From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
One day, you're just a kid with a dream, standing in line with thousands of others who think they can sing. The next? You're on TV—live TV—in front of 30 million viewers. Nervous much? Oh yeah. This season the American Idol finalists are feeling the pressure more than ever. "We don't want to be the season that lets everyone down," says Navy man Phil Stacey. "We have a lot on our shoulders." The nerves were apparent from the start. Forgotten lyrics, shaky voices and, in the case of Sanjaya Malakar, an entire performance that was declared "almost unlistenable" by judge Randy Jackson. "He's never returned to form," says Jackson. "The nerves are killing him." Well, he's not going down quietly. Malakar, 17, has legions of fans who know their way around the speed-dial. Blake Lewis also has lots of fans on call, and the greatest momentum seems to be with the diva trio of LaKisha Jones, Melinda Doolittle and Jordin Sparks. Still, it's anyone's game, says executive producer Ken Warwick. "As they go on the journey, they push themselves," he says. "They surprise themselves and us, so who knows what will happen?" Here, PEOPLE takes an inside look at season 6 and those vying to be No. 1.

TEEN WONDER

JORDIN SPARKS
AGE 17

PRE-IDOL
High school junior and plus-size model

RELATIONSHIP STATUS
Single

MUSIC BACKGROUND
Sparks toured with Christian singer Michael W. Smith. Her other training? Watching Idol since its first season. "I was, like, 11!" she says. (Actually, she was 12.) "I know what the past Idols have done and I know what looks good on TV and what looks not good."

WHY SHE AUDITIONED
"When I'm on the stage, I feel like I can be myself and nobody will care. I love being up there. I love seeing the faces in the crowd. I love hearing the clapping when you're performing."

IDOL LIFE
"My hair makes it hard for me to hide. I pull it back and people still recognize me. These little girls are so precious—they say, 'We vote for you all the time!' I love it. My dad [former NFL player Phillippi Sparks] was always in the spotlight, so I'm very comfortable with being in the spotlight, too."

WHAT'S ON HER IPOD?
"'N Sync & Hanson. I love 'MMMBop'!"

THE HOLY ROCK & ROLLER

CHRIS SLIGH
AGE 28

RELATIONSHIP STATUS
Married to Sarah, 26, a church administrative assistant

PRE-IDOL
A worship leader at a church in Greenville, S.C.

MUSIC BACKGROUND
"My parents are conservative Christians, so it was a huge deal that I was going into rock music," says Sligh, who sang opera at Bob Jones University. "But they enjoy the show. They're missionaries in Germany—they get it on the military network, but it's a night later, so they can't vote."

IDOL STYLE
"I tried out two years in a row with short hair and didn't make it—I try out with long hair and suddenly I make it."

GUEST MENTOR HE'S PSYCHED TO MEET
"Of course Bon Jovi. As a rock artist, he's somebody I really look up to, and he seems like one of those people I'd want to be around in real life."

THE MOM FIGURE

MELINDA DOOLITTLE
AGE 29

RELATIONSHIP STATUS
Single

PRE-IDOL
Brentwood, Tenn.-based backup singer for Aaron Neville, CeCe Winans and Idol alum George Huff

WHY SHE AUDITIONED
"Some friends invited me to go with them to the Memphis audition, saying it would be fun to watch the funny singers," says Doolittle. "On the way we decided the whole car had to audition, and I ended up being the only one to make it."

IDOL STYLE
"I'm a bit of a tomboy, so these heels and all this are not normal for me. It's fun, but it's like playing dress-up, so when I go home, it's snatch the wig off and lie down!"

BACKSTAGE SECRET
"I am the oldest one here," she says, "so the other contestants call me Mama. I love to be silly. Everybody thinks I'm shy, but I'm not shy. I just get a little nervous occasionally."

THE MAKEOVER
"I am the worst," says Doolittle of her style sense. "Thank God I have help."

IDOL GIVES BACK
Simon & Co. get charitable—and viewers can help too

As executive producer Nigel Lythgoe puts it, "Let's use the phone calls we get every week for good." So this season, FOX, Idol and the Charity Projects Entertainment Fund are turning viewer votes into aid for needy youth in Africa and the U.S. For each vote phoned in on April 24, sponsors will make a donation, and Lythgoe expects about a $5 million haul. The April 25 show (featuring performances by Gwen Stefani and Pink) will have a direct donation line and footage from Simon Cowell and Ryan Seacrest's Kenya trip; Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul's tour of Katrina-hit areas is also planned. "Hopefully," says Seacrest, "it will impact people the way that it impacted us."

THE TIMBERLAKE LOOK-ALIKE

CHRIS RICHARDSON
AGE 23

RELATIONSHIP STATUS
Single

PRE-IDOL
Restaurant supervisor at Hooters in Chesapeake, Va.

MUSIC BACKGROUND
"I've recorded for about five years," says Richardson. "I went to a studio [in Virginia Beach] one night and Justin Timberlake was recording his album. I played my guitar for him and we watched a basketball game."

IDOL STYLE
"When I first came to L.A. I weighed 225 lbs. I would do label visits and they'd say they loved the music, but 'you need to lose weight.' Now I'm 180. I went on a strict diet and I work out religiously."

BACKSTAGE SECRET
A brewing intra-Idol romance perhaps? A source spotted Richardson and Top 24 Idol Alaina Alexander—who's been sitting with Richardson's family during the shows—hanging out in L.A. "They weren't too affectionate in public," says the source, "but they were talking close to each other. They were having fun."

ON BEING JUDGED
"I'm my own worst critic. I see my performances and go, 'Oh, that's horrible'"

THE BEAT BOXER

BLAKE LEWIS
AGE 25

RELATIONSHIP STATUS
Single

PRE-IDOL
Performed as an a cappella musician, including a four-year gig with the Seattle group Kickshaw

WHY HE AUDITIONED
"I've been waiting for an opportunity like this for a long time. I've done improv comedy and rap videos with my friends, which are on YouTube. Doing that prepped me for being on TV."

IDOL STYLE
"I started to make my own pants when I was in Seattle because I don't wear jeans," says Lewis, who has six tattoos. "I only wear these Caddyshack pants—I call them Grandpa pants. I like to put a little funk into everything."

BACKSTAGE SECRET
"I'm sexually frustrated! I broke up with my girlfriend right before Hollywood week, which was sad. I have no game. I get scared because I regard women as the most beautiful creatures in the world. But when [I'm performing], it's easier because then they come talk to me. A tour could be fun!"

WHO'S ON HIS IPOD?
"I love Robin Thicke. I wanted to do his music on the show but he didn't give clearance. Darn that Robin!"

THE SHOCKER

SANJAYA MALAKAR
AGE 17

RELATIONSHIP STATUS
Single

PRE-IDOL
Seattle high school student

WINNING STRATEGY
"There's never been an Indian American Idol," says Malakar. "I want to be proof of the melting pot that America is. My strategy is to be myself. I'd like to appear like a normal person because I am a normal person."

FAME FACTOR
"I don't want to be really angry or hurt, so I don't read what they say about me in the press or online."

BEST IDOL BUD
"Jordin and I have the high school thing going on, but I try to hang out with everyone."

BACKSTAGE SECRET
"As soon as I get onstage, I have to pee. It never fails," says Malakar, who wears a lucky charm—his grandfather's wedding ring—to help calm his nerves.

GUEST MENTOR HE'S PSYCHED TO MEET
"Tony Bennett. When I heard he was going to be on, I was ecstatic."

SIMON VS. RYAN: WAR OF WORDS

For once, Paula Abdul is staying out of it. This season's biting banter is squarely between Ryan Seacrest, 32, and Simon Cowell, 47, whose jabs hit an all-time low when Cowell implied that Seacrest could give Melinda Doolittle advice on high heels (Seacrest: "Stay out of my closet!" Cowell: "Come out!"). What's behind it? "Simon and I are friends and we're competitive," says the host. And Idol executive producer Ken Warwick, who deems the rapport "a love-hate relationship," insists "they're not pretending! Simon says whatever comes into his head, and it makes for fun TV." But has it gone too far? "In the moment, maybe," admits Seacrest. "But we don't ever lose sleep over what we say to each other."

THE SINGLE MOM

LAKISHA JONES
AGE 27

RELATIONSHIP STATUS
Single

PRE-IDOL
The mom to 4-year-old daughter Brionne worked as a bank teller in Fort Meade, Md.

THE FAME FACTOR
"I've had a couple of guys call me and say 'Hey, baby ...' I'm like 'Are you kidding me? Baby? I remember you didn't give me a return phone call. You remember that? Stop calling me, dude. It ain't happening.'"

IDOL STYLE
"I am a little self-conscious because I am the heaviest girl of the bunch. But I try to keep it classy. I'm not going the shorter skirt route again."

HIDDEN TALENT
"I am a great cook! I do oxtails, collard greens, some gravy, crab salad. But I don't bake. Cakes and stuff always fall down."

BACKSTAGE SECRET
"The hard part is not being able to put my daughter [who's bunking with Grandma in Michigan] in bed with me at night. She sleeps so wild, she's all over the place. I used to move her off me, but now I would love to feel her kicking me or slobbering on my arm, you know?"

WHY SHE AUDITIONED
"I just want a better life for my daughter and me. I don't ever want to go home and have my lights shut off again, or where I'm calling my friends and going, 'Can I borrow $20?'"

THE ROCKER CHICK

GINA GLOCKSEN
AGE 22

RELATIONSHIP STATUS
Dating Joe Ruzicka, a guitar player. (He's been in the audience holding her good luck charm, a stuffed lizard named Pickle.)

PRE-IDOL
Chicago dental assistant and part-time singer.

THE FAME FACTOR
"I get so down when I see [on blogs] 'Gina looked really big in that dress.' That's why they tell you not to read this stuff," she says. "It's a talent show, not America's Next Top Model. And I'm not that big!"

BACKSTAGE SECRET
Although Glocksen usually sports a tongue piercing, "I was told not to have it in by [executive producer] Nigel Lythgoe," she says. "He said, 'It's middle America. Do you want votes or no?'" Glocksen followed Lythgoe's advice for a few weeks, but then put the stud back in.

SCANDAL SCARRED
"I always think, 'That could be me,'" says Glocksen of the hubbub over the racy photos that surfaced featuring former Idol Antonella Barba. "That's why they have you tell [producers] what you've done in the past. Old friends will try to put the kibosh on you."

IDOL RITUAL
"Before I perform, I floss my teeth. I've seen a lot of people that don't even think about it, and the camera's right up in there"

THE HOTTIE

HALEY SCARNATO
AGE 24

RELATIONSHIP STATUS
Engaged to Bobby Krudwig, a sales executive

PRE-IDOL
Wedding singer in her native San Antonio

FAME FACTOR
Although she thinks it's "cute" that she has a fan club called "Haley's Comet," Scarnato doesn't want to know much more than that. "I completely stay away from the Internet and gossip—it's scary," she says. "I got recognized recently, which was weird. They said something about my mole!"

GUEST MENTOR SHE'S PSYCHED TO MEET
"Martina McBride," says the country fan. "I love her."

WHAT'S ON HER IPOD?
"I love Elvis, which is shocking to people for some reason."

ON BEING JUDGED
"Some comments are pretty harsh. Ryan lightens the mood. It's nice to have him on that big stage next to you"

THE FAMILY GUY

PHIL STACEY
AGE 29

RELATIONSHIP STATUS
Married to Kendra, who gave birth to their second daughter, McKayla, while Dad was trying out.

PRE-IDOL
U.S. Navy petty officer third class, stationed in Jacksonville, Fla.

WHAT MADE HIM AUDITION
"My friend made me because I missed his wedding and that's how he said I could make it up to him. I'm glad he did!"

BACKSTAGE SECRET
"I have this nervous habit where I cough before I go onstage. I get nervous, I cough—my parents have always yelled at me about it. I really need to get over it."

WHAT'S ON HIS IPOD?
"Spice Girls. I'm a huge Spice Girls fan. They are the mac daddies of pop."

AND THE WINNER WILL BE ... BLAKE?
On Idol's online message boards (myidol.americanidol.com/boards), he's the most popular. Here's the number of posts each finalist has received since February.

43,554
BLAKE LEWIS

28,981
SANJAYA MALAKAR

21,788
CHRIS RICHARDSON

14,673
CHRIS SLIGH

14,367
MELINDA DOOLITTLE

13,322
GINA GLOCKSEN

9,147
LAKISHA JONES

9,146
JORDIN SPARKS

8,474
PHIL STACEY

7,176
HALEY SCARNATO

Can't get enough Idol? Visit PEOPLE.COM/IDOL for behind-the-scenes videos, daily updates and the latest news

  • Contributors:
  • With Kim Peiffer,
  • Monica Rizzo,
  • Michelle Tan,
  • Cynthia Wang.