The penultimate Idol took place in Hollywood's Kodak Theatre before a crowd of 3,000 that included Mandy Moore, Ben Stiller, Christina Applegate, Taye Diggs and Tori Spelling – who brought her new husband Dean McDermott's 7-year-old son (and during the first commercial break helped get him autographs from Idol castoffs Kevin Covais and Mandisa, until a security guard sent them back to their seats).
Katharine McPhee opened the show with a rendition of "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree." Cowell told the 22-year-old from Los Angeles her performance was "good with a small g," and added, "I think the occasion tonight is actually bigger than that song.
Hicks's first song, Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City," brought the audience to its feet – as well as Paula Abdul, whose moves prompted snickers from fellow judges Cowell and Randy Jackson. Cowell admitted the crowd loved Hicks, but called the singer's purple velvet coat "arguably the worst jacket I've ever seen in my life."
After McPhee's second number, "Over the Rainbow" and Hicks's rendition of Elton's John's "Levon," Cowell gave round two to McPhee.
Next came McPhee's final number, debut single "My Destiny." While her performance and clingy blue dress earned high marks, the judges were unimpressed by the song itself.
The show ended with Hicks singing "Do I Make You Proud?" and Cowell predicting he'd win the contest. Still, Hicks told the Associated Press after the show, "I just hope that people don't get complacent."
For her part, McPhee – who had received 1,000 roses from her fan club and seen her father tearing up in the audience throughout the show – said afterwards that she was "totally at peace with whatever the outcome. But onstage I also thought, 'Never underestimate the power of my fans.' "
What remains to be seen is how the public voted in the four hours following Tuesday's show. The results will be announced during a two-hour finale Wednesday night.
With reporting by Carrie Borzillo-Vrenna, Rebecca Gross and Monica Rizzo