Excerpt: 'Heart Full of Soul'

Before the finale, we were both being held in the costume change rooms just off the side of the stage—positioned there so that the stage managers didn't have to run too far to get us into position. For our first appearance of the night, we were wearing white—not exactly my favorite color. I guess I've never felt innocent enough to pull it off, plus I already have hair that color.

As the seconds ticked away, I thought about everything that had led to this big moment. I was proud that I'd played the American Idol game so well, that my strategy had paid off—so far, at least. From the beginning my main focus was turning my biggest disadvantage into an advantage. The undeniable truth is that by nearly every standard, I didn't fit in. I was older and fatter, and I had gray hair. So I decided the smart thing to do was embrace my oddness for all it was worth—like they say, vive la diffŽrence. People who worked on Idol tell me that I stood out from the beginning as someone who was thinking ahead. Early in the competition, when I was discussing a particular performance with our show director, Bruce Gowers, and Debbie, they asked if I wanted to go out into the audience during the number. I told them I was saving that move for later in the series. Much later, they'd tell me they were shocked by my display of confidence. They realized I was thinking weeks down the line, while the other contestants were all just trying to survive week to week.

Another time Debbie kidded me about my gut, which, unfortunately, had gotten more noticeable during all those weeks with easy access to free catering tables. "Watch out, Taylor, you've got a little belly there," she said as nicely as those words can be said. I looked her straight in the eye and replied, "Hey, middle America loves that belly." And you know, I don't think I was too far off. America loved my belly more than Ace Young's six-pack. I understood middle America because that's where I'm from. That's who I am. I'm not from Sherman Oaks, California. I'm from Birmingham, Alabama, and that's as middle America as you can get—okay, perhaps not geographically, but in every other way.

As a guy whose hair began turning gray at fourteen, I was pretty used to standing out from the pack. For years, my many flaws held me back. But once I got on American Idol I began to see that not being perfect—or looking perfect— could pay off in a huge way. If America wanted flaws they could relate to, I had plenty to go around. And when the show was over and all the votes were counted, I figured there'd be plenty of time to work on that belly. Standing there backstage waiting for the Idol finale to begin, I wondered for a moment if I'd have to settle for second place. After years of struggle, though, I knew that getting the consolation prize wouldn't be enough. Deep down, I think I needed an undeniable sign that the crazy dream I'd chosen of making music was the right one. Winning would be that sign.

All I ever really wanted was to be recognized for making the soulful music that had saved me as a young man. I thought of my dad out in the crowd, sitting with his second wife and their son. We were all cool now, and I was glad to have them there. My mom had come to the show to watch once too. As I'll tell you about shortly, there were bumpy family histories all around me, but it was still good to see my dad there. At long last, he was getting confirmation that I wasn't the good-for-nothing bum he worried I might become.

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