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American Idol producer Nigel Lythgoe says the show isn't just for amateurs.

Listen up, kids. Uncle Nigel wants you to calm down. It is not against American Idol rules for anyone to have ever had a record deal. Or to have released a record. Or to have won another TV talent contest. Or to have gotten $50 to sing You Light Up My Life at their sister's wedding.

The first big Idol sniping of the year has been about the number of hopefuls, including members of the Top 24, who have a track record in the music industry.

Robbie Carrico was in an Orlando-manufactured boy band, Boyz N Girlz United, that opened for Britney Spears on a 1999 tour. Teenager David Archuleta was a Star Search winner at 12. But the biggest target has been Carly Smithson, the Irish belter with the sob story about her visa problems. Under her maiden name, Hennessy, she released an album in 2001, Ultimate High, and according to one report, MCA backed its promotion with $2-million.

So what, Idol executive producer Nigel Lythgoe said in a conference call Friday.

"Nobody said this is an amateur competition. (That) is something people are making up for themselves," he said.

"The rules of the competition say you can't be in contract now. . . . Kelly Clarkson had a professional contract (before Season 1). Bo Bice had a deal (before Season 4). We're doing everything about who they are and what they are now."

And don't ask him about it again. After taking a couple of questions about the issue and repeating the same points, he got a bit cranky and semiwailed, "I honestly don't know what the angle is."

With the start of the Top 24 round Tuesday, Lythgoe did get asked about other matters:

- Syesha Mercado, the woman who used flash cards to communicate in Hollywood because her voice was dying, is the lone remaining contestant from west-central Florida. She grew up in Sarasota and is a theater major at Florida International in Miami. She was on the very short-lived Idol-like ABC reality series The One: Making a Music Star in 2006 (it was canceled before a winner was named), and her bio says her mother was a Motown backup singer.

She had a hard time the first two days in Hollywood because of her voice problem, Lythgoe said. On the third day, after giving interviews by card, "she came out and sang up a storm. We were like, 'Wow, terrific. That's how to do it.' " She also provided a lesson in how to get air time: "It's a good story, and when you do something like that, you're going to be in the show."

- Theme nights will start with the final 24 instead of the final 12, as in the past. Next week everyone has to sing a song from the 1960s. "Each season we like to grow," Lythgoe said. "And asking America to vote on a performer they don't know doing possibly a song they don't know we felt was not right." The 24 are choosing from 50 songs from the '60s that Idol got permission to use.

- The contestants can play instruments in the next rounds.

- No celebrity mentors have been chosen, he said, but the season will have only four, adhering to his promise to have fewer.

- Among the reasons group singing was eliminated from Hollywood: Hopefuls were getting cut because they didn't remember lyrics, "and that's really not a reason to get rid of people; talent should be it," Lythgoe said. Anyway, the whole exercise was done just to get them fighting, exhausted and cracking under pressure in the name of good TV. "This year we wanted to do it on talent. The proof will be this season."

Sharon Fink can be reached at or (727) 893-8525.