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American Cheese

The overwrought ballads! The corny dialogue! Trenyce! Help -- we can't stop watching American Idol. Inside the lives of the frenzied finalists

Saturday, 3 P.M., Academy Of Television Arts & Sciences, North Hollywood

''This is the only time, hopefully, you'll see this group happy,'' scoffs American Idol judge Simon Cowell, standing in front of the competition's 12 finalists. Tonight, none of them will be humiliated -- or more importantly, eliminated. It's just one of the countless publicity stops for this not-so-dirty dozen. During a Q&A discussion sponsored by the Academy, the contestants babble on about how much they love each other. Kimberly Caldwell (the blond one) says she'd be just as happy if someone else won. Trenyce (nee Lashundra Cobbins) is just thrilled to have made it this far. The overflowing audience of 1,100 applauds and blows kisses.

''All that humbleness, the love, the friendship, the 'we're all winners, no one's a loser' bit. It's bullshit,'' Simon later gripes. ''I've never heard so much crap in my life.''

If this is crap, it's the most addictive crap that Fox has ever slung. Now the network's highest-rated show, American Idol single-handedly (okay, with a little help from Joe Millionaire) rescued Fox from a horrific fall season (think girls club). The show pulls in an average 22 million viewers a week (up 66 percent from last year) and has lifted the ratings of everything around it: 24, That '70s Show, and Bernie Mac are all performing at season highs. Fox, which never met a cow it didn't milk, allowed Idol's producers to choose 12 finalists, instead of 10, so the show would extend well into May sweeps.

While last year's favorites came in cute, neatly wrapped front-runner packages (Kelly, Justin, Tamyra), this year -- not to get too profound or anything -- America is clearly questioning what it values in an Idol. Is it looks (Carmen, Trenyce, Kimberly Caldwell, Julia)? Voice (Kimberley Locke, Clay, Ruben)? Suaveness (Corey)? Personality (Rickey, Charles)? Or, in wartime, will the country rally around its patriot (Marine Josh, whose unit had not been called up at press time)? The only thing we know for sure is that rebelliousness doesn't play well: Pink-haired bigmouth Vanessa was the first finalist to be sent packing.

Anxious to see what happens when the cameras aren't rolling, EW secured extensive behind-the-scenes access to all the talent -- and ex-Idoler Kristin Holt. (More on her later.)

TUESDAY 10:00 A.M. -- QUIXOTE STUDIOS, L.A.

''Daaaawg!'' Slang-slinging judge Randy Jackson gets out of his massive white Range Rover to greet me at EW's photo shoot of the judges. I ask him if it would be appropriate for me, a pasty Jewish girl, to use the word ''dawg'' in conversation. ''Yo, you're from New York,'' he assures me. ''You can say dawg.'' While Simon, Randy, and host Ryan Seacrest are touched up and photographed Brady Bunch-style (Paula Abdul is running late because she insists on having her hair and makeup done at home), I embark on a mission to get invited to ''Boys Night Out.''

You see, Randy told me that he, Simon, and Ryan hang each week after the show for an off-the-record dishfest. ''We poke fun at ourselves more than anything else,'' Simon says. No discussion of how hot the girl contestants are? ''Yeah, but they're not. And I've got to be honest with you -- they're too young for me. Ryan [Starr] was cute last year, but she was 19 or 20. The mothers are actually cuter.''

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