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    Can This Girl Group Win "The X Factor"?

    No one gave Fifth Harmony a second look, but it's possible they could be declared the winners tonight. Here's why.

    Will Fifth Harmony win the The X Factor? Throughout the show's often rocky, unpredictable second U.S. season, the girl group has been the competition's perennial afterthought. Each week their doom was considered imminent. But each week the favored contestants fell, and somehow the quintet survived. And still they were given no respect, their chances of winning put at something lower than a volcano erupting under the stage floor.

    But survive they did, and now, the cobbled-together team of teenage warblers may be on the brink of — to the astonishment of all — actually winning the entire competition, along with the recording contract and the $5 million prize that accompanies the championship. Last night, the Fifthers genuinely astonished the judges by delivering three performances that in energy, spunk, and catchiness outshone the two favored contestants, 35-year-old country singer Tate Stevens and 13-year-old mini-diva Carly Rose Sonenclar.

    Six months ago, Fifth Harmony did not even exist. The group was created at the end of the auditions by the judges out of five singers not deemed good enough to make it on their own. Judge L.A. Reid remarked one week that Fifth Harmony — noted for pleasant but boring voices heard in a falsetto monotone — should be renamed "Fifth Unison." They seemed to survive almost as a second thought; pleasant but unnoticed, it was as though the audiences had forgotten to vote against them. As recently as last week, judge Britney Spears could not contain herself from openly goggling in disbelief that the group had made it through to the finals.

    But after last night, no one is counting the girls out any more. So how did they do it? If indeed they take the prize in tonight's finale, what fueled the group's rise? Whether brilliantly savvy or just lucky, Fifth Harmony stumbled onto a well-worn path of singing-contest success.

    Step One: Surge Late

    Three weeks before the finale of American Idol's first season, Justin Guarini was considered a lock to win it all, with Kelly Clarkson's chances barely noticed. But ever since Kelly came out of nowhere to sweep the competition in the final week and went on to megastardom, an underdog upset has been the rule rather than the exception, occurring in almost every season of Idol. If there is anyone who knows and understands the power of that narrative, it is X Factor's creator and Fifth Harmony mentor Simon Cowell.

    It's possible that never before in world singing-contest history has an act surged this late, coming into the finals almost unnoticed. This is perhaps due to X Factor's particular quirk of the three-way last round that kept attention focused elsewhere right up until the group took the stage.

    Step Two: Grow

    Step 3: Be BFFs

    The constant problem for female contestants on these competitions is the trouble of projecting their personalities without chasing off the voters. By all accounts — although the evidence is anecdotal — the votes on these shows are cast by young and older women; tweens and fiftysomethings, more or less. Female contestants who act overtly sexy or give off any degree of coldness have traditionally had their heads lopped off instantly.

    Always seen laughing, yukking it up, shown on the town and supporting one another through tough times, Fifth Harmony has been a walking slumber party away at the funnest camp on earth. They were the group any 11-year-old would want to hang out with and inspired their loyalty above the hunky surfers of Emblem 3, who fell before Fifth Harmony last week.

    Step 4: Use "The X Factor"

    With its backup dancers, sets, and giant video displays (said to be the largest ever created for a television show), The X Factor is designed for acts capable of riding a spectacle. A lone singer standing in place belting his or heart out is apt to be swallowed by the enormous production. For the five-member group, however, filled with spunk, game for wacky costumes and set pieces, they were tailor-made to inhabit the goliath.

    It's not for nothing that the world's reigning boy band also came out of The X Factor. When cobbled together for the U.K. version out of five audition rejects, One Direction were similarly given little to no chance of success on the show or after it, despite the insistence of their mentor, also Simon Cowell, that the marketplace was ready for such a group. We shall soon find out whether Fifth Harmony is ready to follow in their forerunners' footsteps.