The high-pressure, insult-laden sing-off AMERICAN IDOL makes for great TV. But when the bickering is done, will the show really give these pop-star wannabes a jump on their careers?

Brace yourself, america: you’re about to be critiqued by Simon Cowell. After trashing scores of starry-eyed youngsters as a judge on Fox’s summer talent show American Idol: The Search for a Superstar, the grumpy record-label executive has some choice words for you, the viewing public, who have been voting certain contestants through to subsequent rounds while sending others packing. Oh, God, here we go…”I think the audience at home is actually taking their role in this very seriously,” says Cowell, who was also a panelist on the show’s British big brother, Pop Idol. ”They’ve got it absolutely spot-on week to week. I think the American audience is much more sophisticated than the English audience, I really do believe that.”

Whew, now we can relax.

The show’s remaining contestants, however, aren’t quite so lucky. After starting with 10,000 hopefuls, only a handful of idol wannabes are left, and one will be eliminated every seven days until the winner is announced Sept. 4. ”The pressure gets higher each week,” says cohost Ryan Seacrest. ”And they feel it.” Adds judge Paula Abdul: ”There’s no learning curve for these kids. They’re being thrown into the deep end with sharks.”

Think about it: Three months ago, they were showbiz neophytes; now, they’re performing live in front of millions of people on a weekly basis. ”It’s a hideous process,” says R.J. Helton, 21, of their rehearsal schedule. ”We have two hours, tops, with the vocal teacher. Even before we finish a show, we have to pick a song for the next week and start practicing [it] while we’re practicing for the [current] show. So you’ve got all these songs in your head, you’re trying to remember the words — it’s crazy.” Once on stage, the contestants have only 90 seconds, as 19-year-old Ryan Starr puts it, ”to sing all the high notes you can, move all you can move, and smile all you can smile.” Adding to the stress, there appears to be no carryover goodwill in the voting from week to week, so one bad showing is all it’ll take to ruin your chance at the grand prize: a recording deal with Cowell’s record label, BMG. ”It seems as if people are voting for performances rather than performers,” says show coexecutive producer Nigel Lythgoe.

Which isn’t to say the finalists don’t also get treated as full-fledged celebs. ”We’ve been through the mall and people literally mobbed us,” says Helton. ”We had to have security. It was insane.” After one show, recalls Starr, ”I walked outside and four modeling agents came up trying to spit their little game at me.” (She had to ignore them: Fox has them under exclusive contract through December.)

”I turned in a demo CD about a year and a half ago to a guy at MTV,” says Nikki McKibbin, 23. ”He never called me. Two days ago he calls my cell phone and goes, ‘I’ve been trying to get a hold of you for a whole year!’ I’m like, ‘Whatever, man! You’re trying to get a hold of me now because I got some good airtime.”’

Episode Recaps

American Idol

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.

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