12/20/2004 at 01:00 AM EST
At Diana DeGarmo's home in Snellville, Ga., an affluent Atlanta suburb, there's a fight brewing between last May's American Idol runner-up and her manager/mom, Brenda. Diana, a high school senior, wants to join her classmates on a trip to Cancun this spring, and her mother is balking. "I'm going to let her go—if I
can be convinced there will be enough adult supervision," says Brenda. "Maybe I can go as her chaperone."
"Over my dead body!" Diana retorts.
Never mind that DeGarmo, 17, is a budding pop star with her debut album, Blue Skies
, just out. Or that her first single, "Dreams," hit No. 1 on Billboard's singles-sales chart in September. Or that she has just scored a cameo on NBC's American Dreams, playing '60s girl-group star Little Peggy March this spring. She is still, first and foremost, a teenage girl—with all the typical teen concerns: boys ("I want a boyfriend who's really nice and sweet"), homework (tonight DeGarmo, who makes mostly A's and B's, is reading the Iliad in anticipation of a quiz) and of course her mom, with whom she's now playfully sparring. "I can be a nag. And my mother can be a nag," she says later. "It's a nagging relationship, but we know that it's loving."
Nevertheless, there are some things in her post-Idol life that other teens don't have to worry about. Like the pressure she felt during the show's run stemming from the public discourse on her weight. "I'm a normal-size teenage girl," DeGarmo says. "I like my food. I would rather be a little bit on the heavier side than too thin It's almost unhealthy that people are fascinated with [my weight]. When I was on the show, I gained some weight. I've lost some of the weight, I think, but I'm not really too focused on it."
Not that she was completely unaffected by the scrutiny—or by judge Simon Cowell
's carping about her squeaky-clean perkiness. "She was bashed every week on national TV," says Brenda. "So Diana has become a little more jaded. Not enough that everyone would notice, but I can tell. I will miss the innocence she had before she was on Idol
DeGarmo admits to having put up a protective shell around herself. For instance, "I don't read things that people say about me online," she says. "They write nasty things just to mess with you. I don't need that in my life." Even back home, it's hard to let her guard down. Returning to high school after touring with the other finalists this summer, she says, "there were a few people who came up and acted like they were my best friends, even though I hardly knew them. That was really strange. But my true friends, the ones I have known since elementary school, are the same as always."
As for DeGarmo's professional life, her mother is guiding it with a firm and protective hand. "I see Diana and she's a little girl, but she's almost an adult," says Brenda. Still, "I have always been the bad guy who said, 'No, I'm not going to let Diana do that.' Because someone needs to put their foot down sometimes, and I'd rather it be me than Diana." Brenda, 54, a former theme-park sales rep, has been raising Diana alone since she and husband Shelton, 61, an RV dealer, divorced acrimoniously in 1999. "My father lives close by, but I don't talk to him," Diana says. "I remember my mother and I sitting down counting off our pennies to pay our bills. We really had nothing. So I'm happier without having my father in my life." (Shelton DeGarmo did not respond to PEOPLE's requests for comment.)
These days mother and daughter are feeling flush—thanks in large part to a high six-figure recording" contract Diana signed after coming in second to Fantasia Barrino. Her favorite splurge? "I love shoes," she gushes. "I have almost 300 pairs of them right now. I just bought my first pair of Jimmy Choos, and they definitely won't be my last."
Now if she can only find time between her homework and her promotion schedule to step out with a boyfriend. One thing she knows for sure: "He has to be taller than me—that's a big thing," DeGarmo says. "I'm 5'4", but in heels I'm 5'7". I like'em tall."
Mike Lipton. Steve Helling in Snellville