LOS ANGELES – Twelve down, 12 to go.
The popular talent show "American Idol" axed four more contestants Thursday night, slimming the competition to 12 aspiring singers. There were 24 hopefuls at the start of the elimination rounds.
While some of those who got the boot fought back tears, the 12 survivors were given the red carpet treatment. They were paraded in front of the news media at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, where strobe lights flashed and microphones were thrust in their faces in a scene reminiscent of last weekend's Academy Awards.
"This is amazing. I don't know if it hit me yet," said Lisa Tucker, of Anaheim, who at 16 is among the youngest contestants.
"It's so surreal," added Paris Bennett, 17, of Fayetteville, Ga., who is the granddaughter of prominent gospel singer Anne Nesby.
Another to make the cut was Kellie Pickler, 19, of Albermarle, N.C. Dressed in bluejeans and a camisole top, the singer stopped to strike vamp-like poses for photographers. She said her father, Clyde Pickler Jr., is cheering her on from Florida State Prison, where he is incarcerated.
"Him and all the guys there gather round to watch" the show, she said. "They made me this huge card and sent it out here, saying 'Go get 'em, Kellie. We're picking Pickler."'
Until now, men and women competed separately, with two of each sex voted off each week. Now that the field has been narrowed to the top 12, the cross-gender sing-off begins, with viewers voting out one performer weekly.
Missing out on the red carpet treatment were Kinnik Sky, Ayla Brown, Will Makar and Gedeon McKinney, who were cut loose during the show's third elimination round.
Sky, 28, received the lowest number of votes for her rendition of Alicia Keys' "If I Ain't Got You."
"I think you just booked your plane ticket home," caustic judge Simon Cowell told the singer from Duluth, Ga., after her performance.
Brown, a straight-A student from Wrentham, Mass., fought back tears as host Ryan Seacrest announced she would be leaving the show.
"It's OK to cry," Seacrest told her. "It's because you care."
After she performed Natasha Bedingfield's "Unwritten," judges told the 17-year-old Brown she needed to "be younger" on stage.
But not too young. Makar, a 17-year-old from The Woodlands, Texas, was eliminated for his version of Marvin Gaye's "How Sweet It Is," a performance the cantankerous Cowell called "very juvenile." Judge Randy Jackson urged the teen to "do a little discovery work" to become a better singer.
Even Cowell couldn't predict McKinney's elimination. Judges praised his performance of Percy Sledge's "When A Man Loves A Woman," and the 17-year-old from Memphis, Tenn., said he was surprised by the viewers' decision. But he kept smiling after Seacrest delivered the news.
"By the blood of Jesus I'm saved," McKinney said. "This is only the beginning."
Besides the goodbyes, Thursday's show featured a performance by last season's runner-up, rocker Bo Bice, who sang his hit, "The Real Thing."
"American Idol" continues to be a ratings ruler, drawing between 25 million and 30 million viewers per telecast this season.
Seacrest said on Thursday's program that viewers logged more than 46 million votes to determine the top 12.
The 24 contestants who made it to the elimination rounds were chosen by judges Cowell, Jackson and Paula Abdul from thousands of hopefuls at casting calls around the country.
The show has been airing three times a week since the new season began Jan. 17. Now it will run twice weekly. The final Idol will be named May 24.