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Life in the backstage bubble

'Idol's' seven survivors reveal their fears, a ghostly fright and the

April 18, 2009|Richard Rushfield

The purpose of a reality TV competition is to win, and to win by the dirtiest means possible, as viewers of "Survivor" and "The Bachelor" can attest. But on Wednesday, "American Idol's" seven remaining contestants suspended the laws of nature and television when they celebrated that one of them, Matt Giraud, who had been marked by the "Idol" electorate for elimination, was saved by the judges.

Wednesdays are traditionally the saddest of times when the singers gather for a "Goodbye Dinner" to bid farewell to a newly eliminated friend. But because of this season's new "save" rule -- allowing the judges, if unanimous, to overrule the voting public within certain limits -- this time they poured in for a "Save Dinner," high-fiving Giraud.

In their first backstage group interview, conducted over pizza in a room near the "Idol" set, the seven survivors shared their celebratory dinner with The Times, discussing the tribulations and rewards of life in one of the world's highest visibility pressure cookers.

"I'm still in the wow phase," said Giraud, ignoring his pizza. "I feel so blessed to watch all the other contestants screaming, 'Save him! Save him!' And the audience just going crazy too. It blew my mind. I'm on a high right now that I haven't been on in a long time in this competition."

Assaulted with the downer question -- So when does it hit you that next week two of you have to go because Matt was saved this week? -- the group brushed such triviality aside.

"We know that," said Kris Allen.

"We're just still excited to be here right now," added Danny Gokey.

Conversation turned to life at one of the best-equipped dorms in show business: the palatial Westside mansion where the contestants are housed. The young singers described the estate that's equipped with a movie theater, swimming pool and chef on call.

Despite the opulence, however, life at the mansion seems to be as much dominated by decompressing as partying with comrades.

"We disappear into our little lairs," Allen said.

Adam Lambert is the contestant currently named as the front-runner by most of the "Idol" punditry and in person he seems thoughtful and reflective, in contrast with his fearless daredevil performances. He cited "getting enough rest" as the greatest challenge of his "Idol" journey and said: "When I get to the house, I'm not quite as social because it's, like, the one place that I feel like I can be quiet and relax. I'll put my headphones on or do the steam room, just chill. That's the most important part of being home for me."

Life at the mansion also brings one unexpected element: visits by what some say is a house ghost, dubbed Phyllis by departed contestant Alexis Grace. "She lives in my room," said Allison Iraheta. "I've heard growls. I'm not lying." Gokey recounted the experience of watching a movie and the lights suddenly going on and off at random intervals.

One nonsupernatural concern they speak of is the struggle to maintain a positive outlook in the face of the adversity that comes with Idoldom, especially the show's signature withering critiques from the merciless judging panel.

"The hardest thing for me is just trying to keep my mental house in order," said Anoop Desai, sounding sad. "I think looking at the bright side of things has been a challenge for me. We're all nice people and we genuinely appreciate, I think, what the judges have to say. Sometimes that doesn't come off. It comes off as us being combative or something like that, but it really is the worst thing that can happen to you. I think it's everyone's worst nightmare, that you look like a fool in front of 30 million people."

Lambert admitted he has run into harsh words about himself while surfing the Internet, reading blogs and message boards. He said: "About the judgment and the criticism, personally, I've been made fun of my whole life. So I just kind of go, 'OK. Smile and nod.' "

What is very clear spending an evening with this group is the strength they draw from one another. The night's one awkward moment came when I asked if they ever talk about who they think will win, a question that drew nervous chuckles and glances at the floor. "We joke about it," said Iraheta, the only one to answer.

It is the paradox of life in the "Idol" bubble that the only other people who can understand what it is like to compete for its prize are the people you are competing against.

Lil Rounds said: "When I watched the shows in past seasons I kind of thought, 'Why are they hugging each other? This is a competition.' But really it's not that much of a competition because actually we've already won. Basically, when we hug each other, when we give one another love, it's saying, 'Man, I'm so happy that I met you. You're my friend for life.' "

"We really do care for each other," said Gokey, who is much more serious than his upbeat public persona indicates. "We care for each other's dreams and we want to see everyone here succeed because we see the gifts and the talent that each one has and that's why this seven is fierce. That's the word right there: fierce."

A few weeks back, they entered the "Idol" bubble as faces in some very large crowds. Before May ends, they will emerge as national celebrities. I asked them how they are preparing to step outside the womb.

"I don't think any of us really think that we're celebrities," Giraud said. "That's why we still feel honored to be at the premieres and for people to want our autographs. If I meet someone who's like, 'I voted for two hours,' that's amazing to me. And I'm like, 'Really? I don't even know you!' "

--

richard.rushfield @latimes.com

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