ROSEMONT, Ill. — It's just past 1 p.m. when a convoy of unmarked luxury tour buses pulls up to Allstate Arena, disgorging 10 "American Idol" finalists in search of a career.
A big hiss from the coach door. Into the wilting humidity steps Chikezie Eze, who raises a weary eyebrow in greeting. Behind him is Ramiele Malubay, lugging luggage that's almost as tall as she is. "I feel like Santa Claus," she groans.
Michael Johns has a spring in his step, but it's deceiving. "I can't sleep on this thing. I keep thinking it's going to crash," he says.
Brooke White frowns as she looks down at her white pants. Big spot. "Oh, well," she says, sighing, striding toward the arena's backstage entrance. Then she looks back. Big smile. "Welcome to madness."
The Byrds posed the musical question 40 years ago: So you want to be a rock 'n' roll star?
The Idols Live tour tries to grant that wish. The old-fashioned way.
Dues are being paid here, a trial by road trip fire that's soothed by both a paycheck and crowds that typically are 10,000 strong.
The Idols pump out nearly a concert a day for 2½ months. Nights on cramped bus bunks, mornings in anonymous hotel rooms. Noon-to-midnight shifts split between signing autographs, performing and signing more autographs. Sleep, wash, rinse, repeat.
On their rare days off, some rush back to Los Angeles to work on albums. Others hammer away at new songs they hope to record before their 15 minutes of Idol fame are up.
This gig in the flight path of O'Hare International Airport is show No. 13 of 53 identical performances that wrap up Sept. 13 in Tulsa. Surely, camaraderie-mauling strife is bound to creep into this grueling picture. Inevitably, the tabloids will have their headlines ("Michael battles Jason for groupie love!").
A day and night spent with this group reveals friendships that have only gotten tighter, voices that have grown stronger and aspirations that have flown higher.
These are those high school drama buddies at the end of senior year, kids impossibly high on talent whose only lament is that very soon now they'll all scatter to the winds.
How will Jason Castro play blackjack without his good-luck charm, Kristy Lee Cook? Will Malubay ever kick that Lucky Charms habit without Syesha Mercado's concerned nagging? As for fast friends Johns and Idol champ David Cook, separating these twins is something neither wants to address. And for now, they don't have to.
Mobs of fans greet their arrival in Chicago
Suitcases deposited in their latest dressing rooms, most of the Idols head to the parking lot. Hundreds of fans wait in the summer heat, pressed up against metal barricades.
Cheers explode without favor, as shrill for country girl Cook as for tattooed rocker Carly Smithson.
Incredibly, the Idols move slowly and methodically down a 60-yard line of people, skipping no one in this largely female crowd. It's hard to ignore the love. One woman's T-shirt reads O.C.D. — "Obsessive Carly Disorder." Another's banner salutes Dread Heads, fans of dreadlocked Castro.
"He's unique, genuine and humble," says local fan Sarah Crothers, 27, who through a Castro fan site befriended Kairee Kirkwood, 19, who was lured here all the way from Edmonton, Canada, by a free ticket. "I wouldn't have missed him for the world," says Kirkwood.