Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)
The first American Idol had to face down thousands of competitors, bouts of laryngitis and weeks of intense scrutiny by Simon. But only now, with the release of her album, Thankful is Clarkson, 21, getting the jitters. "This is the first time in my life I've been nervous," says the Burleson, Texas, native. "There's so much expectation." The stakes are also high for her first movie, the beach musical From Justin to Kelly (due in theaters June 13) with pal Justin Guarini. The rumor that they're dating? "Absolutely no truth!" says Clarkson. "I want someone weird to make me feel normal." Her advice to the finalists? "Be yourself."
At a Beverly Hills party, month, Idol's runner-up found himself chatting with one of his musical heroes: Stevie Wonder. "He thanked me for singing his songs [on Idol], and I was like, 'Hey, no problem,'" says Guarini 24. "Then he said, 'We should get together and do something sometime.' I was like, 'Oh yeah! Are you kidding?!'" These days fantasy and reality collide often in the curly-haired crooner's life. His debut album is due in June, and his film debut with Kelly s lifted straight from his boyhood dreams in Doylestown, Pa. "I've wanted to do a musical from the very first time I saw a musical," he says. Too busy for real-life romance, Guarini is taking none of his good fortune for granted. "There are a lot of people who work years to get where we got in six months," he says. "I've been given so much so quickly. I realize the rug can be pulled out just as quick."
Each week when Ryan Starr took center stage during the last Idol competition, she showcased not only her husky vocal pipes but also her collection of hand-stitched, midriff-baring outfits. "The next thing I know, people were asking me about the designs," says Starr, 20. Now the Sunland, Calif., singer is creating her own fashion line, which she says will have a "very edgy, sexy, classy, funky style."
She is also still pursuing a music career, putting the finishing touches on a demo tape that Starr hopes will catch the ear of a music producer. "I took seriously what Simon and Randy and Paula said to me," she says. "I definitely think it has helped me become a better performer."
But these days she is mostly relishing her downtime, settling into her new one-bedroom Hollywood apartment and playing with her Yorkshire terrier puppy Havoc. "Honestly, I don't really have time for a boyfriend," she says. "That takes a lot of energy. Right now Havoc is the love of my life."
The Idol competition was such a confidence booster for Jim Verraros that in January he made a truly life-altering decision: to come out of the closet "It was a big risk, career-wise, but I have to be true to myself," says the Chicago native.
So far, Verraros, 20, says fan response has been very positive. "They say, 'Thank you' and 'You rock!'" he says. His Idol pals have been equally supportive—even if Simon couldn't resist some teasing when he ran into Verraros at a recent party. "I told him I recently came out, and he said, 'What? What do you mean you came out? You came out on the bloody show!' "Verraros recalls with a laugh. "Isn't that great?"
Still determined to pursue a pop career, Verraros has relocated to Encino, Calif., where he shares an apartment with fellow former contestants Natalie Burge and Christopher Aaron. One day, he says, "we want to look back and say, 'Wasn't it funny when we all lived in that crappy apartment? Now we're huge stars.'"
One thing 2002 finalist Nikki McKibbin doesn't miss from her Idol days? "I honestly did not like listening to myself sing on television," says the fuchsia-haired singer from Grand Prairie, Texas. When watching TV these days, McKibbin, 24, is more likely to be tuned into Dragonball Z cartoons, a favorite of her 4-year-old son Tristen. "I'm home pretty much most of the time," says the single mom. "Tristen is just the joy of my life."
Not that she's given up her musical aspirations. Since the first Idol wrapped, McKibbin has been recording a solo CD that she hopes to release this summer. She also makes frequent Idol-related appearances at local charity fund-raisers and continues to run her karaoke business. "If I don't have anything when all this is said and done, I still want to be able to do what I love, which is sing," she says.
Ejay Day describes his Idol idyll as "a good wake-up call to how hard the entertainment industry is." Toughest so far for the 21-year-old from Lawrenceville, Ga., was the 28-city tour that followed the show's conclusion. Because the singers performed in reverse order of their Idol finish, Day had to open every concert. "If people had come to see Kelly, Justin or Tamyra, they weren't too thrilled to see me," he says. "I wasn't booed offstage or anything, but I was basically the opening act."
Now living back in Lawrenceville with his parents, Day is shopping around a seven-song demo CD and dreaming of his next moment in the spotlight. When it comes, he vows, he'll be wiser. At Idol, says Day, "there was a lot of politics behind the scenes. Producers and directors have certain things they want. There's editing involved, and the public doesn't see the whole truth."
Losing has its privileges. Just ask Tamyra Gray. Soon after her eviction from Idol, she got a call from Boston Public executive producer (and Idol fan) David E. Kelley. "He asked if I'd like to audition," says Gray, 23. Um, yes, Mr. Kelley. Though Gray had limited acting experience—just a few television commercials back home in Georgia and some regional stage work—she landed the part. After her first guest appearance on the FOX drama aired Feb. 24, Kelley phoned. "He was telling me how excited he was that I was on the show," says Gray. "I was like, 'Oh my God, he called!'"
These days the phone rings often at Gray's Celine Dion apartment in L.A., where she is working with producer Baby-face on a CD tentatively scheduled for release this summer. "Whenever I have a question, the first person I call is Randy [Jackson]," she says. "And Simon [Cowell] calls just to check in and see if I'm happy or how my record is coming." Just fine, thank you, Simon. "This life is something I've been praying for since I was a little girl," says a grateful Gray. "I love it, I love it, I love it!"
There are certain things no number of Idol appearances prepare you for. Like lawn-stealing fans. On a recent visit to his parents' home in Atlanta, RJ Helton witnessed "these two girls from Canada drive up to the house, cut blades out of my yard, put them in a Baggie and leave ," he says, laughing. "It was the weirdest thing! And I worked very hard to lay that sod."
Helton, 21, is also working hard to cultivate a showbiz career. In March the soulful-eyed tenor landed the lead role in Mrs. Johnson, an independent romantic comedy scheduled to begin filming this summer. He has also shot four Old Navy commercials, begun work on a solo R&B and pop album, and sung at several events, sharing the stage with such stars as Peabo Bryson and Usher. He credits Idol for the boost. "I got to get in front of people that I've been trying to get in front of for years," he says.
Of the many headlines in Christina Christian's post-Idol life, the biggest is the one she's most reluctant to share: Yes, she's engaged, to Nicholas Cewe, 22. "I want to keep my private life private," says Christian, 21. But Christian has hardly stepped out of the spotlight. In addition to landing a job as a TV Guide Channel reporter, Christian made a guest appearance last February on her favorite TV show, CBS's CSI. "I probably wanted [the part] more than I wanted to win American Idol," she says. "I always wanted to act."
Based in Gainesville, Fla., where she shares an apartment with her cat Doeti and her three dogs, Prince, Onyx and Cocoa, Christian is also recording an album in London for 19 Entertainment, the same label that signed Kelly and Justin. Scheduled for release this summer, the CD includes tunes written by Christian, who says she felt "stifled" by the Idol format. "Now I'm able to pursue my career the way I want to," she says.
Well, here's something you don't hear very often. "I miss Simon," says A.J. Gil. "He told me exactly what I needed to work on. I improved a lot." So much so, apparently, that when Gil makes appearances these days, he inspires a new level of fervor in fans. While singing at a recent teen music show in Florida, for instance, "I saw what I thought was a ball coming towards me." What did he find when he opened his hand? "A tennis ball wrapped in panties."
Since appearing on Idol, Gil, 18, has moved from his native Seattle to Orlando to work on an album that he hopes will showcase not just his vocal talent but also his prowess with the guitar, drums and piano. He is careful to keep in mind, however, his nine siblings and parents (Martin is a preacher; Theresa works as a caregiver for the elderly) back home. "I'm trying to take care of them," he says. "I sent $5,000 and a computer. My brothers went crazy over that."