- The Washington Times - Monday, May 21, 2007

‘Idol’ down to the wire

After 18 weeks and the tearful eliminations of thousands of wannabe pop stars, a bubbly teenage diva and an edgy nonconformist will hit the “American Idol” stage this week for the top spot in the world’s biggest singing competition.

The winner of the contest will be announced at the end of tomorrow’s two-hour finale — but not before finalists Jordin Sparks, 17, and Blake Lewis, 25, are given one more chance to strut their stuff tonight at 8 (Fox5-WTTG).

Not even the show’s acerbic judge, Simon Cowell, dared predict the winner.

“I can’t call it at this stage because I think they’ve both got different strengths,” Mr. Cowell told Reuters news agency during a conference call with reporters. “One is a better entertainer (Mr. Lewis) and one is a better singer (Miss Sparks).”

Now in its sixth season, “American Idol” has grown from a cheesy summer talent competition into a cultural phenomenon and television’s most-watched show. The program, which puts contestants through auditions and performances that showcase musical genres ranging from country to hard rock, has produced a list of successful stars from both its winners and losers.

Kelly Clarkson, the first-ever “American Idol” winner, has become a Grammy-winning pop star — and booted season three finalist Jennifer Hudson (who placed seventh) won an Oscar this year for her role in the movie “Dreamgirls.”

“Idol” also has become a coveted forum for established artists to be seen, with appearances this season by megastars Diana Ross, Tony Bennett and Bon Jovi.

The winner of “American Idol” is chosen by telephone vote and receives a recording contract. Often, however, many ousted contestants land their own record deals soon after the show winds down.

Miss Sparks, who hails from Glendale, Ariz., wowed audiences with her big voice, belting out such songs as “I Who Have Nothing” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” The daughter of former National Football League player Phillippi Sparks won the judges’ praise for delivering performances worthy of artists much older than her 17 years and charmed viewers with her youthful good looks and upbeat personality.

Mr. Lewis, who Mr. Cowell said was a “brilliant entertainer … not a fantastic singer,” had a somewhat rockier road to the finale. A full-time musician from Bothell, Wash., he puts an original twist on classic songs by using a vocal percussion technique known as beat boxing. The judges have panned some arrangements, however.

Last week, Mr. Lewis and Miss Sparks beat out older, more experienced singer Melinda Doolittle — considered by many, including Mr. Simon, to be the front-runner — for their slots in tonight’s finale.

Millions are expected to tune in and will help Fox hold onto its first place-berth in the ratings race for prized viewers aged 18 to 49. It’s still the nation’s top-rated show, but viewership for “Idol” is down slightly from the 30 million viewers it averaged last season. The show lured 28.1 million viewers for last Wednesday’s elimination episode.

Star pleads guilty

Former “Prison Break” actor Lane Garrison pleaded guilty yesterday to vehicular manslaughter and drunken driving in a crash last year that killed a teenage passenger, Associated Press reports.

The actor, 26, faces up to six years and eight months in prison when he is sentenced in August. He remains free on $100,000 bail.

Mr. Garrison was driving a 2001 Land Rover on Dec. 2 when he lost control and rammed a tree. The crash killed Vahagn Setian, 17, a Beverly Hills High School student. Two other passengers, both 15-year-old girls, survived.

Mr. Garrison had a blood-alcohol content of .20 percent, more than twice the legal limit for driving, and was under the influence of cocaine, according to police. He pleaded guilty in Los Angeles County Superior Court to one count of vehicular manslaughter without gross negligence, one count of driving under the influence with a blood-alcohol level of .15 or higher and a misdemeanor of providing alcohol to a minor.

Judge Elden Fox earlier ordered Mr. Garrison not to drive a vehicle, drink alcohol, go to bars or contact witnesses or victims of the fatal crash.

Mr. Garrison played David “Tweener” Apolskis in Fox network’s “Prison Break.” His character was killed in the Oct. 2 episode. The Dallas native’s other credits include the 2006 film “Crazy” and an episode of the short-lived 2005 ABC series “Night Stalker.”

Send in the clowns

As part of its ongoing efforts to professionalize its site, YouTube is introducing its first sketch comedy contest.

According to TVWeek.com, the three-round competition, which began yesterday, pits aspiring sketch comedians against each other in a nine-week contest.

YouTube brought Sierra Mist Lemon Squeeze on board as a sponsor and has also enlisted a panel of Hollywood agents, writers, producers and executives to select 20 finalists from the first round. The YouTube community will then vote on final winners from the next two rounds with the winning series to be unveiled on July 12.

The goal of the competition is to encourage video creators to build and sustain an audience for episodic comedic series, YouTube said. The winner receives new production gear, the chance to shoot an original short for Sierra Mist that will be seen on SierraMist.com and a meeting with talent agents.

Posh joins MTV list

Victoria “Posh Spice” Beckham, Cameron Diaz, Lindsay Lohan and Robin Williams are among the stars set to present “golden popcorn” trophies at the 2007 MTV Movie Awards.

Other famous faces expected at the June 3 ceremony include Jessica Biel, Mandy Moore, Bruce Willis and John Krasinski, MTV announced yesterday. The awards will air live from the Gibson Amphitheatre in Universal City.

They will join previously announced presenters Samuel L. Jackson, Jessica Alba, John Travolta and Shia LaBeouf. Sarah Silverman will host the show, AP said.

Among the films vying for top honors are “300,” “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest,” “Blades of Glory,” “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.”

Compiled by Robyn-Denise Yourse from Web and wire reports

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