LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - A new sex scandal has hit "American Idol," U.S. TV's most popular program --- but it all could be over on Thursday night if a contestant purportedly shown in some X-rated Internet photos is voted off the show.
"Idol" fans have flooded online chat rooms and blogs in recent days buzzing over whether the photos really are of Antonella Barba and whether she'll get kicked off Fox network's singing contest because of them.
"Idol" producers have shrugged off the controversy and it all could be moot after Thursday's program.
Barba was one of 20 competitors who last week advanced to the latest round, but some expected her to be voted off the show on Thursday by virtue of her mediocre singing when the pool of finalists is narrowed to 16.
Others say her lack of talent may not be that important at this stage of the show.
The anonymously posted 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 images of Barba, none of the subjects of the photos has been positively identified.
The episode was reminiscent of a similar scandal back 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.
A spokesman for Fox, a unit of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., said the network does "not comment on the personal lives of our show participants." And nothing about the latest scandal has been said on the show itself.
Celebrity judge Simon Cowell and fellow producer Nigel Lythgoe said in separate media interviews this week that Barba's future is entirely up to fans who vote on the contestants.
Appearing at a Playboy mansion party on Wednesday, Cowell said, "I think it's disgraceful that so-called friends would sell these pictures. It's private property."
Barba, a 20-year-old former college student from New Jersey, has kept mum about the photos. But her friend Amanda Coluccio, a fellow "American Idol" hopeful who was eliminated from the contest earlier this season, said that only the least graphic photos are of Barba.
The more provocative pictures are of someone else, she told the New Jersey Star-Ledger.
"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.