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"It's like a scene out of The Exorcist sometimes," says Simon Cowell of Paula Abdul's dramatic outbursts, which often occur less than six inches from his face. Actually, there've been no swiveling heads or obscenities—yet. But Abdul has been erupting, angrily defending her turf and her opinions against the sarcastic, dismissive Brit. "You take the joy out of me having fun and showing love!" she all but howled at him during the New Orleans auditions. "You are so obnoxious." During the Hollywood rounds, she grew so heated during a dispute with Cowell, she finally vented by calling over a producer and simply yelling—to no avail—about Simon's opposition. It's almost as if she'd been drinking "diva juice," laughs one producer. Abdul isn't laughing with him. "In terms of judging," she says, "I'm really the force to be reckoned with. Good is always more powerful than evil."

After nearly two months of auditions, elimination rounds and now the final 24, the fourth season promises to be the most emotionally extreme yet, "a musical version of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest," says Cowell, invoking another over-the-top movie. Which means that ratings are better than ever. But Abdul's hair-trigger confrontations with Cowell aren't just for the camera. "Never," says Abdul, who often gets emotional to the point of tears. "There's nothing rehearsed. Everything is authentic." Says Cowell: "It is not an act with Paula. If she can't get her way, she goes nuts. The crew can get nervous around the two of us, definitely."

One steady source of tension, to Abdul's frustration, has been Cowell's criticism of contestants for being overweight. "I stood up to him and said, you know, 'Look, you're causing eating disorders to happen.'" Fans applauded her for that, she says, but this season once again Cowell caused a flap when he told three blonde triplets they looked like "overweight Jessica Simpsons." In Abdul's opinion, "He's just mean."

Abdul and Cowell have always been the show-within-the-show of Idol. From the start, the 42-year-old singer-dancer-choreographer and the 45-year-old British record exec have talked up their love-hate yin-yang. (Third judge Randy Jackson, 48, usually sits out their battles, "reliable as an old sheepdog," says Cowell.) Says Abdul: "Simon would constantly be reminding me that he's a genius. He's in love with himself." Meanwhile, Cowell just loves to push her over the edge: "If I am feeling mean and I know that she's feeling sensitive, then I can't help myself." He also likes to throw out suggestions that there's a sexual spark behind the flare-ups. "I think they're like a couple that broke up," says JP Molfetta, 27, one half of a pair of twins who both eventually suffered rejection this season, "and once in a while they're still sleeping together."

But even a long-term dysfunctional relationship can take dynamic swerves: This season Abdul seems to have decided to publicly embrace her role as the judge who understands what the kids are feeling. "I'm not afraid to stand up to Simon," she says. "I understand he represents the ugliness of this business. But he also represents questioning the dream, the American dream. Not just questioning it. Crushing it. Whereas I'm about hope."

Cowell counters that her passion can be fickle. "Quite often," he complains, "someone whom she fights for like mad, she has forgotten during the next round." But Abdul insists she has a strategy. "Whether Simon wants to admit it or not, when he sees me that passionate about someone, it's inevitable he takes notice." The same goes for Jackson, she says: "If I don't stand up for a contestant, Randy falls into being seduced by Simon."

Keep in mind, too, she's the one girl trying to make herself heard in a boys' club. She's shut out of the weekly Thursday-night get-togethers of Jackson, Cowell and host Ryan Seacrest. "It is like having a horrible sister who always wants to come," says Cowell. Oddly enough, she has an ally in Cowell's girlfriend, Extra special correspondent Terri Seymour. "They're as thick as thieves," says Cowell. "They go out. She's probably more on the side of Paula than me."

There is some kindness—once the singing stops. Cowell even acts as wise older brother, says Abdul. "When I start dating someone he tells me, 'I'm going to give you some advice: Try not to talk too much,'" she laughs. But when she broke up last year with former Smith & Wesson executive Colton Melby, "Simon was very much there for me."

So yes, concludes Cowell, "it is a strange relationship, to say the least. But I couldn't imagine now doing the show with anybody else."

Says Abdul: "We do get along...as long as he's on his side and I'm on mine."

THE FINAL 24

Hold the phone! A voters guide to this season's Idols-in-the-making

Harold "Bo" Bice, 29
Helena, Ala. THE SOUTHERN ROCKER Dubbed Bo at birth by his grandmother, who thought he looked like Humphrey Bogart, this rocker says his singing and songwriting styles are "a mix between Jim Croce and James Taylor." He's at the north end of the age spectrum but undaunted: "I do think I have an edge by being an old man on the block."

Mikalah Gordon, 17
Las Vegas MS. CONFIDENCE A high school student with the bravado of a young Barbra Streisand (whom she reveres), she told Simon, "If you cut me, you're going to prom with me!" He retorted, "I'm not going to your prom"—and advanced her to the next round. Still, she admits, "I am nervous." To cope, "I make jokes." And? "I bite my nails every day."

Joe Murena, 26
Smithtown, N.Y. MR. STAR SEARCH For Murena, a courthouse office worker who competed on Star Search two years ago, the hardest trial on Idol till now was waiting to hear if he made it to the final 40. "There were people in the room who were praying. I was laughing," he says. "When I get nervous, I tend to laugh. I just have to keep telling myself to make sure I have fun."

Jessica Sierra, 19
Tampa THE NANNY Music is 24/7 for this former nanny. "I sing all day, every day," she says, "I used to get in trouble at school for singing in class." Even when she watches the Idol contestants on TV, she sings right along with her competitors. Her grandmother, who raised her, "yells for me to be quiet so she can hear," says Sierra.

Nadia Turner, 28 Miami
THE ONE WITH THE HAIR "I have big hair, I'm kind of outlandish and I'm always talking," says Turner. But this bartender also listens well, having soaked up the music in both New York City, where she lived for three years, and the Dutch Caribbean, her mother's home port. Like some other older contestants, she admits, "I didn't watch Idol much."

Anthony Fedorov, 19
Trevose, Pa. FROM UKRAINE, WITH LOVE "As cheesy as it sounds, I'm a hopeless romantic," says the balladeer, who emigrated to the U.S. 10 years ago. Having overcome a tracheotomy as a kid to sing again, he has lately overcome his image as "kind of geeky and goofy," thanks to his girlfriend Irena. "She gave me a bit more of a kinky look," he says. "She just wants me to do well."

Amanda Avila, 23
Las Vegas THE VEGAS SHOWGIRL Avila, who once sang backup for Smokey Robinson, remains pals with high school singing partner Josh Groban, who advises, "Be ready for a whirlwind." After two failed Idol attempts, Avila says, "I guess the third time is a charm." The difference? "I was in the first 500 people, rather than the last 1,000."

Nikko Smith, 22
Louis THE ONE WITH THE FAMOUS DAD As a child, he was invited onstage to dance with Michael Jackson in concert. Yet his No. 1 idol remains his father, baseball Hall of Famer Ozzie Smith. "I'm not trying to ride on his coattails," says Smith, who auditioned as Osbourne Jr. "I want to earn it. I think America is going to like me because I'm a breath of fresh air."

Celena Rae, 29
Fort Worth, Texas THE MARRIED ONE A veteran of the fairground circuit, Rae got a demo deal with a Nashville record company. "Things were really close, and then they fell apart," she says. Since making Idol's final cut, Rae, who met her husband of 18 months on a blind date, has been hitting the gym "to make sure what I don't want shaking on TV doesn't shake."

Scott Savol, 28
Cleveland MR. TOUGH GUY "I've learned there's no reason to be intimidated by a murderer," says the former corrections officer. Or by Simon. The person who can put me out of the competition is myself. I'm not egotistical, I'm just confident." He is, however, trying to soften his image. "I think people will say, 'He really is cool and he's not bad-looking.'"

Aloha Mischeaux, 19
St. Louis HIP-HOP PRINCESS Mischeaux (pronounced Meesho) played a nightclub singer in the Duke Ellington-inspired I Play On. "I was the big diva. It was good practice for now," she says, laughing. While attending New York City's American Musical and Dramatic Academy she'd shop her demo. "I'd walk 56 blocks a day, hitting all the major studios."

Anwar Robinson, 25
Newark, N.J. THE MUSIC TEACHER "My students are very happy for me," says Robinson, on leave from his job as a middle-school music teacher. The "most fun" he's had on Idol: teaming with fellow semifinalist Mario Vazquez and rejectee Jamar Jefferson on "I Can't Help Myself." "It helped me take some of the pressure off myself," he says.

Sarah Mather, 22
Wilmington, N.C. THE ONE WITH BRITISH PARENTS Though she works as a nail-and skin-care specialist, she wants no makeover. "It's important that you maintain your own personal style," she says. Instead she's been reading books—Simon's and Randy's among them—about the music industry, "Understanding this business is a huge part of it," she says.

Mario Vazquez, 27
New York City THE BRONX BELTER "I'm a struggling artist," says Vazquez. "I've been singing since I was like 13. I did some background vocals for Michael Jackson's latest album, Invincible." Banned from auditioning on an earlier Idol for being "two months overage," he says, "I'm now bringing my spice and my New York City energy."

Lindsey Cardinale, 19
Ponchatoula, La. LOUISIANA SOUL To pursue a singing career, Cardinale with drew from Southeastern Louisiana University, where she was studying to be a radiologist. At home, she's also put on hold all talk of the Idol competition. That way, she says, when her mom and older sister see her make the final 24 on TV, it will "be like a dream come true for them too."

Carrie Underwood, 21
Checotan, Okla. THE FARM GIRL Yes, when asked by Ryan Seacrest if she'd seen many stars in Hollywood, Underwood did respond, "It's been pretty cloudy." "We were talking about outside things!" she says. But she's no ditz. One semester shy of a college journalism degree, she's working to lose her accent. "I could never make it in broadcasting if I talked like an Okie."

Judd Harris, 27
New York City THE ACTOR An off-off-Broadway veteran turned funk rocker, Harris treasures the day Billy Joel visited his college, NYU, for a lecture and picked Harris to duet with him on "Baby Grand." "Afterward, he was like, 'Judd Harris, he's pretty good. One day people will say, "Hey, did you pick up the new Harris album yet?"' It was such a great moment."

Vonzell Solomon, 20
Fort Myers, Fla. THE POSTAL CARRIER For the last three years, this mail-truck driver has been singing with her father at restaurants and private parties. "He's my inspiration," she says. Not given to jitters and splashy offstage displays (her prime practice time is in the car), Solomon, who does tae kwon do, says of her audition, "I felt very confident going into that room."

Constantine Maroulis, 28
New York City THE ONE WITH THE BAND "I've been around quite a bit," says Maroulis, who toured with Rent in 2003 while fronting his hard-rock band, Pray for the Soul of Betty. "For me [competing on Idol] is just like another day at the office. But I'm not getting any younger and this is an awesome opportunity."

Janay Castine, 17
Lawrenceville, Ga. THE KID SISTER " She's one of the youngest in the semifinals, but Castine isn't fazed. "I was always the youngest in my school class," she says. "With everyone a year ahead of me, I just had to step it up." Though she's withdrawn from high school and will complete her senior year in L.A. with a tutor, she says, "I want to finish college."

Travis Tucker, 21
Manassas, Va. THE BREAK DANCER "I auditioned for Idol two years ago and made it out to Hollywood," says the University of Virginia senior. "One thing I learned was that it's not enough to sing." So this time, Tucker added a breakdance routine. "I figured it was a good way to be remembered. Randy [Jackson] got a kick out of one of the moves I did."

Melinda Lira, 19
Hanford, Calif. CALIFORNIA GIRL "I wasn't going to audition," says Lira, the youngest of four kids. "My mom was like, 'Just do it, girl. Why not just try it?'" So she's throwing herself at the challenge—but is determined to keep her cool. "I'm not going to let people get in the way with pettiness and arguing," she says. "I just keep my comments to myself."

Jared Yates, 18
Danville, III. THE FARM BOY "I know I look young," says the 5'6" high school senior, who grew up on a Wisconsin apple orchard. "But I don't think it will be an issue." Even so, "I'm working out. [At 140 lbs.] I'm pretty skinny." But not lacking in confidence. He compares himself to Season 1 heartthrob RJ Helton. They're both "pretty laid-back," he says.

David Brown, 20
Marrero, La. THE CHOIRBOY After a thigh injury cost Brown both a college scholarship and his NBA dreams, he set his sights on singing. With a voice honed performing in church, Brown has a bet with his mom and baby brother on who will become a millionaire first. "I'm about to win," he says.

Written by Tom Gliatto, Mike Lipton and Jill Smolowe.
Reported by Darla Atlas, Andrea Billups, Todd Gold, Wendy Grossman, Lisa Ingrassia, Shia Kapos, Susan Mandel. Rebecca Paley, Monica Rizzo and Sandra Sobieraj Westfall

  • Contributors:
  • Darla Atlas,
  • Andrea Billups,
  • Todd Gold,
  • Wendy Grossman,
  • Lisa Ingrassia,
  • Shia Kapos,
  • Susan Mandel,
  • Rebecca Paley,
  • Monica Rizzo,
  • Sandra Sobieraj Westfall.