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Life in the American Idol house

Dinner with the Top 7 in the Red Room continued. As some took a second helping of pizza and others checked their email on laptops, we talked about life - and the afterlife - in the Idol mansion. Being a part of American Idol includes, in addition to the grueling seven-day work schedule, living together at one of the best equipped dorms in show business, the mansion where the contestants are housed. Talking about the estate, the young singers describe a palatial estate equipped with movie theater, swimming pool and a chef on call. Despite the opulence however, life at the mansion seems to be as much dominated by decompressing as partying with their comrades. "We disappear into our little lairs," told Kris Allen.

Adam Lambert, who named "getting enough rest" as the greatest challenge of his Idol journey, said all the contestants "get tired when we're doing this much singing and practicing – and just mentally too. It's just draining. If we have the random day off here or there, or even just a couple of hours off, it's really hard to not just zone out and kind of veg out and try to focus yourself in. When I get to the house I'm not quite as social because it's like the one place that I feel like I can be quiet and relax. I'll put my headphones on or do the steam room, just chill. That's the most important part of being home for me."

Life at the mansion also brings one unexpected element – much debated is the existence of the house ghost, dubbed Phyllis by departed contestant Alexis Grace. "She lives in my room," said Allison Iraheta. "If you spent one night in my room, you'd see…. I've heard growls. I'm not lying."

Danny Gokey recounted the experience of watching a movie and the lights suddenly going on and off at random intervals. "Megan told me she saw someone walk across a room," said Allen of another departed singer, Megan Joy. Others, including Lambert, still seemed skeptical of the apparition's existence. Lil Rounds calls urgently for a change of topic, the creeps clearly hitting her.

One big concern -- not supernatural, but nearly superhuman -- is the struggle to maintain a positive outlook in the face of all the adversity that comes with Idoldom. It is hard to comprehend, even talking with them, the pressure that these young people are under. Each week in a very short period of time they are expected to create and flawlessly execute a performance that takes into account the often dizzingly contradictory advice of the judges under Ironman triathalon like schedules and then stand alone on a cold empty stage while potentially every piece of it is analyzed and torn to pieces before and by an audience of tens of millions. Whatever the potential prize, most of us would find it difficult ever to leave the house again after such an experience, but these seven subject themselves to it week after week.

"The hardest thing for me is just trying to keep my mental house in order," said Anoop Desai. "Trying to look at each day for what it is, and I think looking at the bright side of things has been a challenge for me. We all work through the criticism, but it is a completely different game from anything that we've ever done. So I think just getting used to that, finding out how you react to criticism and dealing with that."

Desai continued, speaking of the group's reactions to the criticisms they've received. "We're all nice people and we genuinely appreciate, I think, what the judges have to say. Some times that doesn't come off. It comes off as us being combative or something like that, but it really is the worst thing that can happen to you. I think it's everyone's worst nightmare, that you look like a fool in front of 30 million people. That's a nightmare for everyone. It's a combination of pressure, criticism, how we felt about our own performance, whether we're happy or disappointed in ourselves. It all comes down to that one moment.

"It's been sort of a journey for me to accept that I'm doing this for me and I have to be cognizant of what I'm doing right and that's a really important thing. Also, to realize there are millions of votes that are coming in for all of us and that we are loved, I think. That's the key."

As for keeping those feelings contained when standing before the judges, all say they've received a great deal of advice. Matt Giraud said, "I get a four-minute voice mail every week from my grandmother telling me, 'Now if they tell you this you say this. If they tell you that you're not good enough, you tell them that you'd love to have another chance and that you'll do what they like next.' I'm like, 'Thanks, grandma.'" Pause. "Every week."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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