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Sparks rises above Lewis, Sanjaya’s hair

'American Idol': Season 6

For those who place friendly wagers on such things, trying to pick a winner from among season six’s top 10 would have been nearly impossible.

Though strong vocalists such as Jordin Sparks, Chris Richardson, Blake Lewis and Melinda Doolittle proved the mettle, none initially showed the kind of star power that could make them a clear favorite.

That all changed, however, when the final seven were left standing. Doolittle (who went on to place third) and Lewis (who took second) proved they knew how to engage with the audience but it was Sparks who became the breakout star.

The turning point was her rendition of Martina McBride’s “A Broken Wing,” which was one of the best performances of the season. From that point on, the Arizona native was the one to beat.

Looking back on the “Idol” experience, Sparks is the first to admit the process wasn’t easy.

“It was exciting and traumatic all at the same time,” says Sparks. “It showed me how to handle pressure in situations. I think back on ‘Idol’ and what we went through, and everything else is cake.”

Of course, no season of “Idol” is complete without a little controversy and this one is no exception. In a bizarre turn of events, Sanjaya Malakar, whom nobody thought had a great voice, became the contestant du jour.

Judge Simon Cowell admitted, even after hearing a group of young female fans scream during a Malakar performance, he couldn’t understand the singer’s popularity. It wasn’t so much how Malakar sounded, but, rather, his appearance. He became an Internet sensation because of his often outlandish hairstyles. Everyone from radio shock jock Howard Stern to political leaders felt compelled to comment on Malakar.

Malakar, who is at work on a new album and tour that will start this July, takes it in stride that he generated so much chatter.

“For some reason, people remember me,” says Malakar. “I’m really lucky that they do because it means I get to keep recording and keep touring.”

“Idol” producers also took the show into a new direction by announcing the “Idol Gives Back” campaign, which would donate to people in need in Africa and the United States, specifically those affected by Hurricane Katrina. By the end of season six, the campaign had raised more than $70 million.

TOP 5 HIGHLIGHTS

  1. Simon Cowell blessed the performance of Jordin Sparks’ “A Broken Wing” by saying he finally believed she could actually win the competition, based on her stirring rendition of the song.

  2. There was tremendous surprise when Melinda Doolittle was eliminated. Though she didn’t have the confidence or polish of the younger contestants, her vocals were spot on every time. Cowell acknowledged at one point that Doolittle had more talent than anyone else and was deserving of being the top voted best.

  3. Ashley Ferl becomes known as “The Crying Girl” when she’s caught on camera crying during Sanjaya Malakar’s performances. Her weeping becomes such a viral phenomenon that Ferl even became the subject of parody on “Saturday Night Live.”

  4. When Sanjaya Malakar put a lot of product in his hair and shaped it into a “fauxhawk,” he became a star not for his singing talents — which were clearly marginal — but for the popularity of his locks.

  5. When Doolittle sang Diana Ross’ “Home,” the contestant got the thumbs up from Ross, who seemed genuinely impressed by the contestant’s memorable performance.

WINNER’S UPDATE
After defeating Blake Lewis in the finale, Jordin Sparks went on to some of the strongest post-“Idol” success ever seen. Her debut self-titled album went platinum and the single “No Air” is one of the highest selling by any “Idol” contestant. Sparks believes selecting the right material is key. “Song choice can make or break a performer,” writes Sparks. “It also can break an artist already in the game.” That level of success has only become a more common occurrence over time for Sparks. Her second album, “Battlefield,” came out in 2009 and hit No. 7 in the U.S. Sparks’ first five singles all reached the top 20 and this summer she will join the New Kids on the Block/Backstreet Boys tour as a special guest.

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