So after all the rehearsals, the lights, the tears, the sweat, the makeup, the song selections, the wardrobe changes, the interviews, the early mornings, the late evenings, the travel, the days away from little Tony, the blood-sugar checks, and the broken-hearted farewells to fellow contestants, it's come down to this:
Is Crystal Bowersox America's next pop music icon?
A moot point, perhaps, to many of those from northwest Ohio who have seen the 24-year-old single mom with dreadlocks wielding a guitar since she was a little girl, captivating audiences with charm, poise, and an earthy demeanor that belied her age.
To Jim "Papa" Hymore, Bowersox is as irresistible today as she was when she bugged him in 2000 for a gig at the venerable Papa's Tavern saloon in East Toledo that he owned from 1993 to 2007.
Last night, as throngs of well-wishers gathered there to watch her final American Idol performance, Mr. Hymore, 64, recalled how she eagerly came back to him in a matter of weeks at age 14 to tell him she had written new songs she was sure his customers would like to hear.
Something about her determination and her air of self-confidence impressed him, especially for someone so young. He hired her for three sets one Wednesday. After that, she became a fixture there, he said.
"These girls," Mr. Hymore said, referring to about 10 of his most motherly female regulars, "they fell for her like she was one of their own daughters."
One was Debbie "Mama Duke" Dukeman, 57, who said it is no coincidence many of the female regulars have a "Mama" in their nicknames.
"Win, lose, or draw, she's always going to be a winner in here," Ms. Dukeman said.
That's not to say any of the Papa's Tavern regulars expect Bowersox to finish as runner-up tonight. Last night they leapt to their feet, pumped their fists into the air, gave each other high-fives, or went delirious when Simon Cowell, the most ornery and persnickety judge on the show, told Bowersox after her performance of "Black Velvet" that she had "absolutely nailed it."
Forget the fact that Gov. Ted Strickland put out a press release yesterday afternoon urging Ohioans to vote for Bowersox. One of the more touching moments was on the patio of Papa's Tavern minutes before the show began, when a group of working-class men and women with weathered faces gushed over what Bowersox has meant to them.
"To Crystal," one of them said, holding his can of Busch beer high and clinking it with others at the picnic table.
Last night at Papa's, there was Mr. Hymore's 16-year-old granddaughter, Bree-zee Coutcher, who grew up listening to Bowersox in the bar, admiring her like an older sister.
And there were people like Lori Bruns, 50, who drove 2 1/2 hours north from Tipp City, Ohio, near Dayton, just to meet up with friends from Oak Harbor and watch the show from Papa's.
Bowersox and the Coutcher girl are so tight that, when Bowersox visited northwest Ohio recently, they rode together to Crystal's home in Elliston, Ohio, and out to the Ottawa County Fairgrounds for the event called "Bowerstock." As recently as two years ago, Bowersox performed at one of the parties the Hymore family gave for friends and relatives at their cottage in Oak Harbor, Ohio, something that was a near-annual event.
"I looked up to her. She seemed cool," Miss Coutcher said of the earlier days. "Now, she's even better. She said she hasn't changed, except that she just has paparazzi now."
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