Casey Abrams

"How do you feel?" a reporter asked Casey Abrams after American Idol's Wednesday-night performance show. Abrams had been hospitalized for a second time last week, suffering from serious intestinal problems. "Awesome," he said quietly.

He didn't look awesome. Neither did any of the eleven other remaining contestants. This is only the second week of competition, but the competitors look like they've been put through the wringer. Gathering after the show in an upstairs holding area, 16-year-old Lauren Alaina, suffering from the flu, was lying with her head down on the arm of an overstuffed couch. Pia Toscano rubbed Alaina's hand, trying to comfort her. Since the contestants are all living in the same house, one person having the flu can set off a devastating chain reaction.

"They put me in a hotel," said Alaina, "so I'm separated from everybody." But that didn't keep Paul McDonald from getting sick. His trademark raspy voice was even raspier from a bad cold. Even Stefano Langone, usually the most upbeat of the bunch, looked pale, hollow-eyed and in need of a solid eight hours of sleep.

"This is a punishing schedule," said Billboard's Fred Bronson, who is writing a book about the history of the show. 

And you could see that, as the hour grew later. At 8 p.m. (the show goes live from the west coast from 5-7 p.m.), the media was still interviewing the contestants. In the hallway, stage manager Debbie Williams waited for the reporters to leave so she could whisk the contestants away for dinner and another group session needed by the producers. "I've gotta get them downstairs," said Williams, impatiently looking at her watch.

The contestants slowly got moving. The adrenaline from their performances was gone, and they were running on fumes.   

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