September 30, 2002 12:00 PM

On the subground level of the cavernous MGM Grand hotel, Kelly Clarkson tilts back precariously in a metal chair as she watches 28 of her former American Idol competitors mark an elaborate sequence of dance steps to “Celebration.” In her T-shirt, sweatpants and baseball cap, Clarkson looks more tomboy than manufactured diva. Still, even the rehearsal room’s color-draining fluorescent lights can’t dim the glow of this 20-year-old Texas charmer, who over 13 weeks sang her way into viewers’ hearts. In fact, given the sort of exposure she has enjoyed lately—chatting up Jay Leno, holding her own against Katie Couric—beaming is beyond her control.

But for many of Idol‘s other top contestants, the Las Vegas concert they are rehearsing for 12 hours a day may be their last best chance. If they don’t catch some starmaker’s eye when the taped two-hour show airs on FOX Sept. 23, they risk becoming Idle Americans. As they fan out in two lines, they rock the room with their hopes. “Cel-ah-bray-shun! C’mon!”

Suddenly, a door opens and in bounds Justin Guarini, 23, fresh from an audience with Oprah Winfrey. “Is your voice gone too?” Kelly croaks. “Nope,” says the mop-topped runner-up, bypassing a bottle of throat-soothing olive oil to snag a Mr. Goodbar from the snack table. “Have you slept?” Kelly presses maternally. “Not a lot,” says Justin. “Well,” Kelly offers with a big yawn, “I’ve been sittin’ here forever, doin’ nothin’. I mean nothin’.”

That’ll change soon enough. Clarkson is about to embark on a six-week, 28-city tour of Idol‘s 10 finalists, with her as the main attraction. She has already released her first single, an Idol compilation is due out next month, and her own album will arrive early next year. If for Kelly the concert rehearsals have the edgy anticipation of a countdown to liftoff, for most of the others it feels more like a family reunion. When the gang breaks for costume fittings, Tamyra Gray, 23, charges off the portable dance floor and hurls herself into Justin’s outstretched arms, wrapping her legs around his waist. On the dance floor Ejay Day, 20, fashions a mike from a water bottle and lip-synchs a tune, prompting several girls to lift their green lollipops in giddy imitation.

As the day nears when aspirations will reconnect with reality, it’s hard to know who’s got the clearest vision. Natalie Burge, 17, plans to head for L.A.; Alexandra Bachelier, 20, is hanging on to her waitressing job; Rodesia Eaves, 22, has started a fashion line. Only Kelly has the guarantee of a foreseeable megafuture. For most of the rest, well, they’ll always have Vegas.

Jill Smolowe

Pamela Warrick in Las Vegas

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