Yamin before and after
Mickshaw/WireImage; tammy kennedy
12/08/2006 AT 02:40 PM EST
Goodbye to the nickname "Snaggletooth." Thanks to $50,000 worth of porcelain veneers and other dental work, and 20 sometimes-painful hours in the dentist's chair to fix his crossbite, American Idol
underdog Elliott Yamin can't seem to wipe the smile off his face, PEOPLE reports in its new issue.
"He loves to laugh, he loves to smile," says girlfriend Jaime Paetz, 28, a model who met Yamin, also 28, after he appeared on the FOX talent hunt this season. "I liked his old teeth, but if (the veneers) make him happy, then I'm happy."
The changes aren't just cosmetic, either. "It is going to help muscle function, it is going to increase the volume (of his voice) maybe," says Yamin's Beverly Hills dentist David Frey, who provided his services free of charge. "So if anything, he could become an even better singer."
"I've always wanted to have a nicer smile," says Yamin, who for much of his life was teased for his crooked teeth. "I used to look at old pictures of myself, and I figured out how to kind of smile without displaying all my teeth."
What finally persuaded him to go through with the dental work? "The bottom line was, I was long overdue for a dentist appointment," he explains. He also realized that having properly aligned teeth might allow him to "express my emotions better" during performances.
Still another reason for the Virginia native (who is 90 percent deaf in one ear and was diagnosed with diabetes when he was a teen) to smile: He just signed a songwriting deal with Sony's publishing division and his "soulful-sounding" debut album is due early next year.
He finished in third place
(behind runner-up Katharine McPhee and winner Taylor Hicks,) but so what? Says Yamin: "I feel like I am the winner."
For more on this story, check out the new issue of
PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.