Josh Gracin

Josh Gracin
What did Gracin tell the latest Idol crop? "Just go out there and be yourself. And don't worry about Simon, because a lot of time, he's just blowing smoke."
Michel Boutefeu/Getty

06/18/2004 AT 06:00 AM EDT

Being the underdog just might pay off for Josh Gracin. The fourth-place finisher from American Idol's season two hasn't given up yet, debuting a self-titled country album and a Billboard-climbing single, "I Want to Live." PEOPLE recently caught up with the 23-year-old U.S. Marine – who was rooting for his native state's underdogs-turned-NBA champs, the Detroit Pistons – at a New York City bar to chat about this season's Idol contenders, being famous on the base and keeping it all in the family.

You've lost weight since you were on American Idol. How'd you do it?
Yeah, I've lost about 30 lbs. I started in January. I knew I needed to do it because my joints were bothering me and my back started to hurt. I started out running three miles, three times a day – so nine miles a day – and just cut back on my portion size.

What did you think about the latest American Idol season?
There was a lot of talent out there.

Did you have a favorite?
Fantasia was my favorite. She had me after I watched her sing "Summertime."

Who's your all-time favorite?
I'd have to say Clay. He just has this enormous, powerful voice and always looked in charge onstage.

You're on active duty at Camp Pendleton in San Diego. Was it difficult to work on the album while being on base and being a dad?
It was hard. I'd just work on it on my own time and on holidays. I did a lot of the pre-production work on the phone or over email. My wife really handles our daughter (2-year-old Briana), so that made it easier – but I really don't sleep that much!

After you were on TV did your fellow Marines razz you a lot?
They did. When I got back everybody had a big old smile on their face and they would tease me a little bit. But I really don't think it hit them until we'd go out and people would come up to me. They'd be like, "Man, you're famous!"

Did you have women throwing themselves at you?
A little bit. But if this (CD) takes off, I think it might happen more. But I've already talked to my wife about that and she's being really cool about it. But if we go on tour I want to take her and my daughter with me, so she'll be able to keep an eye on me.

Any Father's Day plans?
I'm going to be with my wife and my daughter. I'll just be spending quiet time with them.

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