Scotty McCreery Scotty McCreery

Moments after becoming the newly minted American Idol, Scotty McCreery sticks his tongue out, trying to catch the confetti falling from the ceiling. "I was acting like it was snow and sticking my tongue out like you do for snowflakes," he tells reporters after the show. "I was just being a kid. I am seventeen."

It's a good thing the contestants on this show get some practice doing press, because the media frenzy surrounding the finale would challenge a presidential hopeful. "I call it Star School," says Idol vocal coach Debra Byrd. "In Star School, they learn so much, and learning to deal with the press is part of it. They're exhausted, they're overwhelmed. This is the part of the show when they say, 'Oh, please, just let me get through this last part, the home stretch.'"

But the home stretch is a doozy. "I came in today and said to Lindsay, our contestant coordinator, 'How are they?'" says Idol associate musical director Michael Orland, referring to McCreery and Lauren Alaina. "I was waiting for her to say, 'Ohmygod, they need you, they need you.' But they were fine. And Lauren was like, 'Do you think I won, do you think I won?' And I said, 'All I know is that you gave the best performance you could do last night.'"

Two hours before the show, the media crush begins, outside, on an endless red carpet surrounding the courtyard of L.A.'s Nokia Theater. More than one hundred press outlets are here, straining the white barricades, holding cameras and microphones, looking to see who's getting out of the limos.

And it turns out to be an impressive array of talent, ranging from rockers Judas Priest and country giant Tim McGraw, to this season's semi-finalists, including Casey Abrams and Paul McDonald. "I was kind of like Lauren's big brother through the whole thing," says McDonald. "But even though I left, I was still in town, and I would go over and visit — still taking care of her on the phone, or on Skype."

Haley Reinhart stops to chat, and says even her parents didn't know that there was a chance that she would be singing on Tuesday, when Laura Alaina's voice was in question. "I hadn't gotten to talk to my parents, so I don't think they knew," she says. "I'm glad I didn't tell them, because then they would've been thinking that I was probably going to get up there." Reinhart says she was willing to step up, but didn't think that having another chance to win was going to materialize. "The [producers] came up to me and asked me to crank out three tunes." she says. "And I went out there and practiced them. In my heart, I knew it probably wasn't going to go down. I said, 'This is Lauren's to win or to lose.' And no matter what has happened to her voice, she should go out there and do it. I went out in my own way, I accepted it and I'm in a good position — top three.  So [having to go back on stage] was a lot of pressure. Thank you for asking me, but no thanks."

After the madness outside, the relative calm inside the 7,000-seat theater is a relief. But trust us, your seats at home were probably better. The space is so big, and the wall of sound from the performers so overwhelming, that unless you have a seat up front, you find yourself watching the oversized video monitors just to see who's actually on stage. Is that Ryan Seacrest or Scotty McCreery? Thia Megia or Pia Toscano? You really can't tell without binoculars.

The two finalists do a major meet-and-greet with the big money sponsors, including representatives from Ford, Coca-Cola and AT&T. Then they move to the giant tents outside the theater, where Fox TV affiliates from all over the country get first dibs on post-show interviews.

After that, McCreery and Alaina are escorted through big conference rooms in the bowels of the building, one for still photographers, another for video cameras and a third for print and radio journalists. It's a process that takes hours.

"Lauren has the most amazing personality — a huge heart," says semi-finalist Pia Toscano. "Scotty, another one with such a big heart. I never realized he was so funny.  Scotty's hilarious. They're both funny."

Who's shown the most nerves? "Lauren," says Toscano. "Scotty's very chill and calm." Who's the most homesick? "Probably Lauren, she misses her daddy. But the two of them are stronger than most adults. And just to go through this week, learning three new songs. I'm like, how are you doing this right now?"

They've been educated at Star School.

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