Thursday, April 15: tonight American Idol's Jon Peter Lewis (JPL to fans; Hobbit Guy to the rest of us) is leaving CBS Television City in West Hollywood after getting the boot. ''No worries. No worries,'' JPL repeats robotically. The remaining seven finalists work the autograph line (Fantasia draws lips above her name and Jasmine makes her J out of a treble clef) while fans -- including Jonathan ''Weekend at Bernie's'' Silverman -- snap pictures. JPL dodges well-wishers, presumably to head off to a Phish concert, where he'll feel at home among the dance-impaired.
Love him or hate him, JPL embodies this addictively odd, anything-can-happen season of Idol. He couldn't sing, he danced like he had pepper in his underwear, he displayed even less personality than a pen salesman -- and yet viewers loved him. Then, just as he put in a decent-for-him performance, America turned its fickle back. JPL's ejection kicked off one of the most hectic, controversial, Manilow-rific periods in the history of America's No. 1 show, capped off by -- pause for a slow, deep breath -- Jennifer Hudson's elimination the following Wednesday. To answer the country's collective Huh?, I spent that week seeing how it's all put together by shadowing the stylists, vocal coach, choreographers, and judges. The result exposes the good (La Toya London, George Huff), the bad (again, Jennifer's ouster: What's up with that, America?), the bold (Fantasia Barrino, Diana DeGarmo's pink-and-black outfits), the beautiful (Jasmine Trias), and finally, the unsolved mysteries (John Stevens: pinup boy) of American Idol.
FRIDAY * 10 AM * CBS TELEVISION CITY
Barry Manilow writes the songs...that no American Idol contestant has ever heard. In the studio, La Toya tries to sing his praises in an interview that will air Tuesday night. ''Yeah, I knew a couple of songs,'' she says, to which the director replies, ''Okay, La Toya. Here's what you say: 'I definitely knew some Barry Manilow songs.'''
Better start coaching George: ''They asked me what singing Barry Manilow's song meant to me,'' he says. ''I didn't know what to say.'' To be helpful, I bust out a little ''Her name was Lola/She was a showgirl'' -- and George looks at me with genuine concern. ''I think I may have heard that once or twice.''
The contestants spend Friday afternoons on the third floor of CBS studios rehearsing with vocal coach Debra Byrd, a Guarini-haired adoring den mother who, coincidentally, started off her career singing backup for Manilow. Joining her is associate music director Michael Orland, a sharp-witted keyboardist/cheerleader. ''This room is the safest place for [the contestants],'' says Michael. Byrd, as she's known, has been with the competition since the beginning, so she's savvy enough to tell Diana to tone down her matronly makeup, and to instruct Jennifer to control her quivering ''gospel jaw'' before Simon, Randy, and Paula (okay, not Paula) tongue-lash them in front of 25 million viewers.