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.
A few feet away, a fan hands Johns his iPod to sign, then a phone with a girlfriend on the line. The Australian native obliges on both counts. How can he be so relentlessly accommodating?
"Hey, mate, beats what I was doing this time last year," he says.
A fan shoots Johns a thumbs-up for his Chicago Cubs jacket. "Yeah, my buddy Mark DeRosa's the second baseman. I'm going to sing the national anthem at Wrigley again. Doing that made me more nervous than any Idol performance I ever …"
A thundering 747 cuts Johns off, flying just over the roof of the arena on its way to land. The clouds it slices through look menacing.
Time for a quick bite to eat — and a few quick laughs
"Well, look at that, shepherd's pie," says Smithson, surprised to find a British staple as she loads up her plate at the mess hall. The Idols are traveling with their own chef to help mitigate a range in the quality of concert-hall catering.
She sits down with David Archuleta, who's poking at his soup and sandwich. Dad Jeff sits nearby; he's along because his son is only 17.
Castro ambles in. He looks in need of a nap.
"I can't really sleep at night. I guess that's a problem for a lot of us," he says. "I don't go on until the second half of the show, so I grab an hour or more of sleep then."
His favorite part of the tour was a recent two-day hiatus in St. Louis, where the fairer Cook brought him good luck at the blackjack tables. "She and I have gotten close. She's just great."
In a room next door, some of the Idols are trotted out for local media. But given that it's a Saturday and the arena is far from downtown Chicago, the crowd is thin.
After a quick TV interview, Mercado plops down in a plastic chair and exhales. "This is grueling, but being friends helps get us through it."
She says bonding is intense on the girls' bus (the boys have their own). It's an oasis of "Zen calm," complete with candles and healthy foods. Except for Malubay's boxes of sugary cereal.
"Hey, she eats my cereal, too," Malubay says, pointing at Mercado, whom she calls "my sister."
"I do not!" mock-yells Mercado, looking over at White, who also is digging into a bowl.
"Would you look at that woman," says Mercado. "She is so small, but she's always eating."
White laughs. "It's like we're about to graduate, and I can only hope we'll keep in touch," she says. "I am so much myself with these people."
More meeting, more greeting, more signing
All 10 Idols sit at a long table, a bottle of water and a box of Pop-Tarts — the tour's sponsor — in front of each one. Time to get the pens moving again as part of two meet-and-greets, the first with Pop-Tarts' guests, the second with the fractional jet ownership company, NetJets.
Between autographs, Kristy Lee Cook tugs at a bracelet on Archuleta's left wrist. It reads "Archie." A fan gave it to him.
"The crazy thing is, no one has ever called me that before this show," says Archuleta, who is now called that exclusively to distinguish him from the other David.
Cook ascribes Archuleta's huge appeal to the fact that he's "the perfect gentleman." Albeit one she's trying to toughen up. Trained in martial arts, she's teaching him "how to really punch," she says. "He could use some practice."
She says she's had no time to work out since her Idol adventure began. Instead, keeping her motor running means catching shut-eye when she can. And the occasional artificial boost. "I had a can of Red Bull the other day, my first in three years," she says. "I swear, I'm still wound up from it."
The special autograph session over, Eze and David Cook begin the long underground walk to the stage for soundcheck. Cook is carrying a massive framed certificate, showing that a star has been named after the Idol winner.
"Cool, huh?" Cook says.
Eze fires back, "Of course, that's likely a theoretical star."
Cook laughs. "Yeah," he says, "just like me."
Suddenly, a human horn sounds.
"Beep, beep," Smithson says. "Jump on the Carly Express."
Smithson has commandeered a large electric cart. Malubay hops on, followed by others.
"My father-in-law has these carts at his place in Florida, and I love to drive them," Smithson says. She hits the pedal.
It's difficult to tell if those are squeals of delight.
At rehearsals, humor helps lighten the mood
The group is on stage, rehearsing their final number. Time to ham it up as technicians check sound levels.
Kristy Lee Cook, White and Malubay lie on their sides, lifting one leg to the beat in a mock workout. Johns runs up and down a small center-stage staircase as if he's at the gym. Next, they all start doing stomach crunches, laughter drowned out by the thumping beat.
About 90 minutes left before showtime. The group scatters. Eze disappears with his portable video game, deep into a round of Pokémon. The women start hair and makeup, while Johns parks himself in front of an office whose makeshift sign says, "Chiropractor," a useful fixture on a tour that's seen its share of scrapes and bumps (David Cook's knee, Johns' elbow).
"It's been hard to stay fit," Johns says, lamenting his inability to hit the tennis courts. "But I will say, being a celebrity doesn't suck."
He's referring to the tour's stop in Portland, Ore., home of Nike, which gave him a VIP tour.
Johns brought along David Cook, and the two walked out "with a lot of swag," Johns says, pointing at his sneakers. "Roger Federer's personal line of casual shoes. You can't buy these," says Johns, eyes alight. "I don't know how long I'll be a celebrity. Might as well enjoy."
Cook ambles by. The two communicate in a shorthand usually reserved for siblings, all nudges, winks and quips.
"We have the same sense of humor," Cook says. "But, ultimately, this tour isn't about me or David (Archuleta) or Mike, it's about saying thank you to all these people who voted for us."
Showtime — 7:10 sharp — nears. A few Idols dash back to the commissary for dinner. Fried chicken and king crab legs. Plates are light.
Closer to the stage, White and Smithson harmonize while getting their makeup applied. David Cook and Castro both are on cellphones, Cook pacing incessantly while Castro squats near an equipment dolly. Neither are in a rush because they don't come on until the second half of the show.
Nearby, a man dressed as a Pop-Tart tugs on his cartoon gloves, then poses for a picture with the crew before heading out to clown around with the crowd. Castro does a double take.
It's showtime, and the livin' ain't easy …
Eze kicks things off with a blast of soul, which Malubay stretches into diva-ish R&B. Johns switches into rock mode, predictably crushing with Aerosmith's "Dream On", his Idol swan song.
Kristy Lee Cook is a revelation, singing in a pure country voice. Her electric blond hair and sequined body win over the formerly disinterested dads in the audience. During Lee Greenwood's God Bless the USA, folks tear up.
Smithson brings back the rock vibe. She's spot-on with "Heart's Crazy On You", and the crowd lets her know it. "Wow," she says. "A year ago, we all had regular jobs. Now we're here playing to you. That's crazy."
White softens the mood with her set, typified by her barefoot performance of Let It Be.
Smiling is mom Danielle Achepohl, here with four young girls. "If you have kids who love music, there aren't many shows you can bring them to," she says. "This is clean."
The first half ends with a video nod to the charity effort Idol Gives Back. All those who have performed so far return to the stage for U2's "Pride" ("In the Name of Love"), which then gives way to a Guitar Hero audience-participation session.
Backstage, Eze is off by himself, video game in hand. He smiles easily, but his voice is hushed.
"I guess I'm a loner generally," he says. "But the audience does give me so much. Excuse me." He disappears off toward the chiropractor's office.
Smithson walks by. "Have you seen the keys to this golf cart? I want to go for another ride," she says. The tour has been "a lot more work" than she expected, between the travel and the incessant autograph sessions, not to mention the concerts. "I'm not sure when Motley Crue gets up, but it's not when we do."
The upside, she says, is being able to sharpen her act without worrying about whether it's Beatles week or what Simon Cowell might say about her outfit. "I feel I'm stronger all the way around, from my personality to my voice," she says.
Kristy Lee Cook nods. "On the road, it's been so satisfying to hear fans say, 'We didn't really like you that much on the show, but we love you now.' "
Archuleta brings the show to a crescendo
On stage, Castro's ukulele is mistakenly left unplugged, but he perseveres. Mercado scores a standing ovation after a blistering version of Beyoncé's Listen.
Then comes the Boy Wonder, recalling Beatlemania. The structural integrity of the arena is in doubt as Archuleta rises from the floor, seated at a piano, to perform Robbie Williams' Angels.
"All we're missing is people on stretchers," says Jeff Archuleta, mouthing every lyric.
After Hello, Idol winner Cook whips out a video camera. "I've been filming every audience on this tour to remind me of this experience, so make some noise," he says. It does.
"We're done!" White says after the Idols' Don't Stop the Music finale.
Not even close.
More fans, and more autographs
Back in T-shirts, jeans and sneakers, the Idols return to their fans. This time, the crowd lines 100 yards of fence, three deep. Nearly two dozen police keep an eye on things, though teen girls tend to pose a threat only to eardrums.
For an hour, 10 singers no one knew a year ago sign shirts and posters and newspaper clippings, collect candies, brownies and kisses, and generally bond with a populace that may stay loyal. Or may move on to Season 8's winners.
But for now, they're theirs.
"I'm tired, sure," Johns says. "But you get energy from these people. Just look at them."
The shrieks erase all thoughts of sleep.
On the road again …
The fans won't leave. But there's a schedule to keep. As the flier distributed to the Idols notes, "Tomorrow is a show day in Columbus, Ohio. O'nite drive: 370 miles/6 hours. Move watches forward an hour."
Rain is in the air. Lightning, too.
Johns heads to the boys' bus. On the way, he wraps Archuleta in a bear hug. The youngest Idol squeals in surprise.
"Come on, mate," Johns says. "Time to go."
Another night, another city.