By Chris Michaud
NEW YORK (Reuters) - "American Idol" fans on Thursday opted for an all-teenage, all southern, mostly country season 10 finale, sending Haley Reinhart home after a record 95 million votes.
The final elimination from the top-rated television show left deep voiced 17-year-old country singer Scotty McCreery to battle it out with pop/country singer Lauren Alaina, 16, for the 2011 "American Idol" title next week.
"This is the biggest platform anybody can ask for," Reinhart said of her time on the show, which ended after an episode that took the three finalists back to visit their home towns.
"I rocked it out , and I had a blast, and this is only the beginning," she added before launching into her send-off performance, "Bennie and Jets."
Reinhart had shown her rocker side on Wednesday, performing Led Zeppelin's "What Is and What Should Never Be" with her father playing guitar alongside her on stage, but also taking a brief tumble in her high heels.
But with the "Idol" judges offering nothing but praise for all three contestants on Wednesday, the decision on who to send home was left firmly in the hands of the viewers.
Fox television said the week's vote total of 95 million was the highest in the show's history for a non-finale.
For all the controversy earlier this season about audience bias toward male contestants, viewers sent a slew of male singers home over the past five weeks, leaving the finale a battle of the sexes -- in addition to both being teens from the south.
McCreery, a devout Christian and former grocery store clerk, hails from North Carolina. Alaina, from Georgia, is also a Christian and says she has dreamed of competing on "Idol" since she was six years old.
After three years of slipping ratings, "Idol" has increased its audience this year, thanks mostly to the arrival of new judges Jennifer Lopez and Aerosmith rocker Steven Tyler.
The 2011 "American Idol" two-part finale airs on the Fox network starting next Tuesday, when viewers will choose the winner and he or she lands a recording contract, enviable bragging rights and incalculable media exposure.
Past winners Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood have gone on to major singing careers, while eliminated finalist Jennifer Hudson won an Oscar for her supporting role in the big-screen adaptation of the "Dreamgirls" musical.
(Reporting by Chris Michaud; Editing by Jill Serjeant)
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