How did David Cook know he’d finally made it? It might’ve been when the 25-year-old singer was able to pick up the tab for a group of friends and family during a recent visit home. Or maybe it was when part of his first date with former American Idol contestant Kimberly Caldwell, 26, ended up on YouTube, much to his dismay. And then, of course, there was the moment on May 21 when he sang live before 31.7 million people after winning the seventh season of Idol. “It’s hard not to feel,” he says of the wild past few months, “like your existence has shifted.”

It has been an intense ride for the Blue Springs, Mo.-bred Cook, whose onstage highs have been tempered by his brother Adam’s ongoing battle with brain cancer. “Dave would just put whatever he was feeling back into his performance,” says fellow Idol finalist Michael Johns, who became a close friend, “and I think that’s where some of that passion came from that people fell in love with.” Now Cook is getting ready to record his debut album (due this fall from 19 Recordings/RCA), preparing to head out on the 49-city Idol summer tour beginning July 1—and trying to make sense of how his life has changed. “To me, it’s the equivalent of when you have a birthday and someone asks you, ‘Do you feel any older?'” he says. “No. I feel exactly the same as I did before all of this, and I plan to stay that way.”

You just returned from a visit home—how did it feel to relax with your friends and family?

It was nice to recharge my battery. I took a bunch of people out to dinner—I’m in a position now where I’m able to properly say thank you for everything they’ve done for me, and to be able to do that feels great.

How is your family handling it all?

They’re excited. They’ve expressed concern about not getting to see me as much, but I’ll get to see them again at the end of August [when the Idol tour comes to Kansas City].

What does it mean to you to be able to raise awareness about Adam’s illness and to have had him at the finale to support you?

Having Adam there was great. He was kind of tucked away in the back, so I couldn’t see him, but just knowing he was there was special—it was a pretty big comfort…. I’m going to start a foundation. The goal will primarily be funding for juvenile and adult brain cancer research.

In addition to your foundation, what’s next?

I start the writing process for the record. We’re going to try to get a producer by the end of the month, so that’s exciting, and then of course the tour.

Who are you especially excited to hang out with on the bus?

Mike Johns, actually. He’s really fun and goofy and he keeps things light, so that will be great.

Tell us about the “heartthrob” tattoo on your chest!

It was, um…when I was living in Tulsa, I put out a record, and this arts-and-entertainment magazine in Tulsa called me “Tulsa’s Newest Heartthrob.” My friends razzed me about it, and so [Heartthrob] became this nickname, and I just thought, Why not? It’s a little heart. It’s probably about a year old.

Simon called you “one of the nicest, most sincere” Idol contestants ever—but when a woman calls you a “nice guy,” isn’t that the kiss of death?

It can be! I remember when I was in middle school, I asked a girl out and she said she was sorry, but she felt I was in the “friendship zone”—so that’s a bad place to be.

You are very popular with the female population, ages 10 to 70.

Wow, that’s a nice demographic.

How do you feel about all those Cougars for Cook out there?

[Laughs] I love it! I mean, you know, age is a number. I think it’s the age at which you carry yourself that’s important. There is something very sexy about an older woman. I don’t know what it is.

Did you always have a lot of girlfriends?

I guess whatever the average would be. I was able to garner the interest of the occasional female, but I wasn’t trigger-happy on relationships. Medium!

You were named “Mr. Jaguar” of your senior class. Explain.

Oh God! Mr. Jaguar—that’s right! Mr. Jaguar was this pageant that my high school did every year. It’s a guy pageant; there are four categories: formal wear, swimsuits and some others. I bought black boxer briefs and then took two pieces of black poster board and put them around me and wrote “censored” on them.

Do you envision yourself getting married and having kids someday?

I think marriage is a long way off for me. I’m 25 years old and I’ve got the world to learn. But I think eventually I would love to settle down and have a family and bring some kids into the world. Time will tell.

You strike a lot of women as very romantic.

I’m very much a hopeless romantic. I still kind of believe in movies.

Have you ever not liked your appearance?

Yeah. Going to college, I got the Freshman 15 and the Sophomore 15 and then the Junior 15! My metabolism slowed down and I had horrible eating habits. But now I’m trying to turn this one ab into six.

Are you working out?

My working out is just doing everything [Idol producers] have got me doing. It’s just a matter of trying to find a better diet and then getting into the exercise. I’ve got to get into tour shape!

You have 14 hits on Billboard’s Hot Digital Songs, and your album is No. 2 on Amazon—and you haven’t even started work on it yet.

Really? You just broke that news to me. That’s crazy. It’ll be rock, with some twists and turns…. I’ll be writing and cowriting it. I want there to be some quirks on this record. People will be a little surprised.

If you were to suddenly get your pre-Idol life back tomorrow, how would you feel?

I’d feel the exact same as I feel today: that I’m just a goof who got lucky.

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