FRANKLIN, Tenn. - Melinda Doolittle is used to singing in the shadows. But the humble backup singer from the Nashville suburbs had better get used to the spotlight - she's the favorite to become the next "American Idol."
In a season that's served up a mostly bland group of contestants, Doolittle stands out thanks to her soulful covers of classics by Donna Summer and Aretha Franklin. Viewers and "Idol"-watchers love her - and so does the prediction market Intrade.com, which lets people wager real money on future events, such as the Academy Awards or presidential elections.
Intrade says pretty conclusively that Doolittle is going to win, although Lakisha Jones, Blake Lewis and Jordin Sparks are still in the picture.
"In an opinion poll, some people will say who they think will win, but other people might say who they might like to win," said John Delaney, CEO of the Dublin, Ireland-based Intrade. But when money is at stake, "you now have a financial incentive to predict who you think will win.
"The predictions are not infallible, but they are historically more accurate than opinion polls," he said.
The sweet-natured Doolittle, 29, has seemed gracious and flattered by all the praise. Brutally honest judge Simon Cowell noted on the show that singers as talented as Doolittle are usually not as humble as she is.
Those who have worked with Doolittle don't need convincing she's going all the way on the top-rated Fox TV show. Sondra Morton-Chaffin, who performed with Doolittle in the musical "Nunsense" in 2004 at the Boiler Room Theater in Franklin, a suburb of Nashville, has kept in touch with her friend by phone since she's been on "Idol." Contestants are not allowed to speak to the media while still on the show.
Morton-Chaffin says Doolittle's been busy, but is having a lot of fun, too.
"As a performer, she's completely dependable and reliable. As a person, she's so authentic and genuine. Fame is not going to go to her head. I think part of what keeps her so grounded is her faith."
Doolittle attended the music program at Belmont University in Nashville, which country stars like Brad Paisley, Trisha Yearwood and Lee Ann Womack have attended.
She was one of the best students in the program, and since graduating in 1999 has come back to judge school music competitions, said Jeff Kirk, director of events administration and coordinator of commercial music at Belmont.
Kirk, who worked with Doolittle when she performed her senior year in a school musical, said she was "quiet and focused," but when she got on stage she would "explode. She nailed it on the stage every time."
"She can win this," he said. "I think the thing in her favor is she's been working as a backup vocalist. She's done just about every genre. I don't think they're going to throw anything at her that she can't do. She's very versatile."
"There's no diva attitude there. She loves to sing and perform. Every week I think she gets stronger."
Gospel artist Martha Munizzi, for whom Doolittle sang backup last year, said Doolittle has performed with a range of artists like CeCe Winans and Aaron Neville. She says Doolittle was in high demand as a backup singer before she made it on "American Idol."
"For so many years, that's been her focus," Munizzi said. "It's not that you think that you're not good enough. You just get in that mind-set and think that's what you are. I think she's surprised she's better on her own."
"I absolutely see her winning this. There's a lot of great females this year, but as far as the whole package goes and her ability to make the hair stand up on your arms, she's got it. Her heart just shines through when she sings."
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