ANTONELLA BARBA, 20
Point Pleasant, N.J.
In the spirit of Taylor Hicks‘s Soul Patrol, the Catholic University student already has an online support group: the Fantonellas. Her No. 1 booster is hardly surprised. “Antonella’s very talented, and she’ll represent New Jersey in a classy way,” says her best friend Amanda Coluccio, who also auditioned for Idol but got the boot in Hollywood. “She could add some intelligence to the show, which it really needs.” Why she could win: “Antonella has a different kind of voice—it’s not big and belty, it’s sultry,” says Coluccio. Not to mention “we need somebody from this side of the country [to win]. It’s our turn!”
CHRIS SLIGH, 28
The self-appointed leader of the “Fro Patro” wants to make one thing clear: “Everyone says I look like Jack Osbourne. Jack looks like me. Get it right,” he wrote on his now-defunct blog. Growing up in a Christian home, Sligh—who’s married and fronts a rock band called Half Past Forever—wasn’t allowed to listen to the radio as a kid. But hearing Boyz II Men’s “Motownphilly” on a friend’s radio at age 14 “changed my world,” he wrote. Why he could win: “He’s a real person with a good heart,” says pal Don Chapman of Sligh, who’s a worship leader at his church. Plus, “Hanging around Chris is like being on a sitcom.”
JORDIN SPARKS, 17
Although Simon Cowell called the daughter of former NFL star Phillippi Sparks “a little bit too sugary for my taste,” those who know Sparks think Cowell will soon develop a sweet tooth. “Jordin is a blazing whirl of life,” says Allison Metcalf Allen, who in 2005 cast Sparks in a Nashville musical she’d written. The homeschooled teen also models for the plus-size clothing line Torrid. Why she could win: She already beat out 500 singers to win “Arizona Idol,” a contest sponsored by a FOX affiliate in Phoenix. Plus, says Allen, “Jordin is always, always singing—she’s a thoroughbred who’s meant to race.”
SANJAYA MALAKAR, 17
Federal Way, Wash.
Malakar—who loves to cook and worships Stevie Wonder—said making the Top 24 was “bittersweet” when his older sister and fellow Idol wannabe Shyamali got cut. But Paula Abdul is confident they picked the right Malakar. “[At first] it was really hard for us to decide whether to let both go or keep them both,” the Idol judge told PEOPLE. But during Hollywood week, Sanjaya “really evolved into his own,” says Abdul. Why he could win: Along with a killer smile, “He’s got such a great spirit,” says Abdul. “I think people are going to love him.”
PHIL STACEY, 29
Stacey was at his Memphis audition when he got the call that he’d missed his daughter’s birth. “He heard McKayla crying in the background, and it just tore him up,” says his father, Gary Stacey. But it wasn’t the first time Phil—an officer in the U.S. Navy—missed a big b-day: He and wife Kendra’s first daughter Chloe, 3, was born while Phil was at boot camp in Great Lakes, Ill. (He’s now on temporary assignment in California so he can compete on Idol.) Why he could win: A worship leader at his church in Jacksonville, Phil has years of experience. “Normally, babies coo,” says Gary. “He was humming.”
SUNDANCE HEAD, 28
Singer Roy Head reports that his son Sundance “has already told me, ‘I’m homesick, Dad!’ He’d rather be in the woods than anywhere.” Except, of course, onstage, or at home with his wife, Misty, and their 3-month-old son Levi.
Why he could win: “I’m blown away by his musical talents,” says Dad. “He plays piano like Elton John, and he has the perfect name for an entertainer.”
MELINDA DOOLITTLE, 29
The ex-backup singer for CeCe Winans and Aaron Neville has a growing fan base. “She recently opened up her MySpace page and saw over 700 messages,” says Tiffany Wills, a friend since junior high. Why she could win: “She’s a standout,” says Winans. “She’d be an excellent role model.”
LAKISHA JONES, 27
Fort Meade, Md.
Since the Idol season began, whenever the single mom has been on TV her 4-year-old daughter Brionne “jumps up and down and says, ‘My mommy! My mommy!'” reports Lakisha’s grandmother Ruth Morris. “She touches the TV, gets up and dances.” Why she could win: Jones’s N.Y.C. audition got Simon to rave, “Love you, Lakisha. You’re a good old-fashioned belter.”
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO …
EBONY JOINTER, 23, HACIENDA HEIGHTS, CALIF.
She auditioned in the trio of roller-skating carhops and sang circles around her pals, earning high praise from Simon. So what went wrong? Jointer says she was cut “early in the Hollywood rounds,” and insists her stint as a Lingerie Football League model (which has been mocked on the Internet) was not a factor. “It was boy-cut shorts and bras,” she says. “I have nothing to hide.”
JENRY BEJARANO, 17, ROTTERDAM, N.Y.
Paula Abdul swooned over him (“I didn’t notice,” he swears), but when Bejarano got to Hollywood, “I was so nervous. I kinda froze,” he says. “The lights, the cameras, everything just overwhelmed me.” But don’t count him out yet. He says he’ll try out next year “for sure.” Plus, he got a nice consolation prize. “Randy said I looked like Tyson Beckford, [so] all the contestants called me Tyson.”