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Winners where it really counts

Times Staff Writer

A few long months ago, 10 singers shared hotel rooms on the other side of downtown with a couple of hundred other aspiring superstars. Monday night, those 10 entertained an ecstatic, filled-to-the-rafters Staples Center as the “Idols Live” tour came home to Los Angeles.

The most frequent criticism a professional “Idol” watcher hears of the show is the old “this is not real stardom” saw, that these singers did not rise organically from the grass roots along our mythical (and largely no longer existent) path for superstars. As the grudge goes, “American Idol” stars are an “invented” TV show confection who have not paid their dues, and their rise is forever tainted by their corporate overlords and sponsors.

Seen through that prism, Monday night at Staples would have seemed like a stadium full of people mistaking fame for talent.

Unabashed “American Idol” apologist though I am, I can only say that if this was mass delusion, it was a thoroughly satisfying one. Wherever they came from -- from the votes of the American people or from the nefarious executive suites of Rupert Murdoch -- these 10 performers singing three songs each (four for David Archuleta and five for David Cook) proved that they had enough showmanship to hold a giant arena in their thrall.

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Five shows into the tour, the nerves had been worked out and they each -- singing now with no threat of nasty comments from Simon Cowell or a visit from Angel of Death Ryan Seacrest -- were at last giving themselves over completely to creating music.

Throughout the TV season, these singers were forced week after week to jump through thematic hoops, as the question was constantly posed to each, what sort of singer would you be? At the concert, we saw at last their best shot at answering that question. Here then, is a brief rundown of the acts as they head out across America -- and on to their post-"Idol” careers.

Chikezie: Had the unenviable task of opening the show, but he brought the crowd to a very quick crescendo with his version of “So High.” The often-serious Inglewood native showed at Staples that he is a talent to be reckoned with.

Ramiele Mulaby: The pixie-like singer made the clearest bid for a traditional pop career of any, featuring songs by Taylor Dayne, Rihanna and opening with a Jackson 5 number, which featured the only synchronized dance steps of the night.

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Michael Johns: Ah, the thought of what might have been had the Duende From Down Under survived longer on the show. Seeing him on the Staples stage however, it is clear from both his classic rock numbers (“We Are the Champions” and “Dream On”) and his soulful rendition of “It’s So Wrong,” that this is a talent for grown-ups, almost too smoldering to allow kids to be exposed to (although the ones near me seemed to love him).

Kristy Lee Cook: More than either of her blond “Idol” country singer predecessors (Carrie Underwood and Kellie Pickler) Cook shows a capacity to perform rocking country music, pushing her down-home girl persona to the farthest Shania reaches of a tough-girl that country will allow. Her tomboyishness should fare her well in the country world.

Carly Smithson: The greatest singer in “Idol” history. I challenged those who doubted this to look me in the eye and tell me it was not so after the Staples show. None would dare. An amazing story. An electrifying singer. Her opening number (Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life”) was like a millionvolt wake-up call to the crowd, transforming the vast arena like some sort of otherworldly call to prayer.

Brooke White: With her deep voice and feminine manner, White has a natural ability to take melodic quirky indie tunes (she sang Coldplay’s “Yellow” and Feist’s “1234") and make them read to children, country fans and everyone else in between.

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Jason Castro: The Dreadhead mafia was out in force at Staples. It is very difficult not to smile when Jason is on stage. He pleasingly performed his crowd-winners from the season (“Over the Rainbow” and “Daydream”) as well as Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy.”

Syesha Mercado: The stealth candidate of the year who dodged bullet after bullet to end up finishing at the very highest ranks. At Staples she proved this was no fluke. After opening with a crowd-pleasing version of “Umbrella” and Alicia Keys’ “If I Ain’t Got You,” she brought down the house with a death-defying power spectacular, Whitney-worthy rendition of “Listen.”

David Archuleta: The youngest “Idol” star has become as much a phenomenon as a singer. The screeching started with the first mention of his name and continued through his four-song set. Nonetheless, the juxtaposition of this awkward boy who has such a hard time expressing himself through the nervous giggles when he speaks and the absolutely assured confident singer who steps up when the song start is fairly incredible.

David Cook: Without question, a rock star. A spectacular set that had the crowd on its feet throughout. David Cook has the ability to put a likable, charismatic face on hard rock while being entirely genuine. His rise from the back benches to dominate the show will forever be one of the great “American Idol” stories. And his ability to connect with young people in a very authentic way should provide a shot of fresh blood into the franchise.

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