Ala. vs. L.A.

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“American Idol” has come down to this: a beautiful young woman you could envision singing in the talent competition at the Miss America pageant vs. a colorful, irresistibly likable guy, who, until “American Idol,” might have aspired to working the lounge at the pageant’s hotel.

McPheever vs. The Soul Patrol.

It’s Katharine McPhee from the shadows of the world famous Hollywood sign, home of the stars, and Taylor Hicks, from Greater Birmingham, Ala., the cradle of “American Idol” finalists as the home of second-season winner Ruben Studdard and runners-up Bo Bice and Diana DeGarmo.

“There is work in Birmingham and work makes you better,” Hicks said. “‘American Idol’ gave me and Bo and Ruben an outlet to be heard and seen. Plane tickets to New York for showcases can get pretty expensive.”

It’s the classically trained, elegant McPhee and the prematurely gray Hicks, who honed his talent at any club and bar that would give him a microphone. “I enjoy making people smile.”

Each professes to be a big fan of the other and both say it really doesn’t matter who wins. “We both have already won. We both have record deals now,” McPhee said. “Of course, you still want to win. I’ll be ecstatic if I win. But look at Clay Aiken. He’s done really well.”

Aiken, the second-year runner-up, has far eclipsed Studdard in record sales and concert attendance. In fact, other than first-year “Idol” Kelly Clarkson, who has emerged as a genuine superstar, Aiken is arguably “Idol’s” biggest find.

Hicks said when he told his father he was going to Las Vegas to try out for “American Idol,” his dad said, “Why don’t you buy a lottery ticket?” Although getting this far is a dream come true, he doesn’t want to settle for the equivalent of five numbers out of six.

Singing and playing his harmonica in front of an audience is all he ever wanted to do. “I started performing, I think, when I was 3. I really got the bug at about 12.” After playing in high school basketball games, he says, he would sneak into clubs that would let him onstage.

For McPhee, the Fox phenomenon is hopefully a step toward a career in some facet of show business. She’s already subjected herself, without success, to the cattle-call auditions for TV pilots and dreams of a career on the big screen. “Broadway is something I’d also like to put on my resume someday,” she says.

She was playing in local musical theater when friends and castmates urged her to try out for “Idol.” When they persisted, “I decided I really should try out, so I drove up (to San Francisco).”

Although some have interpreted her cool demeanor as cockiness, she protests nothing could be further from reality. “What they see on TV is all they see,” she said. “I’ve never said, “I’m going to win.’ My face clearly describes that I’m not overly confident.”

Indeed, there have been times, she said, “I’ve gone behind closed doors and cried, “I don’t think I can do this anymore.”‘

Her low point came the week when the music of Elvis was the theme and she was the only woman against three talented men. “I thought to myself, “When are they going to give me a genre?”‘

The show went as badly as she feared. “I really thought I was going home,” she said, reflecting what was the general consensus. Caustic Simon Cowell, who has been atypically kind to her, said as much, too, just before Ryan Seacrest revealed it was the perceived favorite, Chris Daughtry, who would be leaving the show.

When there was an uproar over the result, with Web sites and talk-show callers complaining McPhee had somehow lucked out, probably because Daughtry’s fans got complacent, she reacted humanly. “I felt really s—–.”

That was one of several times McPhee has been in the bottom two of three, a jeopardy Hicks has not faced.

McPhee has not exactly been given a genre but the format for the finale has her in a comfort zone. She and Hicks will sing three songs apiece. Both will premiere the song that has been composed for the eventual winner. The other two selections are their choices from tunes they have already performed. McPhee said they are not allowed to reveal their numbers, but she made no attempt to deny “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the song Simon designated for her last week, will be one of her choices. Simon labeled her performance the best of the competition.

Hicks would say only, “The finale is going to be awesome. I wish I could share my feelings with everybody.”

If he wins, he will become the oldest “American Idol” at 29. Until last season, when the top age was raised from 26, someone his age would have been ineligible. He barely got in under the new standard of 28, since he hadn’t turned 29 when he auditioned. But for “Idol,” his dream might have died. “I was at a crossroads, whether to work at a bank or continue playing clubs.”

Now there is no question where his life is going. Even if he isn’t named the fifth “American Idol,” he said, “People will be seeing me being funky somewhere.”



AMERICAN IDOL

8 p.m. EDT Tuesday and Wednesday

Fox

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