When Kelly Clarkson won the first season of American Idol, the humble waitress from middle-of-nowhere Texas embodied the rags-to-riches story that has become the hallmark of the reality show.
An obscure but talented singer is plucked from the heartland of America, moves to Hollywood and is launched into pop superstardom. It was Southern single mom Fantasia in Season 3 and Oklahoma farm girl Carrie Underwood a year later.
But that looks unlikely this year.
Season 7, which producers call the most "talented" year ever, is stocked with finalists all too familiar with fame. For some, their stint on Idol is their second or even third shot at the big time.
Before Top 24 finalist Carly Smithson's audition even aired, she became the season's first controversy. Instead of a rap sheet or racy photos, it was the news that the Irish singer released a major-label album in 2001, along with a $2 million marketing campaign, that set the Internet abuzz. While not a household name (her album sold fewer than 400 copies in its first three months), Smithson hardly qualifies as an amateur.
Some Idol fans have explained the trend as an overreaction to Sanjaya Malakar, last year's dud of a singer. But Joe Reid, a managing editor for the Web site Television Without Pity who covers American Idol, isn't fazed by this latest wave of "professional" contestants.
"All through the years, they've had people in bands, with performing experience, with pageant experience," he said. "The difference with Carly Smithson is she's getting all the attention because of the $2 million mark that's on her; that's an eye-catching number."
Reid said that it's performing experience - in whatever venue - that's going to give contestants an advantage, not studio time or dealings with record labels.
"As a viewer, the so-called `ringers' are actually beneficial because you end up with better singers, better performers and more confident performances," he said.
And Idol executive producer Nigel Lythgoe said Friday that the idea of the show being only for newcomers is a fallacy since the rules simply state that contestants can't currently be under contract with a label.
"Nobody said this is an amateur competition. This is something that people are making up for themselves," he said in a conference call. "It doesn't matter if you've had a professional contract."
But Eric Gehler of Richmond, Va., who runs the fan site idol-ma nia.com, isn't convinced about the experienced contestants.
"If you polled most Americans who watch the show, it's always been about finding that `undiscovered talent,'" he said, "and the current Top 24 is definitely not new."
Reid acknowledges that the professional vs. amateur question is a hot topic on his site's reader forums.
"[The] Idol boards are overflowing with outraged people, but they are every year," he said. "There's always someone `unworthy.'"
But, Reid said: "I have a feeling it's all going to end up coming out on the show anyway. ... Except maybe for Carly, because why would you sell your product as something that's been a failure?"
That would make Gehler feel better about the season.
"If they do reveal the background of the contestants this week, it will give them more credibility," he said.
Pop music critic Rashod D. Ollison and wire reports contributed to this article.