In his book, "What's Up Dawg?: How to Become a Superstar in the Music Business," Randy Jackson says the three most important qualities a singer can have are vocal ability, star persona and a unique sense of style.
As we approach the final rounds of the third season of "American Idol," a competition stacked with what the judges have declared are the strongest voices and most unique personalities yet, the latter could be more of a deciding factor than ever before.
"I'm sure [style] plays some kind of role in what people think," said Leah LaBelle, who wore clothes similar to her own wardrobe and was the first of the 12 finalists to get the boot. "They judge you on everything in this competition. It's not just your talent. I mean, I can't understand why Jennifer [Hudson] was in the bottom three."
|Photos: "American Idol" Finalists|
Hudson, of course, has been the target of the harshest style critiques this season, particularly for the infamous homemade pink dress she wore in the wild-card round, but she's not the only contestant who's been called out for their fashion sense ... or non-sense.
La Toya London, whose voice has earned consistent praise, might have fallen off the judges' list of favorites Tuesday for wearing her hair, as Simon Cowell described it, "like you've got a cat on your head." A week earlier, Cowell scolded George Huff, certainly one of the standout personalities, for not having his own sense of style.
Could those mistakes cost them the "American Idol" title? It's possible, according to Miles and Kristin Siggins, the designers who work with the finalists.
"I don't know whether it's a good thing or it's a bad thing, but it is a fact that you have to be really careful with your image nowadays," said Miles, who has also dressed Brad Pitt and Pamela Anderson. "You have to make an image for yourself."
"It's the first thing you notice as well," added Kristin. "And it's the most critical thing, as far as everybody having an opinion. So for a show where people are voting, you have to appeal to a wider market and still stay true to yourself."
Miles and Kristin don't work with "American Idol" contestants until the final 12 are chosen, but then it's the couple's job to remind them of the significance of style. The Sigginses also shop for the singers and make suggestions, although it's ultimately each performer's decision what to wear.
The best advice Miles and Kristin have is for the contestants to keep an open mind. "Kim Caldwell [from the second season] was fun because she took a lot of risks and a lot of chances," Kristin said. "She was the most fun the way she was a chameleon with her style, constantly changing her look."
Change, however, is not the stylists' goal.
"You don't want to change them, you want to take who they are and accentuate them," Kristin explained. "With the nature of the competition, it's important to show who they are. That's the hardest part, I think, is making sure you keep them real."
Matthew Rogers, the second singer voted out this season, let the stylists "accentuate" his look and felt good about the results.
"I looked a lot slimmer because of the clothes I was wearing," he said. "I was always wearing the big, baggy stuff, but they put me in fitted jeans, which I had never worn before, and pretty much two sizes smaller on shirts than what I was used to."
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"After I made the top 12, I had about three weeks off and he said, 'Grow your hair out as much as you can,' " Rogers explained. "He dried it out and he pushed everything forward and then puffed up the front. A lot of people didn't like it and I went through phases where I didn't like it sometimes."
Heading into the finals, Miles and Kristin admitted there were several contestants in need of some magical makeovers.
"We can't really mention any names, but there's a few kind of standout cases," Miles said, before murmuring something about a pink dress.
Banowetz is most excited about styling Diana DeGarmo's hair. "'Cause she's young," he said. "We call it 'virgin hair' because it's been untouched. She has a little bit of color, but it's really healthy and it's shiny and I just think it doesn't have anything special right now, so that'll change."
The hairdresser, who also does host Ryan Seacrest's famous 'do ("He's the quintessential metrosexual, so we've gotta follow through with highlights and some lowlights"), believes a good hairstyle can change the direction of the contest.
"Last year, Kimberley Locke had the really kinky, curly hair and the day that we straightened it out, people were like, 'Holy cow! This woman is hot, she's sexy, she's a full-figured, voluptuous, curvy woman who's got it going on,' and it was really cool," Banowetz recalled. "It was a huge transition for her and she came up to me afterwards and said, 'I look good and I feel so sexy about myself,' and the confidence level is hugely important."
Banowetz and the Sigginses are also looking forward to the unique challenge of working with John Stevens, the red-headed crooner with an affinity for sport coats.
"I can't wait to have him grow his hair out a little bit, maybe put a little color in it, style it different. 'Cause right now it's wavy and curly, so it looks kind of like an old-lady shampoo set," Banowetz said before he started the transition. "I gotta make it pop-worthy."
"He's got his own thing and he doesn't want to steer too far away from that," Miles said. "We can kinda play with that, but not too much."
The good news for "American Idol" contestants, Banowetz and the Sigginses agree, is that when it comes to style, there is hope for everyone.
"You saw what we did with Clay last season," Miles said. "And he did all right for himself."