Church ties common denominator for 'Idol' contestants

LOS ANGELES — She isn't employed by the show and viewers never see her sparring with Simon Cowell. But Leesa Bellesi exerts her own kind of pull on "American Idol," Fox's top-rated singing contest that has a unique if often-unstated link to Christian churches.

Bellesi, who runs a Christian nonprofit in Lake Forest, Calif., with her ex-pastor husband, visits tapings frequently, has befriended numerous finalists and helps wrangle funds and scout temporary housing for families who trek cross-country to see relatives perform on "Idol." Bellesi said that churches form a base for the young singers as they try to win votes and establish fan bases. Half of the Top 10 last season were worship leaders in their churches, she said.

"Most of the kids that have been really successful on 'American Idol' have that huge support of their church that's pushed them — they've had a lot of voting and things like that," said Bellesi, who has no official connection to the show (a spokesman for the producers said he had never heard of her) but was spoken of as an unofficial patron by former finalists Danny Gokey, Jason Castro and others.

Ties to churches — especially of the evangelical or Pentecostal variety — are indeed a common denominator for many contestants on America's No. 1 show, including this season's Aaron Kelly, Lacey Brown and Jermaine Sellers. Castro, who placed fourth on Season 7 and just released his first album, played one of his first pre-"Idol" gigs at Lake Pointe, a suburban Dallas mega-church he attends that's known for its sophisticated musical performances.

"That was the only time I sang when there were cameras involved," Castro said in a recent interview. "Any of the larger churches you go into are really full-on performance venues."

With many contestants having honed their vocal skills at black churches and suburban mega-churches, "Idol" has been embraced by Christian communities across the nation. Congregations have launched enthusiastic viewing parties and vote drives for favorites. Perhaps more important, the contestants' church training has deeply influenced the songs and musical styles viewers hear on "Idol" and helped launch the careers of faith-based singers, such as George Huff and Mandisa, as well as secular pop artists. The show has projected to an audience of tens of millions an image of heartland youth driven by faith and strong family values. That's an important source of appeal for a nation that according to a 2007 Pew Research Center survey identifies itself as 78 percent Christian.

Indeed, all of the winners from the previous eight seasons have hailed from Bible Belt states, except for Arizona native Jordin Sparks, who went to the top during Season 6. And perhaps not surprisingly, "Idol" ratings are highest in such Southern cities as Atlanta; Birmingham, Ala.; and Winston-Salem, N.C., according to the Nielsen Co. Birmingham alone has produced two "Idol" winners: Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks.

"There are always so many Christians that go on 'American Idol,' and I don't think that's a coincidence," said Mandisa, a top 9 finalist from Season 5 who now records as a gospel artist under her first name. "I think it's one of the few shows left out there that is family-appropriate — at least for the most part."

True, "Idol" could hardly be called a religious show. It's secular enough to earn many complaints for bleeped-out obscenities and risque guest performances, an inevitable result of the show's need to connect with the hip-hop and R&B styles that top today's charts. A crotch-grabbing performance by Usher this season offered but one example of the family-unfriendly antics that make some traditionalists wince.

Meanwhile, religious ties are not a theme the show's creators are eager to explore. Spokesmen for Fremantle Media and 19 Entertainment, which make "Idol," said that an executive producer would not be available to comment for this story. But industry veterans nevertheless say that "Idol" and many of today's Christian churches are made for one another.

"Music is a huge part of modern American church culture, so kids get exposure and experience that I don't think they would get otherwise," said Brad O'Donnell, vice president of artists & repertoire for EMI Christian Music, which signed Mandisa.

O'Donnell, who regularly treks to churches across the nation trolling for talent, added: "I can't think of one I've been to that doesn't have music as a major component."

Meanwhile, experts say it's no accident that the popularity of "Idol" over the last eight years has dovetailed with the continued growth of mega-churches, which, in addition to offering a broad menu of social activities and groups, often stage elaborate musical performances. (While ratings for "Idol" have slipped over the past few years, analysts and industry executives agree that's normal for a/ TV show in its ninth season. Recently, the show tumbled to its lowest numbers since 2002.)

Scott Thumma, a scholar at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research who has written widely about mega-churches, recalls visiting a youth service at a large church in the Washington, D.C., area. The entertainment portion featured dramatic stage lighting and electric guitars.

"It was easily a rock concert," he said.

"The only thing missing was 'Free Bird' and us holding up our lighters."