By Marco R. della Cava, USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES — At the glittering sweatshop of a star factory that is American Idol, time to relax is as rare as a kind word from Simon Cowell.
All three Season 8 finalists happily plop down before a catered lunch during a break in filming Sunday at the Ford music video shoot, which airs during tonight's results show (Fox, 9 ET/PT). But as is often his way, Adam Lambert takes the opportunity too far.
"I just love being outside," he says, leaning back from the lunch table in his flimsy folding chair. "We're always stuck indoors, in the studio, in rehearsals, in the …"
Lambert is milliseconds from crashing to the concrete on the Paramount back lot when he grabs the table and a fellow diner grabs him. He stands up, eyes bulging.
Danny Gokey looks over at Kris Allen, then affects a Ryan Seacrest tone: "And tonight, live from the hospital, we have Adam Lambert."
The group laughter is genuine and welcome. For the three remaining contestants, Idol is all work and little play. Regardless of who wins, they all eagerly spy the finish line.
"What do I want after Idol? Well, I certainly don't want to go back to driving semis, so I guess I'd like to help people better themselves," says Wisconsin native Gokey, 29.
Allen, 23, shakes his head. "I wasn't doing anything before I auditioned, which really was my brother's idea, just going to the University of Central Arkansas. But I've now found what I'm supposed to do with my life. I want to take this ball and run with it."
If Gokey and Allen come across as mellow Midwesterners, San Diego native Lambert, 27, seems carved from the gritty asphalt at Hollywood and Vine. "I want to do the pop-star thing," says Lambert, who's difficult to overlook with his dyed black-and-blue locks and Cleopatra eyeliner. "I want to open people's minds. I want to push buttons."
Just then, a production assistant pushes the switch on his walkie-talkie and barks: "We need the three guys back on set. And get ready to release the dogs."
A nearby handler motions toward three menacing German shepherds that will stalk the Idols on the next shot.
"The dogs seem nice," says Lambert, flashing a wary I-hope-they-don't-bite smile. "Here we go again."
What's it like to be an Idol in the final throes of competition?
A three-day tag-along reveals that an Idol finalist's constant companions include physical fatigue, mental exhaustion and a constant stream of choices: What song? What note? What outfit? What take?
One thing is clear: Television's top-rated series is less reality show than boot camp for wannabe stars. Survive incessant tasks — song and wardrobe selections, rehearsals, music-video recordings and shoots, iTunes recording sessions — and there won't be a Hollywood pitch you can't hit.
Saturday: Shopping incognito
It's late morning in the City of Angels, where the frenzy has slowed to a manageable weekend pace. Families of Hasidic Jews walk leisurely to synagogue past the nearly empty parking lot of CBS Studios. Inside, Lambert sits in a dimly lit windowless room and sings Aerosmith's Cryin'.
"Should I say the word 'Cryin' ' at the end, or is that, you know, too show-tune-y?" Lambert asks Michael Orland, who, along with Dorian Holley, has proffered vocal and musical advice to Lambert and Allen throughout the competition.
Orland agrees he should just draw out the last "me" of the verse.
Lambert nods, then starts talking about a few recent performances, praising recently departed Idol Allison Iraheta, 17, with whom he dueted last week on a raucous version of Foghat's Slow Ride.
"I tell you, give her two years and, bam! She'll be a star," he says with genuine awe. "She is just so, so talented."
He runs through U2's One, which the judges picked for him to sing. Aside from hearing it a few times on the radio, the song was mostly unfamiliar to Lambert until a few hours ago. The three men spend much time working out how to make the last words of the song ("sisters and brothers") a whisper.
"You've got the huge voice, we know that," says Holley. "But sometimes it's more powerful to go the opposite way."
Ten minutes later, Lambert stands up and stomps a single snakeskin boot: "All right, we're done. Let's go shopping."
After a trip of a few blocks by car, Lambert and stylist Miles Siggins walk freely through the posh Beverly Center mall. No one stops the Idol finalist. This is L.A., and Lambert isn't yet A-list.
Inside the hip-with-cash store Traffic, Lambert and Siggins fall in love with a faded denim shirt by Dolce & Gabbana. At $695, it comes close to his two-song budget of $800. Not that that would stop Lambert.
"He's broken Taylor Hicks' record for spending the most out of your own pocket," Siggins says, laughing. "And I'm not telling you by how much."
Lambert says the white suit he wore to sing the Rat Pack-era tune Feeling Good cost $1,700. "But in this competition, the visual is as important as the voice," he says. "I'll spend what I have to."
Says Siggins: "Adam's my modern-day David Bowie."
With that, the two are off to admire a sandblasted pair of jeans from Hysteric Glamour for $855. "I love this," whispers Lambert.
In the end, though, nothing makes Lambert's cut, and he moves on to other stores.
Back at CBS, as Idol executive producer Ken Warwick zips by in his sleek Bentley coupe, Gokey and Allen pull up in black SUVs, just back from their hometown visits. In the case of all three Idols, huge crowds were on hand to salute their local heroes. But the events took their toll. Both men seem bushed.
This time it's Allen's turn to run through his songs for Orland and Holley. Accompanying himself on a Taylor acoustic guitar, Allen's version of Kanye West's Heartless is flawless. The coaches have little to add.
"I haven't listened to that song much," says Allen, even though it was his own choice.
Wide-eyed, Holley asks, "Does that, ah, come easy to you?"
"Words and stuff? Yeah," says Allen.
"That's a blessing," Holley says.
Upstairs in the cavernous CBS monolith — where shows such as Idol and Dancing With the Stars are taped — coaches Debra Byrd and Matt Rhodes are waiting in the more expansive rehearsal room.
Byrd says contestants with strong church backgrounds, such as Gokey and Lil Rounds, who finished seventh, often are at a disadvantage on the pop culture-oriented program.
"Being on Idol is like the microwave version of learning music, super-fast," she says. "As a worship leader, Danny wants to get a crowd involved, so he comes out of the box and goes for the jugular. We're trying to show him the subtleties of the arc of a song. He's learning how to phrase things differently. He can be …"
"I don't think Danny's had time since he lost his wife (a few weeks before his Idol audition) to deal with all his emotions," she says softly. "And this show moves. At this point, Danny Gokey can't say, "Stop, I need a break.' And as an adult, I'm sure it's hard to do all this, to sleep when you're told to sleep, to wake up when you're told to wake up."
The door opens and Gokey walks in, head to toe in black. He apologizes for being low on energy. "I don't feel well at all," he says. Nonetheless, he dutifully plays Joe Cocker's hit You Are So Beautiful, a version he recorded with his friends while at home in Milwaukee.
"I love these guitar chords. Can you figure them out?" he asks.
Rhodes gets to work behind his keyboard.
"Uh-huh, I'm feeling it," says Byrd as the song suddenly erupts out of larger speakers.
Just then a nearby Coke machine comes to life, its whir mixing with the lilting chords.
A few hours later, the trio regroups a few blocks from CBS at the Record Plant, whose walls have heard the strains of everyone from Guns N' Roses to Michael Bolton.
Inside one of the studios, a group of music video producers repeatedly play a song that the three Idols will record separately. Since the tune goes with a Ford video that airs next week (and can't be named) — when there will be only two contestants standing — the trick tonight is for the singers to perform the song as free of embellishments as possible, so the tracks of the surviving Idols can be seamlessly meshed together for broadcast.
After a long delay because of a bum microphone, producer Roger Wojahn turns to Allen, who's been killing time in the recording booth, and says, "OK, we're ready, you're in the spotlight, Kris, 50 million people watching, and go!"
"Oh, great," says Allen. "No pressure."
Allen hits his marks, but the new microphone still isn't making people happy. Time drags. People start telling airplane horror stories. Wojahn has one about landing gear that almost didn't come down. Holley, on hand to lend support, tops that with a tale of flying to Asia with Michael Jackson when the jumbo jet dropped 10,000 feet in seconds.
At this point, Lambert and Gokey are sprawled shamelessly across a big brown leather couch. Lambert is texting a friend; Gokey is curled up in a fetal position, passed out.
When Allen is finally finished, Lambert yells, "Put me in, Coach," and jogs over to the booth. His session isn't without problems — the song's key isn't in his preferred range — but he is persistent.
"Try really belting it out this time," says Wojahn.
"OK," says Lambert in a cartoonish voice, a goofy trademark of his. This one sounds like Daffy Duck.
Lambert tries again. Still no good.
"Put a little acting in it, Adam," says Holley.
"OK," says Daffy.
This time it's good enough, says the producer. But Lambert just shouts out, "One more!" His enthusiasm is appreciated, but he's through.
Gokey rises from his stupor and marches wordlessly into the booth. Despite feeling wretched, he manages to deliver the goods.
"Just one more and we're done," says Wojahn.
Holley quickly adds a thought, one that only an intimate could supply.
"Danny, you've got the breaths and rhythms right," he says. "But I don't believe you're talking to a real girl that you just don't want to let go. Find that."
Gokey doesn't flinch. Then he looks down and starts to sing.
"We're done," yells Wojahn.
Sunday: Traffic jams and hometown heroes
The morning dawns hazy, another Southern California day that requires the sun to blast away the marine layer conjured up by the Pacific.
At the famed gates of Paramount Studios— through which the likes of Marlene Dietrich, the Marx Brothers and Tom Cruise have passed — guards wave in visitors looking for the "Wild Plum" shoot, the code for today's filming of yet another Ford music video.
More than 30 Ford vehicles line a street that resembles New York, complete with rusting fire escapes and chipped brownstone stoops. Over the next several hours, the three Idols will spend a lot of time sitting inside a candy-apple red convertible Mustang.
With Allen at the wheel, the trio drive down the car-flanked street, over and over again, until the director is happy with the shot. Then the cars are moved into the road, blocking our heroes' progress.
The next shot involves Allen pulling up to the traffic jam, at which point Gokey opens the passenger door, walks in front of the car and opens up his outstretched hands. Animation will make it look like his arms have grown big and long enough to sweep the traffic aside.
"Like parting the Red Sea, guys," Gokey says as he walks back to the Mustang. Lambert, jammed into the rear seat, laughs. Then he asks for a giant umbrella to block the emerging sun, the better to shield this natural redhead's fair skin.
After posing with a couple who have won a Ford and a trip to this filming through an Idol sweepstakes, the three finalists march over to a catering truck, load up on chicken and asparagus and sit down under a white canopy to eat.
"I don't know about you guys, but it was really emotional to be home," says Gokey. "To see the whole city in unity like that was amazing."
Allen nods. "I kept thinking, 'You're really all here for me?' "
Gokey admits that being home makes him want to win for the hometown folks. "I did wonder, 'Why do they want me?' But I just want to give love back. I'm not here for the attention."
"I am!" Lambert cuts in. The line cracks the others up, but he's not joking.
"Look," says Lambert, "I didn't really come here to win as much as I came to get exposure and build my career. It's about what the show gives us."
Gokey listens, then says, "I think it's about leaving a mark in people's hearts."
Lambert takes it in, but continues. "I have treated the whole show as a set list, really. To show all my angles. So if I do an album, it'll be a reflection of what I did on the show."
Lambert ribs Gokey. "Come on, you like the attention, admit it."
Gokey laughs. "OK, I can cope with it after, like, two seconds."
For each of the three, last season's show marked their first true exposure to the Idol phenomenon. Gokey says watching all of Season 7 inspired him to try out, while Lambert says David Cook turned him on to the show's promise and possibilities.
"He really was the first to look beyond the obvious with his song choices and arrangements," says Lambert. "David paved the way for people like me to create their own path on the show."
Allen adds Jason Castro to his list of ex-Idol favorites, as much for his song choices as his ability to play along as he sang.
It's silent as the Idols finish up their lunches.
Lambert offers one regret.
"You know, maybe I shouldn't have written down that I was a chorus boy in (the musical) Wicked on my audition sheet," he says. "I feel like, from the moment they noticed that, they put me in a musical-theater box. I should have just put session singer. Oh, well."
Time to release the dogs.
Monday: New day, new attitude
After a solid night's rest, Gokey feels much better, smiling and even walking with a hint of a strut.
"I feel like me again," he says.
It's not much past 9 in the morning and he and the other Idols are at Westlake Studios in West Hollywood to record their newest songs for iTunes distribution.
Gokey takes a pass at Terence Trent D'Arby's Dance Little Sister, the tune judge Paula Abdul has selected for him to perform.
It's practice, but Gokey is singing as convincingly as anyone could while holding a coffee mug and swiveling in a black Herman Miller Aeron office chair. "Woo-ooo!" he sings, channeling Michael Jackson's trademark falsetto gasp.
"It's kind of my song," he says of the funk-soul romp. "But there are just so many breaks."
Gokey shakes his head while engineer Brad Gilderman listens. "I'm not sure what to do during them."
Once inside the booth, Gokey fills those breaks with convincing scat, but the repeated takes start to wear on his voice. And the singing isn't the only thing on Gokey's mind. Those breaks are the perfect place for a performer to dance, not a Gokey forte.
"Yeah, maybe I need to do a little James Brown thing there," he says, laughing at the thought of it. "My stage presence is, well, I know I need to work on it."
He traces the problem to his grounding in church performances. "When I'm singing there, I'm singing up, not out at the audience. And the audience, they're not focused on what I'm doing, they're focused up. So, this is all new for me."
A few booths over, Lambert is sipping tea and waiting to give Cryin' a go, but not before putting some finishing touches on One.
"Vocally you're there, Adam, but the timing needs tightening," says engineer Dennis Duncan.
"Aw-right then," goofs Lambert, this time in a lilting British accent.
For the next 10 minutes, Lambert sings the same passage. He keeps fouling up the take, unhappy with the pitch.
The process is two steps forward and one back. But thanks to the magic of digital recording, the engineers will piece together a complete song from best-of segments from each verse and chorus.
At one juncture, Lambert unloads with a deafening raspberry.
After a while, Duncan comes over the speaker: "Sorry, Adam, but we need to move on."
"Great," says Lambert, meaning it. "Truth be told, I'm not a huge U2 fan. I respect them, of course, but Aerosmith and Steven Tyler are more my speed."
Lambert says he'd be happy to live in the studio and do take after take. "That's not an issue for me," he says. "What's hard is fitting this (recording) in with all the other things they ask us to do. You can't focus, really."
To re-energize, Lambert says he hangs out in his room listening to mood music by Thievery Corporation, takes kava-kava homeopathic supplements and texts instead of calls to save his voice.
He and Kris have been roommates, and a friendship has formed. "Danny and me? Well, we're really different," says Lambert softly. "On everything. So we often agree to disagree."
A pause. "Going through this thing together has been bonding," he adds. "That guy has heart. And, man, can he sing."
At that instant Gokey's soulful croon carries over from the studio next door. "Wow," says Lambert.
A few doors down, Allen decides to momentarily set aside the judges' choice —Apologize by OneRepublic. He makes his way through Heartless, Kanye West's wordy love ditty, but he's having a tricky time with the avalanche of lyrics.
"That's what I get for doing an R&B version of a rap tune," he says, rolling his eyes.
To keep the pressure off, it's probably best that Allen not think about the fact that Michael Jackson recorded Thriller in the very place where he's standing now, though Jackson's eyes were likely focused on a loft window above the recording booth — a viewing stand built for the singer's pet chimp, Bubbles.
Take after take follows, with particular attention paid to a section that finds Allen dropping uncomfortably into a lower register. "Pitchy," says engineer Jon Rezin, pulling a Randy Jackson critique.
Finally, the myriad squiggly lines throbbing on Rezin's Apple recording application confirm that Allen has nailed the tune.
"God bless you," says Rezin.
"Ah, is that the same 'God bless you' you'd say to an ugly kid who did OK?" jokes Allen.
"Up until then, yeah," Rezin shoots back, an easy repartee born of weeks of collaboration.
Allen and Gokey are done with their recordings. Next they're off to shop for outfits to suit those songs. As they leave Westlake Studios by the back alley exit, Lambert's still blasting away on Cryin' in the highest of high registers.
Over at the funky used clothing shop Wasteland on trendy Melrose Avenue, Allen and Gokey look about as enthusiastic as two guys at a baby shower.
"I don't know what I'm looking for," says Allen. "I leave it to him." He points at style coach Art Conn, who's frantically shuffling through racks of secondhand T-shirts that go from $16 (for a period Deep Purple black concert tee missing a collar) to $500 (for a bead-studded Ed Hardy number featuring a grinning skull).
"Hey, Danny, in case you're looking for a Polar Express kind of look," Allen says, handing Gokey a white leather jacket with a high collar and long sleeves, something more suited to Star Trek than American Idol.
Gokey laughs, but picks up on the leather suggestion.
"I think leather would be really cool for Dance, no?" he asks his couture guru Siggins, who nods and starts riffling through hangers laden with black and brown coats.
But Gokey has a second thought. "You know, we only have $800 and I don't want to spend, like, $1,000 just on a jacket," he says.
Siggins wheels on his heels. "Danny, if you're ever going to do just that, it's now," he says firmly, eyeball to eyeball. "At this point, this contest is anyone's game."
Gokey looks away. "I hear you," he mutters.
A brown leather Dolce & Gabbana coat comes and goes, followed by a deep-green Juicy Couture motorcycle jacket. A black formal jacket with pinstripes slips on and off, then a mustard-colored number. Gokey frowns. Wasteland is just that for him today.
Allen is faring no better. Conn has found a tight-collared shirt that's dark green with a lighter green cross intersecting the chest. Allen puts it on, but his grimace makes Conn's smile disappear.
"I don't like to worry about my look so much," says Allen. "If I had my choice, I'd just wear this."
He flips an index finger at his chest. It's a worn white T-shirt with the legend: "I'd trade my girlfriend for a Coke."
"Then again," he says, "my wife might not like it."
Gokey checks the time. Less than two hours until the afternoon's show rehearsal. Which will be followed 24 hours later by the real show. Then tonight's results show. Then preparations for the finale.
As quietly as they entered Wasteland — where, once again, not one customer made so much as a minor fuss over their presence — the two Idols exit, vanishing into the hot L.A. sunlight.
Some say Idol represents a short cut into the mainstream of popular culture, turning unknowns into celebrities overnight.
True enough. But at least let it be known that for those making this end run into the homes and hearts of the American public, it's a journey with a detour through the salt mines.