Brian Hiatt
May 21, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Being one of the final two contestants on ”American Idol” hardly guarantees a hit album — just ask Justin Guarini, if you can find him. So no matter who wins the title, Diana DeGarmo and Fantasia Barrino need to make smart decisions if they don’t want to end up as reality-TV punchlines. To that end, enlisted a panel of experts — pop/R&B producer Dallas Austin (Madonna, JC Chasez, TLC), blues/soul producer Jon Tiven (Wilson Pickett, B.B. King, Robert Plant), and pop songwriter Denise Rich (Diana Ross, Mary J. Blige) — to give some early advice.

Fantasia Barrino

ROLE MODEL Emulate gutsy old-school R&B singer Stephanie Mills, says Austin, while Rich mentions even older-school artists: ”I feel some of the drama of Patti LaBelle and the electricity of Tina Turner when I watch her.” Tiven, on the other hand, would push her in the direction of the more contemporary Erykah Badu or Mary J. Blige.

GENRE The panel agrees: pop-conscious R&B, perhaps with ventures into gospel.

DREAM COVER SONG Anita Baker’s sexy slow-jam ”Caught Up in the Rapture,” or maybe the Eurythmics’ ”Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves.”

STRENGTHS ”She has a distinct voice that’s really powerful,” says Austin. ”And I think her stage presence is really dominating.” Tiven, meanwhile, likes Fantasia’s persona: ”She seems pretty genuine in the way she comes across compared to the others. I don’t think she has to go fishing for a personality.”

WEAKNESSES Tiven sees Fantasia’s vocal tone as ”sort of constricted.” Austin adds, bluntly, ”Her image is real rough.”

WHAT SHE SHOULD DO Get a stylist, and tweak that wardrobe. Austin wants her to make live performances a priority.

WHAT SHE SHOULDN’T DO Fantasia needs to avoid Ashanti-style hip-hop/R&B, which wouldn’t use her voice to its full potential, according to Austin. Adds Rich, ”Don’t follow trends — create them.”

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