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Katharine McPhee: The Idol Next Door

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Miss America looks? Check. A new BMW? Check. Teacup Chihuahua? Yup. Katharine McPhee has all the makings of a diva, until a Starbucks run reveals her inner prudence. “I’m very conscientious with my money,” McPhee confesses. “I’m like, ‘Do I need a grande latte? Do I need to spend that extra 50 cents?”

If McPhee has learned anything from growing up in Los Angeles, it’s that fame and fortune aren’t everlasting. And even after coming in second on American Idol last May, she says she’s still the same girl next door. But fans who buy her self-titled CD, due Jan. 30, might wonder what happened to the neighborhood. First, there’s the racy cover, which features McPhee straddling a chair in thigh-high patent leather boots. Then there’s the music: 12 tracks, three cowritten by McPhee, none anything like “Over the Rainbow.” As McPhee says of the decision to exclude her signature Idol ballad, “I’m 22, and that song aged me like 40 years!” Free from the confines of the show, McPhee says her varied musical tastes (funk, pop and dance) are well represented. “I know people are expecting the Celine Dion, Barbra Streisand power ballads, but that wasn’t the direction I wanted to go in,” she says. “These songs are much more me.”

For Idol viewers, the real McPhee was a bit of a mystery. Reserved while secretly in recovery from bulimia, she admits she “didn’t try to win. I just tried to get by. I think I came off aloof and kind of dry. When people meet me they are like, ‘Wow, she’s pretty normal.'”

In reality, McPhee is a girl’s girl who loves a good bargain (naturally she didn’t pay retail for her car, which she got by trading in the Ford Mustang convertible she received on the Idol finale) and who is always up for a cuddle with her “baby,” 7-month-old puppy Nena. Home is a two-bedroom Sherman Oaks condo, a short drive from where she grew up. “I have a mortgage now. It’s like, ‘Please let my record sell!'” jokes McPhee. She and her boyfriend of two years, actor Nick Cokas, 41, aren’t living together but, says McPhee, “things are great.”

In fact, the couple hope to develop some projects once McPhee’s album is launched. They coproduced a play that received rave reviews at New York’s Fringe Festival last summer. “He’s really smart,” says McPhee. “We love creating things together.” One thing she doesn’t like? Hitting the gym three times a week with Cokas. Still, for the first time in a long time, McPhee is comfortable with herself and, more importantly, her body. “I eat whatever I want—like last week we went to Cabo and I ate like 30 pounds of chips and guacamole!” she says. “But I put on my jeans this morning and they still fit!”

See Katharine McPhee‘s makeup tricks and more in her Celebrity Video Diary. Go to WWW.PEOPLE.COM/KAT