Last January, in a classic "American Idol" preseason meltdown, the hyper-emotional Josiah Leming was sent home -- which in his case meant his car.
Now, less than a year later, in one of "Idol's" unlikely turns of fate, the high school dropout who'd left his ailing mother, out-of-work stepfather and eight siblings in Morristown, Tenn., is back, living the high life in Los Angeles and poised to release his first album on Warner Bros. Records.
"I was kind of down and out," said Leming, now 19, over a burger and fries at Canter's Deli in Los Angeles of his decision to audition for "American Idol." "So it was kind of like, 'What the hell?' Nothing to lose, really."
Despite his diminutive stature, baby face and boyish clothing, Leming is magnetic in person, his naked lack of inhibition at once disarming and electrifying. And then there's that inner heartache.
"All of his emotions go into his songs," said Warner Bros. Records' Senior Vice President of A&R Perry Watts-Russell. "He has that gift to turn pain into music."
At first, it seemed as if "American Idol" would become a showcase for his raw talent rather than another lesson in hardship. At his initial audition, he bowled over the judges with a fiercely passionate performance of a self-written song.
Then, at Hollywood Week, his playful rendition of Mika's "Grace Kelly" led the usually unflappable Simon Cowell to announce, "I think out of all the auditions, this is the one I'm gonna remember."
Then the golden boy faltered. At the end of Hollywood Week he was unceremoniously dispatched without explanation. To Leming, however, it was very clear.
"The real story is that the producers didn't like me," said Leming, who lived out of his car during his "Idol" experience. " 'Cause I wanted to do my own songs, and I wanted to have complete control."
And of the show that brought him to the world's notice, he added: "The producers pretty much control everything. You know, it's all kind of rigged, and hands are coming in from places you don't see. You just see the hand. It's a dirty hand. And you don't want to eat the food that that hand touches."
"American Idol" producers declined to comment for this story.
With his "Idol" dreams dashed, Leming crawled back to Tennessee and waited for the auditions to air. "I applied for a job, like, taping boxes for a postal service or something," he recalled.
Certain that "Idol" producers would omit his segments, he settled back into a quiet life at home. But not only were his performances shown on the Hollywood Week episodes, but his many emotional breakdowns became their centerpiece.
"They would show, like, 'After the break, see this random kid cry,' and then after the break, there I am crying," chuckled Leming.
Asked about the nonstop waterworks, Leming said, "It was a very emotional time in my life, you know? It wasn't exactly all the edit. I was in a rough place in my life as well, so it was a combination of where I was and the way they put it together and the way people took it in."
But whether it was the tears or the tunes, the minute the episode aired, the calls started pouring in:
" 'I'll make you a nice home-cooked dinner,' " he said imitating a Southern belle.
" 'We got an extra room,' " he added in a second voice.
" 'My mom says you can come stay with me!' " he said with another.
He smiled, still visibly touched. "It was so sweet, but people just didn't understand. I wasn't sleeping under a bridge, eating peas out of a can, you know, washing my clothes in the river."
Leming's phone didn't stop ringing, and soon enough Hollywood called as well. Leming's current manager, Dan Spilo, was first in line. After Leming's shocking ouster, Spilo tracked him down in Tennessee and the pair enjoyed a long phone conversation. Later, when Leming flew back to L.A. for "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," they met in person.
Soon, Spilo landed Leming a recording and publishing deal with Warner Bros. Records, a feat that could make some "Idol" finalists jealous. Leming's music drips with a deep hurt but remains defiantly hopeful.
On his EP, "Angels Undercover," he sings, "I'm a man now / I can drive a car / And I'm a dropout / I'm nobody so far / But I don't mess with cigarettes or alcohol / Cause I'm the best there is / And they tell me all the winners smoke cigars."
Leming has few confidants at the moment. He has yet to make friends in L.A., and his friends back home can't relate. "People see the surface. They see the record deal and the L.A. and the car," he said. "Even my family's view is a little one-dimensional . . . they can't see everything that roots underneath the tree."
With his EP released on Tuesday, an album dropping in January, an apartment five blocks from the beach and two cars, Leming seems to be living a Cinderella story. But life has taught him not to believe in happily-ever-after.
"Sadness finds you," he said as he ripped a sliver of onion in half, again and again, until the fragments covered his plate. "It doesn't matter where you are, or how much money you've got, or how many people know your name. It'll get you one way or another."
Despite his success, Leming feels out of place in Los Angeles. "[L.A.] confuses me," he said. "It's all, like, kinda glitz and glam, and I don't dig it. It's like, it's beautiful on the face, but there's nothing underneath. It's money and greed and sex appeal. And just no core values."