'American Idol': Season 3

It was, quite simply, the year of fierce femmes.

Not before or since season three has the “American Idol” stage been home to such girl power, with females filling eight of the top 12 finalist spots, and two standouts — raspy-voiced single mom Fantasia Barrino and preternaturally mature high-schooler Diana DeGarmo — going head-to-head in the finale.

Just how deep was the 2004 talent pool? Deep enough that Jennifer Hudson, who went on to win an Oscar for the 2006 film “Dreamgirls,” would exit the show in seventh place.

In hindsight, perhaps the guys — from red-headed wannabe-Sinatra John Stevens to the geeky Jon Peter Lewis, who Simon Cowell declared looked like “a pen salesman” — were too quirky to last. For better or worse, it was college student William Hung, who turned in an infamously awful rendition of Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs” during the San Francisco auditions, who became the year’s male breakout star.

“Season three was when producers really discovered that there was a big sector of the audience that just wanted to watch the bad auditions,” says Richard Rushfield, author of the book “American Idol: The Untold Story.”

The good-natured Hung became the first of a new breed of “Idol” star, a cult figure who was celebrated for being memorably devoid of vocal talent, though he’s arguably had the last laugh: In the seven years since appearing on the Fox hit, he’s released three albums, one of which sold 240,000 copies in the U.S. alone.

In terms of awe-inspiring vocal pyrotechnics, though, season three’s main event was undoubtedly the “Battle of the Divas,” which is how Cowell described the competition between soulful R&B singers Barrino, Hudson and former Costco cashier LaToya London. It would be a tag the women eventually embraced.

“Sometimes people look at divas as demanding or difficult,” says London, who later co-starred with Barrino in the Broadway musical “The Color Purple” and now performs with a group called Urban Punk. “But the fact that we were considered powerhouses was definitely a compliment. We felt honored.”

The divas found themselves at the center of the season’s biggest controversy after they wound up in the dreaded bottom three together and Hudson was sent packing. Soon after, Elton John, one of that year’s mentors, made headlines when he declared the voting “incredibly racist,” and London herself experienced a crisis of confidence.

“I was like, ‘What is going on?’ ” she says. “You’re trying to figure out who’s voting, what they’re looking for, and is it all honest? At that point, I just said, ‘This is crazy. There’s no telling what’s going to happen next. I’m just gonna try to do my best and ride this wave as far as I can.’ ”

She rode it all the way to the top four. And, in the end, the last diva standing walked away with the season-three title.

“Fantasia delivered some of ‘Idol’s’ most memorable performances,” Rushfield says. “And coming from intense poverty, she had the total rags-to-riches story. People like contestants coming from very humble circumstances but then also having this sort of uplifting spirit, and Fantasia really captured that.”

TOP 5 HIGHLIGHTS

  1. Fantasia Barrino‘s show-stopping rendition of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” has the judges on their feet and, seven years later, still is in the conversation as arguably “Idol’s” finest performance.

  2. Fresh-faced Diana DeGarmo displays a maturity well beyond her 16 years with a commanding take on “Don’t Cry Out Loud,” which makes her a lock for the finale.

  3. Hawaiian high-school sweetheart Jasmine Trias tucks a flower behind one ear during top 12 week, establishing her trademark style, but it’s her controlled rendition of “Inseparable” that earns the respect of the judges.

  4. LaToya London‘s epic performance of “Somewhere” during movie soundtrack week prompts guest judge Quentin Tarantino to call her a “powerhouse” and reinforces Simon Cowell’s declaration that she is the “best singer in this competition.”

  5. Gregarious former football player Matthew Rogers goes for laughs upon his country-week exit, serenading Cowell with Lonestar’s love song “Amazed.”

WINNER’S UPDATE

Fantasia Barrino, who won over America with her resilience in the face of adversity, has endured her share of ups and downs since her 2004 coronation. Among the professional highlights: Three critically acclaimed albums, including her most recent, 2010′s “Back to Me”; a New York Times bestselling memoir “Life Is Not a Fairy Tale,” which spawned a hit Lifetime movie adaptation in which she played herself; and rave reviews for her starring role as Celie in Broadway’s “The Color Purple,” produced by Oprah Winfrey. But there have also been personal setbacks, including surgery to remove a tumor on her vocal chords, a house in foreclosure and, in 2010, a suicide attempt, which was documented on her VH1 reality show “Fantasia for Real.” She’s come back strong in 2011, though, winning her first Grammy for the hit single “Bittersweet” and landing a starring role as Queen of Gospel Mahalia Jackson in a film that will reportedly shoot later this year.

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