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On with the Showdown!

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Sunup on L.A.’s Mulholland Drive and the only evidence Tamyra Gray ever dwelled here with the other American Idol finalists is a note she left behind, like some message from a reality-TV ghost. Neatly printed in red marker on an erasable white board, it can be found in the kitchen of the 13-bedroom playhouse that serves as home to the finalists of the popular FOX talent competition. “Hello guys,” it reads. “I am not good at goodbyes…. You are all so special, gifted and talented. Let this be your best week ever on this show. No need 4 stress or worries. Have fun. I so don’t want any of you 2 be stressed this week.”

It’s very Tamyra, sweet and thoughtful. But no need 4 stress? Only an ex finalist could come up with that mantra. Gray, to many ears the most accomplished pop stylist on Idol, left the house Aug. 22, less than 24 hours after millions of call-in voters unexpectedly gave the 23-year-old from Norcross, Ga., the boot—provoking howls of disbelief across an Idol-worshipping nation. (The audience for the show, has grown steadily to more than 15 million.) Fellow contestant RJ Helton, 21, endured the same ritual the previous week. “We have a couple hours to pack and leave by Thursday morning,” he says. “I cried the entire time.”

What with their waking hours packed with song rehearsal, voice coaching, wardrobe selection, promotional appearances and daydreams of CDs flying out of stores—the top prize is a recording contract—no one at Idol Manor has time to mourn Tamyra this morning. By the time this article hits newsstands, in fact, there will be but two finalists, destined to face off in an hour-long pop-song duel Sept. 3. The winner will be revealed the next night in a two-hour special.

Kelly Clarkson, 20, of Burleson, Texas, is hunting around for throat lozenges. By now her voice is so frayed she downs a capful of olive oil before singing. “I take it the hard way,” she says. “It’s very, very nasty.” Justin Guarini, already a pop idol to the girls who scream his name when he steps out of limos at events, needs to go accessory shopping. Thanks to a little water and moisturizer, his cloud of dark-blond curls has already sprung to full attention. “It’s easy,” says the 23-year-old from Doylestown, Pa. “It kind of does its own thing.”

Nikki McKibbin, 23, the vermilion-haired, tongue-pierced, rough-singin’ gal from Grand Prairie, Texas, is trying to decide on which color—or, not one for understatement, colors—to wear for a photo shoot. She may also have, oh, a concern or two about her survival chances. On the Tuesday-night concert shows, she has stood there smiling in the face of criticism (and a smidgen of praise) from the celebrity judges: singer-dancer Paula Abdul, record producer Randy Jackson and brickbat-hurling British music exec Simon Cowell. On the Wednesday broadcasts, where hosts Ryan Seacrest and Brian Dunkleman reveal the results of the viewers’ phone-in vote, Nikki has consistently, barely skirted doom, like a French noblewoman in a punk wig expecting to be summoned to the guillotine. “I’m sure I’m out,” she whispered to Seacrest on Aug. 21.

But this morning Nikki is surprisingly calm and in control, makeup off and girlish freckles exposed. “I’m not a tough, gripey rocker child,” she says. “I’m a very quiet person.” A single mom (to Tristen, 4, who’s home in Texas), Nikki says she’s used to getting by on little sleep. Besides, “This is all just so normal now.”

To anyone else it’s the classic, breathless tale of young lives transformed overnight. “The pressure is amazing,” says Randy Jackson. “Two months ago they were just kids trying to make it.” When Idol producers began their open auditions last spring, Justin was selling home-alarm systems door-to-door, Nikki was staging karaoke parties at bars, and Kelly was a cocktail waitress. Now actors on other FOX series sometimes seem like fans. “You would be such a huge Broadway star,” Malcolm in the Middle‘s Jane Kaczmarek told Kelly. But the pace is so exhausting, even with a small fleet of personal assistants and chauffeurs, “there are days I just don’t shower,” says Kelly. Lately, she has managed on as little as three to four hours’ sleep. “I do worry about them,” says Idol‘s co-executive producer Nigel Lythgoe. “The stress level of learning songs and performing them live on television is huge. Most artists never do that in a lifetime.” Which is why the show keeps a psychologist on call for the kids. (He checks in with them regularly.)

Forget the Freud, says Simon Cowell: “They’re about to become rich and famous—we should all have that pressure.” Paid an undisclosed fee per show (plus a lump $2,000 sum for clothes), the final 10 will all sing on (and receive royalties from) a compilation album. In October they’ll reunite for a concert tour. Above all these kids are living out their dreams. “I’ve spent 23 years preparing for this,” says Justin, who was 4 when he made his singing debut in a boys’ choir. “I could be sitting at a desk or in a cubicle. I’d go insane.”

He definitely wouldn’t have taken up temporary residence in a rented 13,500-sq.-ft. mansion that makes MTV’s Real World look like a dormitory of painted cinder block. “It’s a total bubble,” says Seacrest, although Justin prefer to calls it “our sanctuary.” With sweeping views of the San Fernando Valley, the home contains eight bathrooms, a pool, a Jacuzzi and steam room (“my favorite thing in the morning,” says Kelly), plush furniture in hip colors—chartreuse and purple—two big-screen TVs, a rowing machine, a treadmill, a Foosball table and a laundry room. A chef prepares, meals to order. (Justin and Kelly will have steak tonight, but Nikki doesn’t eat red meat: chicken for her.) The kitchen is stocked with snack staples: Cap’n Crunch, Oreos, peanut butter, jelly, processed cheese slices, ice cream. Kelly often grabs honey-wheat bread and whips up a sandwich—turkey, ham, mustard, mayo and corn chips to add crunch: “I make ’em good.”

She has more elbowroom at the kitchen counter as the number has dwindled from 10 finalists on July 16 to these last three. No more game nights playing Twister and Cranium. The staircase that once echoed with the footsteps of Ryan Starr, 19, running up and down to exercise is silent. “It is a little lonely now,” admits Nikki, even if she once had a minor tiff with Ryan over picking a costume. Kelly, who shared a bedroom with Tamyra Gray and Christina Christian, 21, now has it all to herself. “But I miss them,” she says.

The finalists, who hug and cheer as if they were an Olympics team, claim this is genuine affection. “We’ve been through so many emotional ups and downs,” says Christina, who set the housemates’ waterworks gushing when a sinus infection forced her into the hospital on Aug. 7. “It all brought us together.” Not together enough to spark any romances—she and Nikki regard Justin “as a brother,” says Kelly. Yet even so, says Justin, the friendships are “strange and wonderful,” sort of ordinarily humdrum too. When the gang heads out to Blockbuster, they pick the movie democratically.

With the beloved Tamyra gone, who will win seems genuinely up in the air. Fans have been disturbed by the news that several hundred callers, taking advantage of high-tech computer connections, are able to cast 10,000 votes apiece in a single night. The producers, however, say this has not had a skewing effect. Has Nikki hung on because America loves the underdog? Early top dog Justin came close to losing after giving off too much attitude one week: appealing to the studio audience over the head of Cowell, who hadn’t liked his version of “Sunny.” Justin apologized on air the next week. “That was my low point,” he says. “I realized, ‘This is not who I am.’ ”

Tamyra has no such doubts. “I managed to do what I set out to do—get my voice heard,” she says. Already signed to a management contract by the show’s producers, she earned the praise of no less than pop king Burt Bacharach. “She was as good as anybody I’ve heard on television,” he says.

But right now the remaining competitors are determined to win the hearts of America and (if he has one) Simon Cowell. This morning no one notices as an assistant takes a cloth to the message board and erases Tamyra’s sweet farewell. After all, they’ve got a show to do. “There are times you want to get away,” says Guarini. “But I wouldn’t trade this for anything.”

Tom Gliatto

Alexis Chiu, Pamela Warrick and Teena Hammond in Los Angeles, Steve Helling in Atlanta, Bob Calandra in Doylestown and Alicia Dennis in Texas