Ask any of the American Idol
finalists about life in their seven-bedroom, 8,000-sq.-ft. Hollywood Hills mansion, and one topic comes up again and again: food. As in, who cooks what (hint: if Josh ever offers to make you pancakes, politely decline), who's allergic to chocolate (Clay), how many different kinds of milk are stocked in the fridge (five) and who pops "greasy-oilies" by the handful (more on those later). And then, of course, there's Ruben Studdard—the Idol with the XXXL appetite. "He's always having a midnight snack," says '02 contestant Kristin Holt, AI
's in-house correspondent. "He's a hungry boy!" He's not the only one taking full advantage of the free-flowing bounty. With brimming cupboards and twice-weekly visits from a personal chef, "living in the house," says Holt, "is a real treat for everybody."
No kidding. Sure, Joe Millionaire had his butler, and those Bachelor/Bachelorette swells practically raft down a river of champagne and rose petals. But when it comes to reality-TV digs, Idol Manor is the place to be. "Aw, man, this house is so tight!" says Studdard. How tight? Well, Drew Barrymore
is a next-door neighbor, and Debra Messing is a jog away. Then there's the pool, Jacuzzi and deluxe game room, along with a gym and maid service. While the guys mostly congregate around the pool table—"Ruben and Rickey Smith insist they are the best players on earth," says Clay Aiken
—the girls often can be found in the Jacuzzi. Plus, "we spend a lot of time in the bathroom together getting ready," says Kimberley Locke. "We always ask for each other's opinion about what we are wearing." Fast friends Trenyce and Kimberly Caldwell even borrow each other's clothes and go shopping à deux. "We went to Victoria's Secret," says Caldwell, "and got us some boobs!"
Bedtime and morning routines range from Studdard's late-night pool hustling—"He won't play unless you put up $5," says Holt—to Locke's pre-bed reflection: "I say my prayers every night and I read a little from my Bible." Come sunup, Josh Gracin fixes breakfast for the gang. American Gourmet it's not. "One morning," says Aiken, "Josh put frozen microwave pancakes on the griddle, so that was, um, interesting." Gracin also flaunts his Marine's discipline with daily 5 a.m. jogs. "People have been shouting out their car windows" during his runs, he says. (Maybe so, but Aiken disputes his roomie's predawn vigor: "I have to wake him up every single morning!")
Not surprisingly, the ladies' extensive beauty regimens sometimes spark tension. A red-licorice straw-drawing helped determine who bunks with whom, and although the guys' and girls' rooms are on opposite sides, "you can hear the blow-dryers going"—much to the guys' irritation, says Holt. Most of the time, however, house rules keep everyone in order: "No alcohol; no smoking inside the house; a midnight curfew on singing; you have to clean up your own dishes; girls and guys in the common areas only," explains Holt. Any serious squabbles? "The only time there's conflict is when people are choosing songs," she says.
For the most part, though, "everyone gets along really well," says booted finalist Julia DeMato, who adds that her onscreen rivalry with Caldwell—early in the series, the pair clashed over showing up late for rehearsal—"was just a misunderstanding. We're friends." Maybe. But Simon Cowell
, for one, isn't buying it. "They're faking it," he scoffs. "They play the role like presidential candidates. If there was a baby to kiss in the audience, they'd be running over to kiss it."
Gracin, on the other hand, could be forgiven for going goo-goo. As the sole married member of the group and the father of 11-month-old Brianna Marie, "any time he has, he's talking to his daughter or his wife," says Holt. Meanwhile, Carmen Rasmusen—a high school senior who shared a room with her mom (and chaperone), Michelle, at the house until she turned 18 on March 25—"will have all of her music on her bed, and all over the floor is Hamlet and her study questions," says Holt. "She's the busiest out of the whole group because she has to fit in three hours of studying every day."
Listen, between daily 14-hour-plus rehearsals, promotional duties and two live shows a week, none of the Idols have much time to, ahem, idle. "The demands that are made on everybody are staggering," says senior associate producer Patrick Lynn. So much so that the contestants sometimes have to be reminded to look after themselves. During one rehearsal, Trenyce and Caldwell complained of not feeling well. "I said, 'What did you eat?' and there was silence," recalls AI vocal coach Debra Byrd. "I said, 'Really, are you trying to tell me you didn't eat anything all day, and it's 4 o'clock in the afternoon? There is no rehearsal. You eat now.' "
Another lesson the finalists have had to learn is how to protect their pipes. Although last year's winner, Kelly Clarkson
, downed shots of olive oil to coat her throat, the current crew relies on herbal lozenges by a Swiss company named Olbas. "We call them the 'greasy-oilies,' " says Lynn. "They're nasty tasting, but they work. We probably go through 10 boxes a week."
Shaving cream is also a hot commodity—and not just to keep Studdard's goatee perfectly groomed. Gracin, says Holt, "is head of the prank war. He put shaving cream in Ruben, Rickey and Corey's beds. They got back at him by hiding his shoes."
But the merriment tends to dim considerably come Wednesday nights, when someone gets the boot. "It's just not fun on Wednesday," says Aiken, who helped pack up Charles Grigsby's things after he was eliminated on March 19. "Clay said, 'Charlie, I look at it like this: We all sat here for 30 minutes bawling, and we decided that we couldn't possibly see you have to pack all your stuff, so we decided to do it for you,' " says Grigsby. "I can't ask for anything more than that." Weekly Wednesday-night dinners—Grigsby's was held at the Beverly Hills Hard Rock Cafe—also offer a chance to say goodbye. "Meals are our time to talk to each other," says Lynn. "If you take a cell phone call, you have to pay a buck."
And so, as each Wednesday rolls on and the house's numbers continue to dwindle, those who remain try to savor their stay while it lasts. "I took full advantage of the spa the other day," says Studdard. Yes, the spa—a pampering, one-day-only pit stop that's brought right to the Idols' front door. "The pedicure was the bomb," he says. "Hey, but the facial was good, too. We've been working so hard, it was great to have." Adds Locke: "That was a nice treat. The first thing my mom said was, 'You're not going to want to come home.' And I was like, 'Yeah, you're right!' "