Birmingham crooner could well be next American Idol

Who will be our next American Idol?

For the three of you out there who are not familiar with the Fox Network‘s smash series “American Idol,” here it is in a nutshell:

During the past few months thousands of hopeful singers in Nashville, Atlanta, Chicago, Los Angeles and other cities auditioned for three celebrity judges – Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell.

Shania Twain
Cover of Shania Twain

After a long, arduous and highly entertaining series of further auditions, the herd has been culled to 10 (nine by the time you read this) finalists.

The beauty of this show is that the viewing audience gets to vote for its favorites – last week 14 million voted (www.idolonfox.com). The horror of the show is that contestants are eliminated LIVE on national television. (I’m still waiting for a contestant to scream, “No, I won’t go! I demand a recount!” Why not? Politicians do it all the time.)

Everybody has an opinion on who will win. No matter what the results are from here on out, almost all are assured of some level of residual celebrity, and I predict recording contracts and television careers for several. Here are my faves, going from No. 10 to No. 1:

10. Julia DeMato, the 21 year-old hairdresser from Brookfield, Conn., will probably be the next booted off. Although she is reasonably talented, her performances of late have been lackluster. If she’s gonna shine, now’s the time. Fashion tip, Julia: Always wear your hair down.

9. Corey Clark, the 22-year-old from Nashville with the cool cornrows, is a charismatic teen heartthrob with a questionable upper-register voice. His pitch problems will probably eliminate him soon.

8. Rickey Smith, the 23 year-old from Keene, Texas (“Hercules! Hercules!”), seems to be among the nicest contestants on the show, but his style is derivative (think lightweight Brian McKnight), and his stage presence is underwhelming.

7. Kimberley Locke, the 24-year-old blood-and-guts soul chanteuse from Nashville, looked to be one of the top semifinalists when she teamed up with the controversial Frenchie a couple of months ago, but recent episodes have revealed a rather tentative side of her stage persona. She looks like she’s trying not to lose.

6. Carmen Rasmusen, the 17-year-old wild card blonde from Bountiful, Utah, has been rapidly improving from show to show. Although her style is a little too yodelesque for my taste, her voice is strong. I predict a solid career in country music.

5. Kimberly Caldwell, the other blonde left on the show, is a 21-year-old professional singer from Katy, Texas. Although it is limited in range, her voice is husky and strong, and her presence suggests Shania Twain. There is no question that she is talented, but her on-stage and off-stage antics reveal an unbridled opportunism rivaling Jesse Jackson.

4. Joshua Gracin, the 22-year-old Marine from Oceanside, Calif., is a solid country performer with an all-American look, which is a great asset in these troubled times. He has all of the ingredients, but I don’t think he’ll be the last one standing. I could be wrong, though: Who would vote off a Marine during a war?

3. Trenyce, the 22-year-old Memphis belle, has, along with Clay Aiken, perhaps the most natural talent of the group. A latter-day Diana Ross, Trenyce even tackled a Whitney Houston song last week and made it her own. That’s guts, folks – and on live television! Having said that, she’s lacking a certain “it” factor.

2. Clay Aiken, the 24-year-old college student from Raleigh, N.C., has undergone an incredible transformation from chemistry class nerd to crooning heartthrob over the season. And that voice! When he is singing, you feel safe: He will take you to incredible places and will never let you down. Although he suffers from a bit of show-biz schmaltz, he is a polished performer.

1. Ruben Studdard, the 24 year-old “Velvet Teddy Bear” as Gladys Knight christened him, hails from Birmingham, and if there is any confusion about that, look at the 205 area code-emblazoned jerseys he wears proudly on every show. There is nothing fake about this guy: He’s proud of where he’s from. He’s a Pavarotti from the ‘hood: His soothing, soulful voice, coupled with his warmth and honesty, yield heart-wrenching performances every time. I was in tears as I watched him two weeks ago, and I don’t usually get choked up at talent contests. The world is full of great singers, but performers who can touch your soul are like diamonds.

The final results may be a bit different from my prediction, but if I were a record exec, I would not hesitate to sign up any of the top six finalists. And if I could choose only one?