From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
In case you ever end up face-to-face with Chris Daughtry, here are a few conversation starters: Ask him about Spider-Man (he's obsessed). Ask him about his new band Daughtry ("People think I pulled a Fantasia; no, I didn't drop my first name," he says with a laugh). And go ahead, ask him about wanting to be the next Jean-Claude Van Damme back in high school (seriously, he did). But please—he begs you—avoid offering him your condolences on not winning last season's American Idol. "When I hear that, I'm like, Do people really know how good I've got it?" he says. "My life does not suck!"

In fact, the 27-year-old rocker is riding higher than ever, thanks to his million-selling debut album, Daughtry, a hit single, "It's Not Over," and an upcoming U.S. tour. "He's the real deal," says producer Howard Benson, who oversaw Daughtry, on which the singer wrote or cowrote nearly all of the tracks. "That's why [Idol] is so great: This guy should've been signed when he was 20."

Growing up in North Carolina and Virginia, Daughtry was part comic-book geek, part jock until finding his calling in school productions of The Wiz and Peter Pan. At 16, he joined a pal's band and began paying his dues, later working at a car dealership (see photo caption).

Then, on his way to becoming a rock star, Daughtry became an instant family man. In 2000 he met Deanna, 33, who had two kids from a previous relationship: Hannah, 10, and Griffin, 8. Six months later they married. "It wasn't like, This is cool that I'm a rock guy taking on two kids," says Daughtry, who recently settled outside Greensboro, N.C. "It just felt like that was what I was supposed to do."

These days his biggest challenge is balancing fame and family. "There has to be a lot of trust on both parts," he says of being on the road away from Deanna. "My first couple weeks in L.A., I went out to the clubs. It's a quick 'woo-hoo!' Then it's like, 'pffffft.' I'm trying to put more focus on the stuff that's going to last."