LOS ANGELES "American Idol" fans have sent Antonella Barba to the next round of the talent contest, despite a thumbs-down from judges and Internet photos putting her at the center of the latest sex scandal to hit U.S. TV's most popular show.
Barba, 20, the attractive former college student purportedly shown in various stages of undress in a batch of online pictures circulating on the Web, emerged as one of 16 finalists to make the cut on Thursday night as four fellow contestants were voted off the competition
"Idol" fans have flooded online chat rooms and blogs in recent days buzzing over whether the photos really are of Barba and whether they might get her kicked off Fox network's singing contest.
"Idol" producers have shrugged off the controversy, and no mention of the scandal was made during Thursday's show. But it was not until the end of the broadcast that the fate of Barba was revealed, when host Ryan Seacrest called three women to the front of the stage to announce which one was out.
Many were surprised that Barba, whose singing talents have failed to impress the show's panel of celebrity judges, made it this far. Others have said her level of talent may not be so important at this stage of the show.
"If a sex tape of Antonella makes the Internet she could win this competition ... now that would be rather humorous," said entertainment news blog Bumpshack following the show.
The anonymously posted Internet images include those of a young woman lying on her back covered in rose petals, posing in her underwear, sitting on a toilet and sitting among a group of topless women on a beach, hands over their breasts. Others show a woman performing oral sex on a man.
Though all are purported to be pictures of Barba, none of the subjects of the photos has been positively identified.
The scandal was reminiscent of the situation in 2003, when contestant Frenchie Davis, whose powerhouse vocals dazzled the judges, was dismissed from the show following the discovery that she had posed topless on a porn site.
Fox, a unit of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., has declined to comment on the latest scandal. But judge Simon Cowell and fellow producer Nigel Lythgoe said in separate media interviews this week that Barba's fate is up to fans who vote on the contestants.
Barba, who hails from New Jersey, has kept mum about the photos.
But her friend Amanda Coluccio, a fellow "American Idol" hopeful eliminated from the contest earlier this season, said that only the least graphic photos in question are authentic.
Those, including the rose-petal shot, were taken for a calendar the former architecture student made for her boyfriend, Coluccio told the New Jersey Star-Ledger.
The more provocative photos on the Internet are of someone else, she said.
"I've studied them. It's not her nose. She's never had (acrylic nail) tips in her life. She's the least slutty person I know," Coluccio was quoted as saying.
"American Idol," the most watched U.S. television series during the past four years, averaged more than 27 million viewers for Thursday night's broadcast, according to Nielsen Media Research.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman and Belinda Goldsmith)