Sometimes, being the best isn't even good enough.
That's the lesson 29-year-old "American Idol" finalist Melinda Doolittle learned Wednesday night when she was eliminated from the show and shut out of next week's finale despite winning the praise of all three judges week after week for her strong, consistent singing.
If there's another lesson we've learned this year on "Idol," it's to stay away from the ironic message T-shirts on elimination night. Doolittle's gothic-script black T said it all: "death cheater."
The former backup singer, who said moving six feet to the front of the stage was one of the longest walks she's ever taken, wasn't able to dodge a bullet Wednesday night. But even typically sour judge Simon Cowell, who had said numerous times during the season that Doolittle was among the best singers the competition had ever seen, had to shake his head at the elimination of the woman many had predicted to win the competition.
"Congratulations to you two," a frowny Cowell said, covering his face. "My commiserations, Melinda, 'cause you are one heck of a singer." Doolittle's departure sets up a finale next week that will pit preternaturally professional 17-year-old Jordin Sparks against quirky beatboxer Blake Lewis, 25, who has won praise for his risk-taking arrangements.
While someone had to go, Memphis native Doolittle's ousting seemed especially surprising given the effusive praise she earned Tuesday night, when Randy challenged her with the Whitney Houston song "I Believe in You and Me," which he said she knocked out of the box (see "'Idol' Recap: Blake's Still In It; Melinda Pulls A Paula; Jordin May Pay For Her Big Mouth").
With another astonishingly high vote count — close to 60 million, according to host Ryan Seacrest — the final three waited through montages of their trips home last week, a performance from last year's third-place finisher, Elliott Yamin, as well as a song from one of Lewis' favorite bands, Maroon 5, before Seacrest finally broke the news.
He sent Sparks back to the couch early, which left Lewis and Doolittle to sweat it out center stage. As Seacrest called Doolittle to step forward, he paused an extra second to build suspense before telling her it was the "end of the road." The always professional, positive-thinking singer who has backed such stars as Michael McDonald, CeCe Winans and Aaron Neville in the past, pocketed her signature look of shock and flashed another one of her patented moves, a warm, wide smile, hugging it out with Lewis as Sparks shed some tears across the stage.
Given her vast professional experience, rich vocals and near spotless run on "Idol," the judges sent Doolittle off with assurances that her career has just begun. "You already have made it," Paula Abdul said.
Ever gracious, Doolittle humbly accepted the praise and sang her way off with a spirited reprise of her take on Peggy Lee's "I'm a Woman," likely joining the list of singers whose surprising exits before the finale were a bump on the road to their eventual success.