LOS ANGELES - Image counts on "American Idol," and the first three finalists know it.
Michael Sarver, 27, an oil-rig worker from Jasper, Texas, said that being a "hardworking American" is part of his appeal, "especially in the economy and the day that we live."
"It's a chance to see someone rise from the ashes. Not that my life is bad, but things are tough," said Sarver, citing oil industry layoffs and hiring freezes.
Sarver joined Danny Gokey and Alexis Grace, selected by viewers this week for the show's ultimate top 12, in a teleconference Thursday.
Gokey, 28, who lost his wife, Sophia, to a congenital heart defect, said he worries that the audience might grow weary of hearing about his tragedy.
"It's only been seven months since she passed," Gokey said. "It's not that I throw it in people's faces but I get asked about it all the time. ... I apologize to everybody if it feels like it's shoved down their face, but it's so fresh in my mind."
He doesn't carry a reminder of her onstage, he said, "because she's so deeply ingrained in my heart and mind that she's part of who I am." His "spunky" wife would be happy for him, said Gokey, a church music director from Milwaukee.
For Grace, 21, a single mom from Memphis, Tenn., her image literally was the issue: The petite, sweet-faced blonde was advised during her first audition to "dirty up" her look, and she responded with a sexier wardrobe and hair.
"I kind of like the whole '60s soul, cocktail-dress kind of vibe thing," said Grace, who admitted reluctantly ( "Most girls wouldn't like this question" ) to being just under 5-foot-tall and weighing shy of 100 pounds.
Asked how she came out of her shell so quickly, she said, "I think I might have a little alter ego on stage, maybe."
The best thing about "Idol," she said, is how it helps form a singer as an artist. Those in the show's music department, including music director Rickey Minor, have worked with Aretha Franklin and other music greats, Grace said.
"You'd be silly not to listen to them and take advice from them," she said.
Grace's young daughter is getting a kick out of watching her on TV and might be close to figuring out why mom is there, she said. Sarver's 3-year-old already has.
"She says she wants to go on 'American Idol.' So maybe we've got another one in the future," he said.
Next week, 12 more semifinalists will vie for three spots in the competition's top 12, but the dismissed semifinalists may have another chance. After the first nine finalists are selected by viewer votes, the judges will pick the last three finalists following a wild card round March 5.