MANDISA HUNDLEY, 29
The plus-size contestant took Simon’s zinger that they’d need “a bigger stage” for her in stride. Still, “I’ve been trying to watch what I eat,” she says. “I’m exercising every day. It’s been the biggest struggle of my life, but I know I’ll be victorious.”
ACE YOUNG, 25 LOS ANGELES
So is the singer with the long-lashed gaze dating Essence Atkins, 34, star of the UPN sitcom Half & Half? “We are just friends,” he insists. “But I saw the National Enquirer story. I was like, ‘I’m in the Enquirer ! Yes!’ But no. I was on the show last October. [His guest stint re-airs April 3.] And I’m friends with the whole cast, Essence included.” His image as a TV heartthrob “is kind of silly to us,” says his brother Ryan, 29. “The Ace you don’t know is the guy that sits on the couch with me and watches football for hours.”
CHRIS DAUGHTRY, 26 MCLEANSVILLE, N.C.
The smooth-topped rocker counts last year’s runner-up, Bo Bice, as his role model. “I told him he’s the reason I auditioned in the first place,” says Daughtry, whose biggest fans are his kids Griffin, 7, and Hannah, 9. ” They’re watching me every week. They tell me I’m cool. My wife [Deanna] is amazing. She’s at home resting [after a hysterectomy]. She told me she wanted me to stay here and do my thing.”
BUCKY COVINGTON, 28 ROCKINGHAM, N.C.
“I would love to be the male Carrie Underwood,” says the country singer with the heavy southern twang. But maybe with even more hair. His identical twin, Rocky, a part-time musician, takes credit for Bucky’s flowing mane: “I talked him into growing it out when he was 23.” And if Idol stylists want to cut it back for a makeover? “Well, they can trim it,” says Bucky, laughing, “but what’s mine is mine.”
ELLIOTT YAMIN, 27 RICHMOND, VA.
Like Kevin Covais, he suffers from Type 1 diabetes. But Yamin faces another hurdle: 90 percent deafness in his right ear. After a series of childhood ear infections and ear-drum replacement surgery at 13, “it just hasn’t worked right,” he says. As for being able to sing in spite of that, “I don’t know how to explain it, because I’m not a religious person. It’s a gift.”
LISA TUCKER, 16 ANAHEIM, CALIF.
She started singing at age 2, and at 11, she won a role in an L.A. production of The Lion King. “It was the best 11 months of her life,” says her mom, Eleanor. “She cried when it was all over.” When she’s not rehearsing for Idol, Lisa attends classes with Paris and Kevin on the FOX studio lot. Who’s the best student? “I would say me,” says Lisa, “but don’t tell them!”
PARIS BENNETT, 17 FAYETTEVILLE, GA.
With Grammy winner Ann Nesby of Sounds of Blackness as a grandma, “I call her for advice every day,” says Bennett. “She tells me to stay humble.” It may be harder to stay focused as Bennett’s senior prom approaches. Assuming she’s still on Idol, “[the producers] are gonna try their hardest to let me go April 22. But I need a date first—and a cute one!”
KELLIE PICKLER, 19 ALBEMARLE, N.C.
In prison for felony battery, her dad, Clyde, 41, is tentatively set for release May 12. “All the guys in there are pulling for me,” she says. “They get one free phone call, but I don’t know if [Idol voting] counts.”
KEVIN COVAIS, 16 LEVITTOWN, N.Y.
The baby-faced guy dubbed “Chicken Little” by Paris Bennett has shown true grit coping, since age 11, with diabetes, which requires twice-daily insulin injections. “It’s just a part of my life I’ve adapted to,” he says.
KATHARINE McPHEE, 21 SHERMAN OAKS, CALIF.
The contestant who gives fans “McPhever” wanted to be Mariah Carey as a kid, but now, she says, “I’d love to be Barbra Streisand—so famous but living a wonderful life with a husband.”
TAYLOR HICKS, 29 BIRMINGHAM, ALA.
“I’m the Soul Patrolman,” says the prematurely gray-haired guy with Ray Charles moves. Will he dye his locks for the finals? No, “but hopefully I will be a little George Clooney-esque.”
MELISSA McGHEE, 21 TAMPA, FLA.
Yes, she’s read the Internet reports that she’s voting for herself. And yes, it’s true. “I was laughing at that. If you want to be here, make sure you’re gonna stay. Why not vote for yourself?”