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.
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. Half of the Top 10 last season were worship leaders in their churches, she said.
Bellesi has no official connection to the show (a spokesman for the producers said he had never heard of her) but she was called 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.
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.
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. (Although the trend won't hold up this year: The two finalists, Crystal Bowersox and Lee DeWyze, are Midwesterners.)
"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 styles that top today's charts.
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. But industry veterans 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.