Idol" semifinalist Leslie Hunt, who was voted out Thursday (see "Booted 'Idol' Hopeful On Antonella Barba's Sexy Photos: 'Get Over It' "). "It doesn't excite me that she has pictures like that. I mean, who doesn't? Whatever, get over it. But I knew getting into this that it wasn't just about singing."
Of course, Barba also survived the first week, before her pictures made national news, indicating that her fanbase was already strong. So perhaps it's fitting that the judges have praised her beauty each week before ripping into her singing.
"Cuteness goes a long way on 'Idol,' " season-three finalist Jon Peter Lewis said. "I mean, we're not really there for the music."
"As far as looks, Simon does constantly remind viewers about the image of an 'American Idol,' but thus far, there haven't really been any 'knockouts,' " added Entertainment Weekly's Shirley Halperin, who has covered "Idol" for several years. "In reality, I think viewers tend to relate more to the ones that aren't beauty-pageant perfect, the ones that remind you of yourself."
Debra Byrd, a vocal coach on "Idol," believes the cream does rise to the top, but the good-looking hopefuls do fare well too. "That cute factor plays," she said. "I mean, look at when you buy a CD. It's like, 'I like that person, I like their voice, I like their look, the whole nine yards.' "
For his part, co-executive producer Ken Warwick disagrees that looks play a part in the voting.
"In series one, we took a lot of heat because everyone was saying, 'They're looking for the perfect little pretty package that is going to sell records and that's the whole reason behind it,' " Warwick said. "And then we absolutely dispelled that with the second series. ... You can't honestly say ever with any criticism that we were going for the perfect-looking-little package with Ruben Studdard."