Eighteen months after the first episode of American Idol, Justin Guarini arrives at his favorite fast-food restaurant, a Mexican joint in the San Fernando Valley. Familiar and flirtatious, he'll have his hand on your back within minutes. He still hasn't trimmed back that broccoli head of curls (''I'm not going to just cut my hair and say, 'Hey, look everybody! I'm new now! Like me!'''). He's wearing a T-shirt that some of his Kentucky fans gave him, with two lipstick smacks over his nipples, perhaps as a reminder of better days. His cell sits on the table, ringing and bleating text messages. ''Wassup, lover lady!'' he sings into the phone. ''I've been working all afternoon. I'm being interviewed. Yeah! I'm back, baby!''
Do you remember Justin? The girls used to love him, showing up in droves to the American Idol set wearing ''Lustin' for Justin'' T-shirts. But that was before he mouthed off to judge Simon Cowell and Idol audiences wondered if he was just another hack with attitude. Before he lost to Kelly Clarkson in the final round. Before their embarrassing spin-off movie, From Justin to Kelly, and his flop album. Before Clarkson and second-season kings Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard racked up multiplatinum CD sales and, for Kelly and Ruben, Grammy nominations. Before RCA knocked Guarini from its roster. Before he realized how quickly the real world can turn on a star of its own making. ''Oh, so much went wrong,'' he moans. ''It's naaasty, and people need to know the real story. As far as I'm concerned, Justin from American Idol is dead.''
Now the 25-year-old singer is starting over with new manager Benny Medina, who shepherded the likes of Jennifer Lopez to superstardom. ''I'm here to entertain,'' he says (Guarini is prone to regrettable declarations of purpose). ''To bring joy to people, to bring light to dark places of the world.'' He's currently meeting with songwriters and producers and vows to have a No. 1 album, with roots in old-school Stevie Wonder and retro funk, within the next two years. He also wants to land a solid gig on a WB-style teen drama. (In the meantime, he'll have to settle for a week on Hollywood Squares this March.) He refuses to accept that his time may have passed. ''Oh, no no no, f -- - no. I didn't go through this whole experience to fail or to be screwed over by other people. This is not the end!''
For the last several months, the Doylestown, PA., native has been shacking up at old family friend Brenda Richie's Bel Air estate. (And despite the rumors on fansites, Guarini says he's not dating her daughter, Simple Life star Nicole.) He wakes up every morning at 7:30. He has a protein shake. He spends the next two hours focusing, harnessing his energy for the day ahead. When he drives his rented Lexus IS300 to the gym -- where he meets with his trainer every day at 10 a.m. for weights and tae kwon do -- he listens to books on tape, motivational thumpers like The Alchemist or Rich Dad, Poor Dad. He eats six times a day. No meat. Doesn't drink. He goes to sleep early after downing another protein shake. ''I'm all about efficiency right now,'' he says. ''Because I have to be deadly accurate with what I'm doing with my career.... One more strike and who knows? 'Ya struck out with the movie! Ya struck out with the first album!' Three strikes and you're out.''