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Who will take home the top prize in America's talent show?

In three seasons, American Idol has gone from being just another inane reality-TV show to a ubiquitous pop-culture phenom, the ultimate karaoke contest.

Season one was good clean fun, featuring mediocre talent. Season two raised the bar, with better singers and celebrity judges. When 30 million votes were cast in the final showdown between Ruben and Clay, it was clear just how popular the show had become.

And now, rife with controversy, is season three. Anti-Idol William Hung received well beyond his 15 minutes. Judge Simon Cowell's cheap shots have become increasingly caustic. The elimination of black vocal powerhouse Jennifer Hudson over one-note wonder boy John Stevens brought cries of racism.

But there's an upside, too. Most important, better singers are creating fierce competition. Celebrity judges have been kicked up as well. Goodbye, Olivia Newton-John; hello, Quentin Tarantino -- though judges Sir Elton John, Gloria Estefan, and Barry Manilow have raised the cheese quotient significantly. The most encouraging upgrade of all was trading high-tech karaoke equipment for a real live band -- including guest stints by Motown's famed Funk Brothers and Estefan's Miami Sound Machine.

If the ante has been upped talentwise, the resulting shows are proportionately dramatic and devastating. Each week host Ryan Seacrest warns: "Tonight, for someone, the lights go out!" . . . "Tonight, a young person's dreams will be extinguished!" . . . "Watch someone disintegrate . . . tonight!"

The final 10 have been whittled to three. Every "loser" is virtually guaranteed opportunities after being eliminated, but who will be the next American Idol? Here's a breakdown:

Name: Fantasia Barrino

Hometown: High Point, North Carolina

Age: 19

Occupation: Single mom

Background: If Otis Redding and Tami Terrell had a baby, it would be Fantasia. In more modern terms, she's Mary J. Blige meets Macy Gray. Oozing star quality, she notched an emotional performance of "Summertime" that could have been a screen test for Tarantino. Randy Jackson claimed it was the single best performance of any Idol ever. "There was something magical about what you just did," praised Simon. "Thank you for bringing danger to this competition." But should she lose . . . Clive Davis, are you listening?

Times in the bottom three: 1

Why she should win: It's a great rags-to-riches story.

Why she won't: She might be too gritty for America.

Simon's nastiest comment: "You sound like Donald Duck on helium."

Name: La Toya London

Hometown: Oakland, California

Age: 25

Occupation: Student/bartender/future realtor

Background: La Toya is probably the classiest wedding singer in America. With a smooth style à la Anita Baker, she boasts a combo of beauty and talent that makes her a sure bet to win. But where her stiffest competition takes risks, La Toya plays it safe. Her performances are flawless and poised, but feel shrewdly calculated.

Times in the bottom three: 2

Why she should win: She's a ready-made Idol, no assembly required.

Why she won't: She's cubic zirconium personified.

Simon's nastiest comment: The meanest thing he could muster up after a series of outstanding performances referred to her hair extensions: "You look like you have a dead cat sitting on your head."

Name: Diana DeGarmo

Hometown: Snellville, Georgia

Age: 16

Occupation: High school student

Background: Ex-pro cheerleader Paula Abdul has been the only judge to be consistently kind to sweet-cheeked Diana DeGarmo. Her performances have the feel of a high school play, but there are times when she is astonishingly good. Her supercharged performance of Gloria Estefan's "Turn the Beat Around" was disco-queen perfection -- and turned her odds upside down. Even Randy Jackson enthused, "You might only be 16, but you've got mad, mad talent."

Times in the bottom three: 2

Why she should win: If she doesn't try singing Celine Dion again, she could charm her way into America's heart.

Why she won't: Do we really need another Debbie Gibson?

Simon's nastiest comment: "You're an overgrown child."

Name: Jasmine Trias

Hometown: Minilani, Hawaii

Age: 17

Occupation: High school student

Background: Jasmine Trias is an exotic soft-porn fantasy, like a dashboard hula chick come to life. Her stunning beauty was enhanced by an orchid in her hair and delicate, come-hither island dancing. But since she dropped the aura of flora, the powerful voice that got her into the top 10 has not risen to the occasion. She hasn't been eliminated because she's so damned cute, but it's all about the singing now.

Times in the bottom three: 2

Why she should win: By press time, we predict she'll have been eliminated.

Why she won't: She is not in the same league as her competitors.

Simon's nastiest comment: "I could go to any Sheraton and hear this, and so what?"

Fallen Idols George Huff: The only serious male contender, Huff fell off the wagon last week, and that's a damned shame -- he was this year's feel-good contestant. Simon: "That was about as good as Ryan Seacrest's presenting."

John Stevens: Apparently there was a highly dedicated cabal of redheads and senior citizens keeping him around. Finally Conan O'Aiken's time ran out, but not before Simon snarled, "You are the musical equivalent of Ed Wood's Plan 9 From Outer Space."

Jennifer Hudson: Certainly she didn't deserve to lose to John Stevens, but would she have made it all the way? Probably not. Hopefully she'll use the hullabaloo surrounding her elimination to her advantage.

Jon Peter Lewis: The Idaho "pen salesman" with ants in his pants got shot down in a geekoff with John Stevens. His performance of "Jailhouse Rock" prompted Simon to remark, "This isn't Comedy Idol -- or maybe it is!"

Camille Velasco: Initially they dubbed the Hawaiian IHOP waitress a young Lauryn Hill. During Elton John week, Simon quipped, "Somewhere in Las Vegas, a television is being thrown out a hotel window. This was the end of the line for you." He was right.

Amy Adams: As previous seasons have shown, you can go only so far with shocking pink hair. She had great pipes, but Simon was right: She really does look like Jay Leno.

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More by Nita Ketner

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