When we host a NEWSWEEK roundtable (say, for the Oscars or the Emmys), we do it in person, and with the doors locked so the stars can't escape. We tried that for our first American Idol roundtable, but unlike George Clooney, Anne Hathaway and Brad Pitt, the Idols are so busy that they couldn't coordinate their schedules. So this time around, we hosted our first phone roundtable, inviting four of the show's winners (Fantasia, Ruben Studdard, Taylor Hicks and Jordin Sparks) and two of the most popular finalists (David Archuleta and Kellie Pickler). Archuleta called in early—from London—and it became clear that the Idolers are like old pals. Studdard complained that he wanted to play golf with Hicks but he had to perform instead. Hicks made dinner plans with Pickler and said he was going to pop up on her tour to play harmonica. "You've got my number," she said. "Just call me." The youngsters, Archuleta and Sparks, Twittered all through our 90-minute chat. And Fantasia—well, let's just say we wish we could have had her in a locked room. Excerpts:
Setoodeh: Where is everybody?
Fantasia: I'm in Atlanta. I'm going home to my daughter. I'm on the highway.
I hope you're not driving.
Fantasia: I am driving. I like to drive.
Studdard: You in that pretty red car, girl?
Fantasia: No, I'm in my black car.
Hicks: Fantasia, you're not breaking the law as you're talking to us?
Fantasia: I'm pulling over at the Arby's.
Studdard: I'm in Virginia Beach, and I just put my wife on the plane. I'm traveling with [the musical] Ain't Misbehavin'. Thank the lord, it will be over May 17.
Sparks: I'm in L.A. right now. Just preparing for my Idol appearance. And I worked out for two hours this morning.
Archuleta: I'm in England. I'm a supporting act for a group called McFly.
Fantasia: Oh, that's big. Congratulations, Dave.
Hicks: What time is it [there]?
Archuleta: It's, like, 8.
Hicks: Is that morning or night?
Studdard: Is your room small, man?
Archuleta: Yeah. Pretty much. What's funny is that when I went to the other people's rooms the other band's members and their rooms are all bigger than mine.
Archuleta: That's OK, though. It's not like that much bigger. And it's not like I'm here anyway. I just sleep here. And Twitter.
Hicks: I'm in Costa Mesa, Calif. My run is through June of 2010 for Grease. My recordThe Distance is out, and my new single, "Seven Mile Breakdown," is being released in a few days.
Pickler: I am finally off the road. But only for the day. I got to sleep in my own bed in Nashville, so that was good. I'm lying in bed right now, with my dog. That's the man in my life.
Studdard: Kellie, how does it feel to be the prettiest girl in country music?
Pickler: Yeah, right!
Archuleta: Jordin, guess what? I was looking around the stores today, and in H&M they were playing "Young and in Love."
Sparks: It's still weird to hear myself. I didn't realize how far music's reach was until I got to go to London and Australia, and people were singing my music.
Do you all have many fans overseas?
Hicks: I don't know if you guys have traveled to Southeast Asia; they love Idol. Like the Philippines, Malaysia. I did a tour in Southeast Asia for about a month. They were tripping out. They were asking about y'all. They keep up with Idol and the contestants religiously, even in India. They're big fans of the show. I was actually in Jakarta doing Asian Idol, which is like the Asian version of American Idol.
Studdard: Somebody's Idol tour went over there. Fantasia? Is Fantasia still on?
Fantasia, are you still on the line?
Pickler: She's driving.
Hicks: She went to Arby's. She got the five for $5 at Arby's.
If you had to name one singer who influenced you the most, who would you pick?
Pickler: I would have to say for me it was Dolly Parton. She's the reason why I fell in love with country music. I think she's such an incredible singer and songwriter. I really admire her work and attitude. She carries herself with grace, and she's really set an example for anyone going into the entertainment world. She's been ripped apart in the press and pulled in every which direction, but she's always handled it with such grace.
Hicks: Hey, Kellie, do you get free tickets to Dollywood?
Pickler: I've still never been! Maybe we can have an Idol reunion at Dollywood.
Archuleta: Right now, I have Kirk Franklin on my mind. He's definitely one of the people that have had a major influence [on me]. He has a concert tonight here. But I can't see it because it's already on right now. He really introduced the soulful side, the emotional side of music that had a huge impact on me.
Hicks: I'd have to say Ray Charles. Personally, he taught me a voice can transcend the boundaries of genres of music. You can listen to Ray, and you can hear the modern sounds of country and western and jazz and swing. He just taught me to have your own voice and to be able to emote emotion, where it's blues or gospel or country.
Studdard: I would have to say Fred Hammond. I've been a fan of his since I was probably 6 years old. He's the only person I get onstage with to this day and get nervous.
Sparks: It's really hard to say just one. But my earliest memory of somebody I listened to all the time was a Christian artist named Crystal Lewis. I remember seeing her in concert in church when I was 10. My mom played her cassettes since I was born. She was so small, but she had such a powerful voice coming out of her. And then eventually, my dad played Whitney [Houston] and Mariah [Carey]. And my mom played me Heart and Pat Benatar.
Do you have any of the other Idols on your iPods?
Studdard: I have everybody.
Sparks: I do, too.
Studdard: I think I have some of Archuleta's stuff from when they performed on the show. When you did "The Long and Winding Road," dog. You killed that.
Studdard: But that's the last compliment you're going to get from me, little brother.
Pickler: I'm the only one who doesn't listen to an iPod.
Hicks: What do you listen to, the radio?
Pickler: I still buy CDs. I'm not into the whole downloading on iTunes. I like to go and buy the CD, so I can see who wrote the songs.
I want to ask you all about the idea of fame in the Internet age. Do any of you YouTube yourselves?
Sparks: I can't do it.
Studdard: All the time. People have camera phones everywhere now. You never know what could be traveling around the Internet with your face on it.
Pickler: I don't even want to know.
Archuleta: I hate seeing myself. I haven't even watched half the shows I've been on. When people play clips during interviews, I'm like, "Please turn it off."
Studdard: I look at mine to see how I can improve my performances.
Sparks: I guess I do sometimes. There are some that I watch and I'll say, "I look so stupid."
Pickler: I think you are your biggest critic.
I thought Simon Cowell was your biggest critic.
Archuleta: No. He doesn't even come close.
Do you ever read about yourselves online?
Hicks: Sometimes. Not all the time, though. I think it's best if you stay away from that monster.
Pickler: When I was first on Idol, I was so fascinated by the whole thing. You want to see what people are saying about you. Everybody's biggest fear is fear of rejection—we want to be loved. I could read 100 nice comments—"Ah, she was great" or "I loved her hair." And then I could read one negative comment, and that's the only thing I'm going to remember.
Sparks: Oh, my gosh. I'm so horrible. I'm Twittering right now.
Archuleta: It's addicting.
What are you Twittering?
Sparks: I'm telling everybody that I'm on the phone with you guys. Hold on. I'm typing it right now.
Hicks: I'm doing it, too.
Is that why you're so quiet?
Pickler: OK, Ruben. You and I have to get on Twitter.
Studdard: I guess so. I'm on Facebook telling everybody I'm on the phone with you guys.
Pickler: I'm still on MySpace.
You're still on MySpace?
Pickler: What's funny is, when we were on Idol, they started a MySpace [page] for all of us. For two years, I didn't even have the password. I just got my password. I have a Facebook [page] that the label started, but I don't have the password.
Taylor, will you show Kellie how to do this the next time you see her?
Hicks: Yes. I will make sure I bring Kellie up to speed on any Internet activity.
Can you tell me the story of what it was like to audition for
Sparks: I'll go first. I'd actually been an Idol freak. I watched the show every year. I was 12 when Kelly Clarkson won. I wanted to sing on a big stage like that, but I had no idea there'd be six seasons and I'd actually be able to audition. I came to L.A. to audition. I remember I got there at 2 o'clock in the morning. They didn't get [other] people until 8. They didn't start auditioning until 11. She had me sing four songs. I was told no. I went back home and said, "It's not the end of the world. I'm not going to start singing." [But] I kept singing. I did a local Idol contest called "Arizona Idol." I won that, and they sent me to the Seattle auditions. They had me sing five songs, and I think I was the first person to get a gold ticket.
Did anyone else get turned down the first time they auditioned?
Sparks: Oh, whatever! Everybody made it through. OK!
Pickler: I got turned down at a news station. It was like a FoxNews; they'd pay for you to go. I auditioned and didn't make it.
David, I read you almost didn't audition because you had a summer job.
Archuleta: I was like, "Why do I want to waste my time and buy a ticket and fly all the way to San Diego and get turned down?" I got there at 2 in the morning, too. I did all the waiting. When I got to the table, I sang a song. They said, "Sing something else." They said, "Thanks for auditioning, but unfortunately none of you are what we're looking for." I was like, "That was fast. Turned down in 20 seconds." On my way out, they were like, "Hey, can you come back here?" I kept walking because I didn't think they were talking to me. Then they told me they were just messing with me.
They said no as a joke?
Pickler: They love to toy with your emotions on that show.
Sparks: They're so mean sometimes. It makes for great TV, though.
What happens backstage when you're crowned the next American Idol?
Studdard: You go to work.
Hicks: I probably had two and a half to three hours of sleep in a 36-hour time period. For a span of 12 to 24 hours, to a certain degree, you're the most recognizable face on the planet. There's a lot of people wanting a piece of you.
Sparks: I was so tired from all the rehearsals that you had to do. I remember winning and all the exhaustion came over me. And then they were like, "Jordin, we're going to do press." I won at 5 p.m. I don't think I got finished until midnight.
Studdard: Not including the party, huh?
Sparks: And then the party was there, and I was like, "I don't want to go to this thing." And they're like, "It's for you."
Studdard: Who's coming to the finale?
Sparks: I'll be here in L.A. I don't know if I'm going, though.
Hicks: I was on last week. I was a little nervous.
Sparks: I watched. You did great.
Studdard: I was nervous, too, when I performed in March.
Archuleta: I sucked when I went on.
Did you watch it again later?
Archuleta: No. I just knew I did bad. I was so nervous. I hadn't been nervous in so long. The second I saw Simon and Kara and their faces, I was like, "Oh my gosh, they're going to critique me." I wasn't expecting to feel that way. It really freaked me out.
Sparks: I remember when I went back for the finale, and I had to perform my song. Idol does something to you. It was exciting, but it was slightly traumatic. I think I'm scarred from that. Every time I walk back to Idol, it brings me back to standing there and getting judged, and thinking that people have to vote for me still.
After you're done with the tour, how much compromise is there when you're cutting your first album?
Studdard: It depends on who you're making the album with. If it's Clive Davis, there's a lot of compromise.
Studdard: He's just that kind of dude, man. He makes great music. But you have to be willing to compromise. You'll fall in love with music that you feel like is your best stuff, and he'll say, "I don't like it. Go back and record again."
Taylor, you worked with Clive, too, right?
Hicks: Yup. Clive, first and foremost, he's a music lover. He loves the art of music. Once you start working with him, you base your relationship off the fact that he loves music.
Ruben, there was a point where both you and Taylor were dropped from your labels at the same time. What happened?
Studdard: In my situation, that was something for me that was blown out of proportion. I was gone from J Records for five months. That was a decision between myself, Simon Fuller and Clive. We didn't want to renew the option. The way it came out was just, "Ruben got shot in the back by J Records." I was like, "Wow, really? That's how it happened?"
Hicks: I wanted to own my own label and possibly sign acts in the future, and I had a direction about where I wanted to go. Both the record label and I thought we had a fair handshake and went on our way.
Studdard: But you got dropped, right?
Hicks: We didn't renew the option. No. Ruben, now that you look back on it, was it a good decision?
Studdard: Oh, yeah, man. I don't have any regrets. I've been more involved in the process of making my new album, which comes out on May 19, than I have any other time in my life.
Why do some Idols come off the show doing better than others?
Sparks: I don't think there is a rhyme or reason to it. If you want it, it's going to happen. You've got to work for it. I don't know. I get asked that question a lot, and I still don't have a good answer.
Studdard: When we come off the show, everybody should have the ability to sell as many records as you get votes. I think the one thing that happens is, record companies are in a mad shuffle to find your target audience. Sometimes there's a disconnect between a lot of people that vote for you and the music you release. For Carrie Underwood, for instance, she sold 6 million records on her first album, and it's because they've always had the direction of "She's a country artist." For me, I never really grew up listening to a lot of rap music. When I first came out, Clive's whole situation was to make me as urban as possible. So you know, when I was on the show, being the balladeer, my record came out, and I was in the hip-hop and R&B section. And I'm sure, Taylor, you've had things you didn't get to connect with. Because Soul Patrol, that's who you are.
Hicks: The measuring stick should not be, for all of us, in terms of record sales but what we do over the span of our careers. I think the media gets so caught up with the here and now; for all of us this is just the beginning of our careers.
Sparks: I'm definitely going to let Ruben and Taylor answer the hard questions next time.
Taylor, did you see Simon give an interview where he said you weren't a star?
Hicks: Um, somebody told me about that.
Why is he still picking on you?
Hicks: I think he likes to get a rise out of the American public. He gave me a standing ovation on the show, which blew me away, and [afterward] the show was very complimentary about the song and the direction I'm going and the look.
Did they want you to look a certain way after you were done with the show?
Hicks: They wanted to dye my hair, but I wouldn't let them. They were like, "We're going to put dye in it in your sleep."
Sparks: I'm so glad you didn't. I remember being on the show, and they were like, "You have to step outside your comfort zone." All decisions come down to us. We have people who help; they have the stylist there. But we have to make the decision.
There's a misconception that if you're famous, you're also automatically rich. Is it overwhelming managing your finances?
Studdard: It's a work in progress.
Pickler: I think it's awesome how much more family I have now. I have cousins in every state.
Studdard: Kellie, I'm your cousin. Didn't you know that? What happened to my Christmas check, girl?
Ruben, there were reports that you were behind on your taxes.
Studdard: At the base of it, it's true. The whole story is, in 2003, my godfather, who I'd known my whole life, stole $500,000 from me. Over the past three or four years, I've been going back to the IRS. I didn't want to pay penalties on the money I owed. That's all it was. When we finally got it done, there was nobody to say, "Ruben really did file his taxes." It's always the bad side of s--t—excuse my language—when things go down.
Are you all watching this season?
Studdard: My wife TiVos the show. But I've been working, man. I'm onstage every night at 7:30 p.m.
Sparks: I've been working. But I have been keeping up with it. My grandmother TiVos every single episode.
Hicks: I'm watching more this season than I've ever watched American Idol my whole life.
Who do you think will win?
Hicks: Who does everybody think is going to win? If you say one person, then the media is going to say you don't like the other person. That's what happened last year. I picked you, David, to win. And they said I have this big thing with David Cook.
Sparks: I like all of them. I literally voted for every single person.
Do you think there could be an openly gay American Idol?
Sparks: I definitely do.
Studdard: If they can sing.
Sparks: They've got to be able to sing, and they've got to have America's vote. I think that could definitely happen.
Jordin, do you actually vote?
Sparks: I have an AT&T phone, so it's free.
Hicks: I've had an older couple come up to me and ask me for an autograph and say their phone bill is $400 to $500, voting and texting for Idol. When people say they invest in your career on the show, they invest their time. But they also invest their money. Even younger people come up to me and say, "My cell-phone bill is $200 extra this month."
Sparks: Sometimes people feel like you owe them something. I love meeting them, but sometimes it gets scary when they get angry at you when you make them wait. The Idols all have a different relationship with our fans. They all feel like they know us, because they grew with us on the show. You have to be careful with what you say or how far you let people in.
Archuleta: I don't think they realize it's a one-way thing going on. You're not getting to know them.
Sparks: Do you get people coming up to you and giving you a hug?
Sparks: Do they throw their underwear?
Archuleta: That's never happened before.
Hicks: It will happen. Trust me.
Taylor, you get underwear thrown at you?
Hicks: Yeah. The last tour I did in the States, we collected maybe 2,000 pairs of panties.
Sparks: I hope they were clean.
Hicks: I dodged and ducked every single one of them.
What did you end up doing with them?
Hicks: I think we actually, as a joke, put them in the drummer's bass drum head. So when he was hitting the drum, all the panties would be flying in the air like a popcorn machine.
Pickler: Because of the relationship I don't have with my mom, the most weird thing I get is women who want to adopt me. It's the most uncomfortable thing ever. They think I'm still a child. I have noticed [that] a lot of times, they don't want you to grow up. They want you to remain the same you were on the show. I'm not a teenager anymore. I'm a woman.
Studdard: Do people ever walk up to you guys, if you're at the airport chilling, and say, "Why aren't you smiling?"
Sparks: Oh, my God, yes.
Studdard: What's that about?
Hicks: You're smiling all the time, David. You don't get that question because you're inherently happy all the time.
Any last questions for each other?
Sparks: When are we all going to see each other?
Hicks: This needs to be a dinner conversation.
Sparks: Maybe we should plan it a year ahead.
Can we do it at Jordin's house?
Sparks: Yeah. Everybody come to my house. My nana will cook.
Archuleta: What does she make?
Sparks: Really good chicken and dumplings and wild-rice soup and pigs in a blanket. She could make whatever you guys wanted. Just send in your favorite recipes.