The second season is in the history books, but the "American Idol" crew is anything but idle these days.
Ruben Studdard, the latest winner of Fox's hit talent search series, has released a single of his show-stopping rendition of Westlife's "Flying Without Wings." Runner-up Clay Aiken has just come out with "This is the Night" and his cover of "Bridge Over Troubled Water." Both are working on their debut albums -- Studdard for J Records, Aiken for RCA -- and will be part of the second "Idol" concert tour that kicks off July 8 in St. Paul, Minn.
Meanwhile, first-season Idol runner-up Justin Guarini has just released his self-titled debut album and will co-star with "Idol" winner Kelly Clarkson in the film "From Justin to Kelly," which opens June 27.
And then there's Clarkson, the big-voiced Texan who's set the mark for the "Idol" franchise's commercial potential -- a first single, "A Moment Like This," that hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts in the fall of 2002, and a platinum album, "Thankful," that debuted at No. 1 when it was released earlier this year.
"We knew this was a good thing," says Guarini, 24. "I think from the very beginning, once we found out `Wow, this is what it is?', we realized it doesn't matter whether we finish 10th or first. We've had experience, exposure, and learned lessons you can't pay for."
But as the soulful, heavyweight Studdard -- whose fans call him the Velvet Teddy Bear -- will tell you, being the "American Idol" tends to chew up one's schedule the attendant activities.
"Yeah, man, it's been crazy," says Studdard, 24, who had to be talked into auditioning for "Idol" by a friend. "It's just been a non-stop, whirlwind kind of thing. I don't even know what to call it."
Guarini's advice to the "Idol" newcomers: get used to it.
"I would just say be prepared," he says. "They're just now getting a taste of what they're going to get into; it gets pretty severe once the tour rolls around. It's gonna be pretty rigorous. But it's worth it.
"And, believe me, they don't need my advice. They got through the show, which was the proving ground for everything they need to do in the industry."
As "Flying Without Wings" climbs the charts, Studdard's main mission is recording his album. Like Guarini's and Aiken's efforts, it will be executive produced by Clive Davis, the industry veteran who's guided the careers of superstars such as Whitney Houston and Alicia Keys and resurrected Santana with 1999's "Supernatural."
"I know it's gonna be good, man," Studdard says. "I'm excited to start working with Clive and all the people he's going to bring together to help on the album.
"I just want to make an album that everybody will like," adds Studdard, who cites R&B stalwart Luther Vandross as a musical model. "I want to approach the album with lots of sensitivity and make something that everybody can listen to."
For "Justin Guarini," Davis put together a team of up-and-coming writers and producers such as the Underdogs and Face, Wade J. Robson and Soulshock & Karlin. The album also includes the Brian McKnight-written "Condition of the Heart" as well as a cover of the Righteous Brothers' "Unchained Melody" and Guarini's "Idol" signature song, Brenda Rusell's "Get Here."
"Some of this is a little more on an old school R&B tip," Guarini says."
`American Idol' was all about feel-good songs and the whole feel-good attitude. I love that, and there is a piece of that on the record. But I think the album exposes more of my sensual side and deals with conditions of the heart."
Guarini is confident that the combination of Clarkson's success and the high-profile "From Justin to Kelly" film release will give the album an additional promotional boost. But he's quick to make clear that despite their professional ties, any romance between he and Clarkson is only on celluloid.
"We've had a year of having to deal with the rumors, so now they just roll off our backs," Guarini says. "We work together all the time, and we're friends. But that's it."
Studdard, meanwhile, looks at Clarkson and Guarini as assurance that Idolmania continues even when they're no longer on TV; "I think everybody is really looking forward to our albums," he says. And peers who have watched them concur that are in a rarefied position for success.
"Millions and millions of people have seen and heard these kids and already love them," says Verdine White of Earth, Wind & Fire, who was one of the second season's celebrity judges. "It's just like being on a launch pad; when the rocket takes off, there's no way to slow it down.