By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated May 15, 2003 12:57 PM

And now there are two: Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard.

On Wednesday night’s edition of “American Idol,” Kimberley Locke, 25, of Nashville, received the devastating news that, after coming thisclose to making it to next Wednesday’s finale of the FOX talent hunt, she was being shown the door — despite positive feedback from the judges.

“I’m very proud of you three, actually,” judge Simon Cowell said. “All I can say is next week, I cannot wait.” Next week’s winner will receive a $1 million recording contract.

Aiken, of Raleigh, N.C., and Studdard, of Birmingham, Ala., had become friends with Locke, and “both of them were in tears” after Wednesday’s decision, an “AI” spokesman tells the Associated Press.

Wednesday’s voting — by 19 million members of the viewing public — was tight, with each of the three contestants finishing within 4 percent of one another.

On Tuesday’s program, Locke sang “Band of Gold,” “Anyone Who Had A Heart” and “Inseparable.” When it was time for her to leave the following night, she said in a taped farewell: “It’s great to know that ‘American Idol’ isn’t just about image. “I hope that I can give back to a lot of people through my music.”

In the new issue of PEOPLE, which features “American Idol” on its cover, Locke’s junior-high teacher Connie Porter recalls for her former student: “She was Miss Personality Plus.”

Although Locke had planned to start at Nashville School of Law, reports PEOPLE, when “AI” came along, it was goodbye, books.

“When you’re a small-town girl trying to make your dream come true, an all-expense-paid trip to L.A. is a dream,” tells the magazine. “Had nothing else happened, that was great.”