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'American Idol' tour kicks off

June 30, 2008 |  5:06 pm

For months, as the entertainment world revolved around them, as desperate fans speed-dialed voting lines, as celebrity-driven tabloids and websites fought in mortal combat for every scrap of information about them, as television, music and Broadway rebuilt their firmaments in their wake, the contestants of “American Idol” toiled in the show’s protective cocoon-like bubble. “We were in a white room for three months,” said Irish songstress Carly Smithson.

But now, at last, their duties on the show over, America’s Top 10 gladiators of competitive singing are leaving the bubble and taking their songs directly to the millions of “Idol” fans as they prepare for the 49-city “American Idols Live!” tour, which begins Tuesday in Glendale, Ariz.

“There’ll be no one to say you sang horrible,” said “Idol” finalist Ramiele Malubay, who, along with the other women of the Top 10 — Smithson, Brooke White, Syesha Mercado and Kristy Lee Cook (present, but silent on vocal rest) — took a break from tour rehearsals two weeks ago to sit down for a freewheeling conversation over dinner at West Hollywood’s One Sunset restaurant.

As they looked ahead to the road trip, it was very clear that after months of absorbing Simon Cowell’s acid lashings, the second-guessing of fans and ultimately each Wednesday night’s verdict of the voters, the “Idol” ladies were agog with exhilaration at the prospect of finally singing for singing’s sake. “It’s not about what a judge is going to say. It’s about the music and the fans connecting and having a great time,” gushed singer-songwriter White.

“It’s amazing. Nobody is going to judge us after we sing,” crowed Smithson.

As for what to expect on the tour, jazz singer and the season’s third-place finisher Mercado describes the night as “a mini-concert for each person.”

White elaborated: “We sing three songs each, David Cook five, [David] Archuleta will sing four. I think a lot of people had the impression it was going to be a bunch of group numbers, but it’s not. We actually are going out as individual performers and doing our own set, our own music.”

One thing that’s clear to studious “Idol” watchers is that of all the milestones each season brings (Hollywood week, Top 24, Top 12 and the big stage), making it to the Top 10 and thus ensuring a spot on the tour is the most significant. Not only does the tour bring a major payday (rumored to be more than $100,000 per person), but once the contestants pass that hurdle, they have the assurance of knowing that, come what may each results night, their “Idol” journeys will continue through the summer.

“I remember hearing the news that I made Top 10,” recalled White. “I was psyched; that’s a huge milestone to get through.”

As we broke bread, however, it became clear that a larger meaning of the tour for these young women was the fun of being together. For a competition show that in previous seasons has generated its share of behind-the-scenes drama between the contestants, to all appearances, the Season 7 group has retained a remarkable sense of camaraderie.

“We’re like sisters!” proclaimed Malubay at one point, sharing her excitement about hitting the road with the group.

“Do you really feel like you’re my sister?” Mercado asked.

“Oh, my God. I’ve lived with you since November!” Malubay responded. “You know what it is, our spats are like sibling rivalries. ‘Gimme back my shirt’ kinda stuff.”

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Looking back, the five remembered the trauma of their greatest challenge, Mariah Carey week, as what brought them together.

“That week was going to be the hardest week the girls were going to have,” Smithson remembered. “Mariah Carey’s voice is undeniably one of the greatest. How are we supposed to sing her songs and not be critiqued? That was why I picked something that wasn’t well known, and I still got criticized.

“You have a boy coming to sing any of those songs, he’s, in that moment, going to sound like he made it himself. If I slowed down on ‘You’ll Always Be My Baby,’ it would sound exactly the same.”

Another element that brought them together was a tsunami of fan support for their male counterparts. Mercado describedthe vibe she often received from the room. “I tried to be as comfortable as possible with the audience because it’s those people who I’m really performing for, and sometimes it was a little hard because those little girls would be staring at me like, ‘Where’s David Archuleta at!’”

Another tip-off: the letter gap. In the Internet age, the medium of crush letters may well have been surrendered entirely to teenage girls and their grandmothers, and that shift was felt hard by the women. “My fan mail was like three letters,” remembered Malubay.

White: “The boys would get boxes, stacks.”

“By the Top 3,” said Mercado, “I said, ‘Now people will like me more. I’ll get more fans.’ But no, at the most I got like six letters. That’s at the most, six letters a week.”

Sitting in the Idoldome week after week, looking on from just 40 feet away, I watched as these ladies went into battle, staking everything on 90 seconds of singing, arranging, costuming and foot shuffling. And then on the following night, they attempted to contain what seemed to me an impossible burden of anxiety, as the clock spun unstoppably toward the weekly verdict of doom for one contestant.

But I also saw them keeping up one another’s spirits and, even on weeks of evident exhaustion and illness, looking like they were having the time of their lives during what is as high-stakes an ordeal as show business can offer. Over dinner, at last I was able to ask them how much they felt that burden and how they managed to bear it, each of them, with such grace.

The five recounted how the pressure both sustained them and threatened to drag them under. In the two-hour conversation they told stories of the horrors of shotgun song choices (they were given 45 minutes to decide on their second Beatles song), judicial excoriation and struggling to find original arrangements, practice a song and record the studio version while not burning out your voice.

Idolladies “We help each other out because you can’t really do this yourself,” White said. “A lot of laughing; you give a lot of hugs. And there was a lot of time when you felt you weren’t getting through so well, so you went home and cried — I didn’t even wait until I got home. Monday and Tuesday [performance day] were more scary and Wednesday [results day] maybe you put it off in your mind. And then for that hour before results show it will finally sink in — oh, my gosh.”

“I have to admit,” said Mercado, “I had my moments when I goofed off. But it was really hard for me to really enjoy the entire experience because I was so focused on getting that song just right and doing a good job. It was hard to let go and just enjoy it for what it was.”

Nonetheless, Smithson recalled, now and then the tension had to break. She said, “We’re making this sound like it was such a stressful experience, but in the middle of all this stress, you still had a great time.... We’d come home and say this is the hardest thing we’ve ever done, and Brooke would just start acting stupid and rolling around on the floor.”

But on performance night, recalled the singer whom this column has called the greatest in “American Idol” history, “when the red light went on on that camera, I’d be like, ‘Oh crap.’”

Chief among the anxieties for the contestants were the criticisms, some gentle and well-meaning, others not at all so, from an Internet full of amateur critics competing to outdo Cowell in viciousness. While all the women said that they avoided reading blogs and reviews, the comments still wormed their way into the “Idol” bubble. For some, looking at their official pages on americanidol.com, where comment boards on each candidate are open to all, provided a harrowing glimpse at the venom. Malubay recalled friends calling to say, “‘I just defended you today. I just want you to know that.’ Because they get all proud of themselves for backing you up. I’d say, ‘Don’t call me if you’re going to say anything negative.’ I don’t want to know anything that’s going on.”

“I got mail,” Smithson said, “that I should leave my husband, that he was holding my career back. You get 10 nice things said and you remember the one negative.”

Unanimously, the ladies cited the experience’s effect on their families as among the hardest aspects of life in the “Idol” circus. Booked solid by a relentless production and rehearsal schedule, living in dorms where even family members were not allowed to visit, many weeks the contestants had almost no opportunity to see the loved ones who had come to Los Angeles to support them. Often their only contact would come in a 15-minute post-show break, when the contestants would greet a small gathering of fans outside the studio.

“It was very hard to tell them no,” Mercado said. “It was heartbreaking to tell them I can’t go out to eat with you. I can’t go shopping.”

“And you have to protect your voice,” added White.

Malubay: “And they think you’re a diva, but you’re tired.”

Idol-finale Worse than the lack of contact, though, was the families’ having to absorb every harsh word said about their loved one. Malubay said: “The thing that bothered me the most was my family. They’ve never really gotten feedback from other people that wasn’t really positive about me. I mean, people that are negative don’t really come to your family and be like, ‘Oh your daughter!’ on a normal basis. So when I would cry and the way I cried during the Top 12 elimination, I guess, my parents took it really hard. People would go up to my parents and say, ‘Your daughter cries too much,’ and my mother would say, ‘Stop making faces, stop crying.’ It just really bothered me.”

But after not being sure if they were having an effect on viewers, finally seeing the support each had garnered was uplifting as well.

“It’s amazing,” Smithson said. “You don’t even realize it until you get your MySpace [page] back. Our MySpaces were all taken away from us. People are so supportive of you.”

“I would’ve felt so much better if I’d had my MySpace when I was on the show,” Mercado said. “Except for one comment, every comment was encouraging and uplifting.”

Having traveled so far, they have one last lap to go under the “Idol” umbrella. Between now and September, the tour will take them across America — they are at the Staples Center on Monday — letting them finally perform directly for their fans. And then the real “American Idol” challenge begins: building a lasting career.

But for this group of women, the path will be made, if not easier, at least clearer, because each has formed memorable and hugely likable personas during this season. And that they have done so under the most trying of conditions calls to mind images of the founding cornerstones of civilization — of Achilles and Priam in the heat of the Trojan War dining together in the former’s tent. Seeing the women of the Top 10, each a true star, take such pleasure in one another’s company and recalling their battle as a shared experience shows one how, by becoming part of something bigger, we enlarge ourselves.

-- Richard Rushfield

(Photos courtesy Stefano Paltera / For the Times)

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