Praising the 'American Idol' Experience

Three years ago, R.J. Helton was just 19, living in Cummings, Ga., singing and dreaming big dreams. Then all of a sudden, he was famous.

"Every magazine that I picked up, I would look at my face," he told Primetime's Cynthia McFadden "I'd be like, 'I'm in this magazine!'"

Tamyra Gray was 23. She had been trying to break into show business for a decade. And then the fairy tale came true for her, too. But, she says, "The fame isn't as important as the singing — the fame is a bonus."

Kimberley Locke, from Hartsville, Tenn., was also in her early 20s. She had packed away her dream of singing and headed off to law school. Then — "All of a sudden, I become part of this show, and everyone knows my name. Not only do they know my name, they know my life."

Helton, Gray and Locke are three of the 22 singers who became finalists during the first two seasons of Fox TV's American Idol, the runaway hit show that offered amateurs a shot at a record deal.

They beat incredible odds — competing among 160,000 entrants — and went careening into the living rooms of 30 million viewers a week.

But they also failed to win the big prize And if that wasn't tough enough, they also learned that their time in the limelight would have a real effect on their lives.

The Gremlin in the Dreamworks

Having your life open to criticism is not always a dream come true, especially if the villain in your fairy tale is Simon Cowell, the most critical of American Idol's judges.

Helton, whose musical experience was limited to the kinder world of Christian music, came under particular attack early in the first season.

Cowell called him a "loser" and "average." Cowell said Helton was only advancing because of "the sympathy vote. It has nothing to do with talent."

Months after the experience, Helton told McFadden, "I remember feeling like I was going to vomit. Constructive criticism is one thing. Being just cruel is another."

Locke also got a full dose of Cowell: He criticized her for her weight. In his book, he said she looked like an overweight librarian.

But Locke told McFadden, "I'm not going to lose 30 pounds in a week, you know … Get over it. If he didn't want me in the competition, he shouldn't have picked me."

She notes Cowell never told Ruben Studdard, the winner in the second season, to lose weight. "It is a double standard," she said.

Finding Their Place

Gray was the only one not to face Cowell's wrath. But she didn't win either. She came in fourth.

Gray says she didn't really want to win — she just wanted to get far enough to get a deal. And she did — Cowell approached her after the show. She says he told her, "Now, you get to do your album."

Locke, however, did expect to win. When she was told she was voted out in third place, she remembers thinking, "Oh my gosh, it's over. I'm not going to be on TV anymore."

She says she cried, but the moment was bittersweet. She, Studdard and Clay Aiken, who eventually finished in second place, became friends and planned to make it to the end of the show together. They did.

"If I were in the Olympics I still would get a medal. I came in third," she said. "And it wasn't in bad company."

Helton finished fifth. He says emotionally, it was a big shock. "It really hurts when you hear the other four rehearsing for the next day."

Growth Experience

When these three young singers returned home, they came face to face with the personal lives they put on hold. Each returned to a mother they adored, but all three said they had biological fathers they barely knew.

Locke's parents divorced when she was 8, and she had basically no relationship at all with her father or his side of the family — until she says she became a celebrity and they showed up for a hometown victory performance.

"That night was one of the most difficult nights for me," she says. "I wanted to look at my dad's family and say, 'You've never, ever, ever, ever been there for me. And all of a sudden, not just one of you showed up, all of you show up.' "

For Helton, the tears came when for the first time he met a half brother and sister he had never seen before.

He recalls finishing a performance and asking for the audience lights to be turned on.

"I said, 'My brother and sister are out here somewhere,' and they stood up, and everyone was just waving and being excited," he said. "They were so beautiful. It was very emotional."

For Gray, the journey has been more about learning her craft. She says she deserved to lose her round of American Idol to Kelly Clarkson: "It was the right time. You know, my voice was gone."

A Brighter Future

Gray did land a great job after Idol, but surprisingly not as a singer. She became an actress on the television series Boston Public.

She hadn't given up on music though. Her record, two years in development, is scheduled for release June 1.

But it was Locke whose music career took off this spring. She's lost 20 pounds since her Idol days, and her "Eighth World Wonder" single debuted at No. 1 on the charts.

Helton went back to Christian music as a solo artist. His album, released this spring, is called, Real Life.

"I'm definitely going to prove Simon wrong," he told McFadden. "I've grown a lot as an artist I think, this year."

Being a fallen idol is not so bad, Helton says. "I'm loving what I'm doing."

They each are. As Gray sings on The Dreamer, her new album: "God bless the dreamer."