Frenchie Davis, dumped by “American Idol” in 2003 for lingerie shots posted on a Web site, moved on to Broadway success and thought she had buried a humiliating chapter of her young life.
That changed in the last few days after contestant Antonella Barba was allowed to stay on the top-rated Fox series despite the emergence of racy online photos that purport to be of Barba, but with no verification.
The first big controversy of the show’s sixth season swelled Tuesday when fans and a civil-rights activist rallied to Davis’ side, saying she was the victim of unfair and potentially biased treatment. Davis is black; Barba is white.
“We object to having one rule for black contestants and a different rule for white contestants who exhibit the same behavior,” said Najee Ali, community activist and founder of Project Islamic H.O.P.E.
Davis said she is bewildered over what’s happened with Barba, 20, of Point Pleasant, N.J.
“I don’t necessarily think that (it’s racism), but I can certainly look at this and understand why people would draw that conclusion,” Davis said Tuesday from New York, hours before going on stage in the musical “Rent.”
“I’m not bashing ‘Idol’ or Antonella. She’s a beautiful girl and she’s young. I think it’s great that she didn’t have to go through what I went through,” said Davis, 27, who suggested that the show’s producers might have learned from how they treated her.
Davis would welcome a public apology from them as “a great start.” But she said she is owed more for “the manner in which I was humiliated and the manner in which Antonella was defended and protected by the same people who humiliated me.”
“Now they need to come to the table and see what we can do to make up” for her treatment, Davis said. She declined to say if she would seek a financial settlement or a record contract or other deal.
Belinda Foster, Davis’ manager, took part in a small protest Tuesday with Ali outside the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles where “American Idol” tapes. She said there are stark differences in the treatment of the two contestants.
Foster noted the sympathetic comments of “American Idol” producer Nigel Lythgoe, who was quoted on Entertainment Weekly’s Web site recently saying he was aware of the photos associated with Barba, but adding: “It’s sad, isn’t it, that your best friends are the ones that come forward with information that will go to Smoking Gun or put your photographs on the Web?”
Fox and the producers have declined further comment on Barba, who was to perform again Wednesday as the contestants are narrowed down this week to the 12 finalists. All the singers, including Barba, have been unavailable for interviews.
A source close to the show, who asked not to be identified because of the lack of authorization to comment publicly, said Fox and the producers believe seminude photos of Barba were posted without her consent and that racier shots, showing a sex act, were of a woman other than Barba.
Whether Barba posted any photos or allowed them to be posted is immaterial, Ali said.
“‘American Idol’ has first and foremost proclaimed it is a family show. ... No matter who made the photos public, it still speaks to her moral character and integrity, and certainly her silence speaks for itself,” he said.
A fan group lead by Chris Tian, a singer-songwriter in Portsmouth, N.H., is calling on Fox to give Davis another shot at competing on “Idol.”
Although she’s wonderful in “Rent,” Tian said, “a lot of Broadway artists don’t get record deals. This could open up the path for her big record deal and big break.”
The series has rarely managed a quiet year, with past issues ranging from voter complaints over overloaded phone systems to a contestant’s allegation of an affair with judge Paula Abdul, which she denied.
The big-voiced Davis, on the verge of being voted a finalist by viewers in the year in which Ruben Studdard won, said she was honest with producers about posing for lingerie photos at age 19, five years before going on “American Idol.”
In a statement Tuesday, Fox said, “We have never discussed the specifics of why Ms. Davis was eliminated, nor will we now.”
The network said it had “no desire to revisit history and sully the reputation of Ms. Davis. She was removed from the show over four years ago and has gone on to a successful performing career.”
That achievement has been a salve, of sorts, for Davis.
“I don’t feel anything about the show. I haven’t watched it. When ‘American Idol’ comes on at 8 o’clock at night, I’m on stage,” Davis said.