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The daughter of two famous Bulgarian pop stars (well, famous in Bulgaria anyway), Seattle's Leah Vladowski decided to drop her surname in favor of her middle name, LaBelle, upon advancing to the Final 32 of AI3. She chose I Have Nothing for her Group Three Semifinals performance, earning very good reviews from Randy and Paula and some sort of a Zen koan from Simon ("You're like a beautiful designer dress with a slight rip in it.") Web opinions were sharply divided: "Nothing" wound up with a 44 rating and a very high standard deviation. Viewers declined to put her through to the Finals, and as the credits rolled on the Results show, a heartbroken LaBelle was seen sobbing on the couch. Fade to black...
Leah LaBelle, part deux: Brought back for the Wild Card Show, LaBelle went Old School with the R&B classic Let's Stay Together (though the arrangement was perhaps more Tina Turner than Al Green.) Randy and Paula again praised the performance, but this time Simon was less mystic; he dismissed it as "shaky and ordinary." The reviewers sided heavily with Simon in assigning "Together" a 26, and for the second time the voters declined to put LaBelle through. Suzy Vulaca, Jennifer Hudson, and George Huff were considered shoo-ins for the three judges' picks, so once again, fade to bl–...wait, what's this?! In a move that surprised and dismayed millions, Paula chose LaBelle over Vulaca to advance to the Final 12.
And this is where our story truly begins. LaBelle was pilloried mercilessly throughout the Idolsphere over the course of the next week. Many understandably wrote that Vulaca had been "robbed", but a few went even further. Some forumists accused LaBelle of faking her tears after her first performance in order to gain sympathy with the judges; others suspected that her showbiz parents were somehow pulling strings behind the scenes. Her outfits and facial expressions received unflattering scrutiny. A great many people were unaware that "LaBelle" was her given middle name and assumed she'd stolen the monicker from Patti LaBelle. And this was only the tip of the iceberg.
Perhaps this is all part and parcel of signing up for a Reality TV show, but the criticism may have had an effect on the 17-year-old. Her Soul Week performance, You Keep Me Hangin' On, was received abysmally by judges and web reviewers alike, earning a (tied) season-low approval rating of just 4. LaBelle finished in 12th place but wound up with a dubious distinction in Idol lore: she is the only contestant to fail to advance in the viewers' voting in three consecutive weeks.
Wikipedia reports that as of late 2007, LaBelle is enrolled at the prestigious Berklee School Of Music in Boston and still hopes to make a career in the music industry.
There had to be something about LaBelle's voice and stage presence that didn't translate well to TV. Her first two approval ratings suggested a very unusually large gap between what the judges heard and the what we viewers at home experienced. We weren't fans of those performances either, and of course there's nothing to say about the third performance except "ouch."
While we fully agree that Vulaca deserved the final Wild Card pick, we have to say that the subsequent personal attacks on LaBelle got a bit ugly even by Reality TV standards. Perhaps Paula Abdul was to blame, or perhaps the decision was made behind the scenes by the producers (who historically have been hyper-sensitive to the show's demographics; recall the bizarre AI2 Wild Card show in which four teenage girl contestants materialized out of thin air.) But LaBelle herself surely had no pull, and she didn't seem to behave far out of line for your typical showbiz kid.
OK, enough pontificating. LaBelle's saga leads us to pose an important question for which we have no ready answer. When a contestant has fallen this far out of favor with the viewers, through little or no fault of her own, is there anything at all she can do to get back into their good graces? American Idol history provides us with no clue, because no contestant this deeply buried has ever recovered. Perhaps this is a question for a Public Relations expert.
We recall an incident from the sports world many years ago in which a popular baseball player, having made some very intemperate remarks to a newspaper reporter about the local fans, took the field the next night wearing a long black wig and funny-nose glasses. The crowd's boos quickly turned into laughter and ultimately a standing ovation. Could a sense of humor and some humble self-deprecation (coupled with some improved singing, of course) do the trick on Idol as well? More to the point: could this be the exception to the rule about never choosing a novelty song?