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Adam Lambert gave American Idol the jumpstart it needed when the franchise began to stagnate prior to his season 8 debut. The theatrical arena rocker staked his claim as one of the show’s most watchable contestants immediately, delivering a soaring rendition of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” at his first audition. In fact, Lambert’s performance of the song was so memorable that he currently fronts and tours with the members of Queen.
Since Idol, Lambert has gone on to release three successful solo albums and is preparing to star in Fox’s Rocky Horror Picture Show. But before all that, Adam Lambert was a self-described theater kid who didn’t think he could make it far on the competition series. Ahead of American Idol‘s series finale Thursday, Lambert looked back on his audition process, his strategy to make it to the finale, and the reality television twist that producers almost instituted on his season, but didn’t.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What did you think about the show before you started?
ADAM LAMBERT: I was always a fan of the show. I remember watching the first year when Kelly Clarkson won. I’m a singer and I’ve always been a singer and a theater kid. Getting to tune in week after week and watching young singers compete, it was very exciting because we hadn’t had anything like that in the U.S. in a while.
What made you audition for the show and what was that process like?
You know, I think in the back of my head watching the show over the years I thought, “Wow, that would be really cool,” but I didn’t think I was the right kind of performer to … I didn’t think I would work on the show. I thought “Oh, I’m not the type that they look for.” And then over the years I started getting involved in my own music and writing and I had a band for a little while, and coming up to about age 27 I was all of a sudden in a moment in my career where I really wanted to make something happen, because things were sort of at a standstill for me. So I thought, “Why don’t I just try out? Why don’t I just try?,” even though I still thought, “Nah, this is a long shot.” And then week after week things just worked out. I couldn’t believe it, I was always surprised. I never thought that it was going to be as successful for me as it was and I was blown away. I was very lucky.
You had a lot riding on that audition!
It was a very high-stakes situation for me because after the initial … there are a couple of different rounds of auditions before you even see the TV judges, and after I had completed the first two rounds of auditions for the producers, I had to quit my job in order to move on because I was in a professional theater production and the rules stated that you couldn’t be under any sort of entertainment contract. So I had to cut ties and quit my job, and that was my income; that’s how I was getting my health insurance, all that stuff. I had to quit the job that I had in order to move forward, so it was a big risk for me.
When did you have to make that decision?
It was my second round and after I auditioned, the producers pulled me aside and said, “Okay, we like you, we want you to go to the next round but you can’t be doing this. You need to quit this before you go in front of the TV judges.” So when it came time to go in front of Simon [Cowell] and Paula [Abdul] and Randy [Jackson] and Kara [Diogaurdi], it was like in the back of my head, it was like “If this doesn’t work out, you’re screwed.” I got up there and it just all kind of worked. I was nervous but I felt a good connection with the judges. I was looking at them and I was chatting with them and I felt it was a good repertoire and they were paying attention. The first song that I performed for them was a Michael Jackson song — “Rock With You” — and it didn’t quite connect like I wanted it to, and they were kind of looking at me sideways. I said “Okay, okay, okay, I can do anything else, but what do you want to hear?” and they said, “What else do you have?” That’s when I performed “Bohemian Rhapsody.” That seemed to click for them and that’s what they ended up using on television. So right away I realized I have to figure out which path I take on this show. And having watched the show for a long time, there is a strategy involved. You have to be a clear idea of an artist for them to really get it. So at that point I was like, “I’m going to go for slightly more retro material on the show and that’ll sort of be my thing.”
Did you ever get used to the possibility of getting eliminated or was it always nerve-racking?
The first few episodes I was really high-strung and then after about, I think when we got down to the final 7 or 6 I was getting a lot more comfortable and sort of realizing I had a strong position in the competition, and realizing there wasn’t anybody else like me. So I sort of had my own lane to live in and it became a lot more fun. The nerves … I always got adrenaline from performing but I wasn’t as … I was more grounded as the show went on.
What about the other contestants on your season — were you as supportive of each other as the show made it seem?
We had a really great group that year. We all got along really well. It was a competition but I wasn’t the type of competitor that was … I didn’t feel competitive against the other contestants. I felt we were really competing against the game itself and against the system itself, so I felt a camaraderie with everybody. I’ve encouraged everybody to sort of help each other. I wasn’t the only one, we would run song ideas past each other and make suggestions to each other. We all wanted to do our best. It was a great group.
Do you have any fond memories of being a finalist or from the tour?
The tour was interesting. The tour was sort of like this limbo between the show and your actual recording career starting so it was a very interesting time and I was working on my album during the tour, so it was sort of a lot of my plate. It was my first time doing a stadium tour, it was my first time performing in front of that many people night after night and it was very exciting, but it was also sort of a crash course in how do you keep up your energy, how do you make sure that you’re in good voice every night? And it was my first time on a tour bus as well which is a very different style of living. And we had a lot more guys our season that we had girls. So there was a girls’ bus that was a lot more roomy and had lots of extra space. My bus was packed. It was interesting because the guys on the show, we were all from different states, we were all from different backgrounds. We were all very, very different from each other so definitely a melting pot.
What were you feeling in the moment when you found out you didn’t win American Idol?
Getting right down to the final three, I knew that at this point I had so many opportunities that were going to open up for me. And at the same time I’ve watched the show and I’ve seen that people can win or not win and that can be it for them — the show can be sort of their high point forever. And I also knew that there was the possibility of leading to bigger and better things. My initial impulse for even auditioning was just to create more [opportunities] for myself and I knew that that had already happened and when it got down to the final two — me and Kris — I was like look, we’re so different, the two of us, and I have so much respect for Kris — I think he’s such an incredible musician and such a nice guy. I was like, “Look — whatever happens, it’s gonna be cool. It’s going to be the popular vote. If people want to hear more of his kind of music then they’ll pick Kris, or if they like me better they’ll like this.” And you know, Kris won and I was happy for him. I’d already been told by the powers that be that they wanted to sign me to a major label and I got my wish. I knew I was going to make an album whether or not I won.
With the show coming to an end, what legacy do you think it will leave behind?
I think as a show it will always be remembered as this sort of amazing television and music event. I think the show came along in a time when our country needed some hope — it was right after 9/11. It was very inspiring for people to come together and root for the underdog, or root for a regular person, you know. And I also think that the music industry needed a little bit of a jolt. I think [American Idol] will always be known as a launching pad for a handful of us that has continued to put out music.
Is there anything you regret about your time on the show or that you would do differently if you had the chance?
No regrets at all. I loved it, I had a great time. I got to show who I was to America, like what I was capable of as a musician and as an artist and introduce myself to the public which is in today’s age; it’s hard to get that kind of exposure. On my season we had up to 30 million people watching every week. It was a huge viewership. I was really lucky. I was getting in front of all of those people getting to do what I did. I think if there’s anything that I would’ve liked to do any differently, it would’ve been interesting to perform more contemporary material. At the time, it was actually harder to get that kind of material approved. There’s a big process of publishing, producer approval, they have to pay for the right to perform the material. It’s a little easier to pull out older standards than it is to pull out new pop music. That would’ve been interesting.
What’s the craziest thing viewers never got to see?
We all lived together in a house the year that I was on the show, which is something I think they did only the year I was on it. They wanted to film behind-the-scenes, Big Brother-type footage. And we all collectively were like, “No.” We very politely said we do not feel comfortable with that. We did not sign up for that. You didn’t explain that that was part of the show. None of us were prepared for that. That’s not what we want to do. When you go on that show, you know what you’re in for and a lot of us didn’t really sign up to have our off time, the time that you need to recharge and rest, be on camera.
Reporting by Dana Rose Falcone
A version of this story originally appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1408–1409, available here.