Elliott Yamin, <EM>American Idol</EM> Elliott Yamin, American Idol

In the end, for American Idol wannabe Elliott Yamin, it came down to a trio of giant, video-projected percentages: 33.68, 33.26 and 33.06  the last of which, separated from second place by just 10,000 votes, belonged to him. "I just knew.... I had that intuition that my name was going to be attached to the bottom number," he told TVGuide.com the morning after being sent packing. "And I was prepared for it, so it was easy to take and grasp." As for the oh-so-slim margin of loss to finalists Taylor Hicks and Katharine McPhee, he says, "It was really flattering to have been involved in such a close, tight-knit race."

Early on in the competition, the 27-year-old Virginian was handed some of the highest praise one could ever expect to hear from Simon Cowell, who had declared, "Potentially, you are the best male vocalist we have ever had." Elliott's reaction to that rave? "It hit me like, 'Wow, I can't believe he said something that awesome to me," he tells us. "Being the type that's always thinking there's room to grow and learn and get better, I love the fact that he said potential. I had to remind everybody of that really quickly, but I heard what he said, and it gave me something to strive for and work hard towards. I didn't look at it as being this big pressure I had to live up to. It just felt like, 'Hey, I have a lot of work to do, and I want to make sure I do that to stay around as long as possible."

Alas, Elliott did not make it into the final sing-off, perhaps, some say, because of his song choice last week, Donny Hathaway's cover of Ray Charles' "I Believe to My Soul"  not exactly a tune one finds on the local diner's tabletop jukebox. "It was a questionable choice to many," Elliott allows. "People would tell me off camera or off the record, 'You might want to reconsider it, because it's not that much of a well-known song.' But it's just a fun song to sing! And I love Donny Hathaway, so any chance that I get to sing a song [of his], I'm going to take it. The bottom line is it was my choice and I'm living with it. I wouldn't change a thing."

In a conference call with reporters, Elliott also had this to say about...

... the one Idol secret he's at liberty to spill:
"When you're watching the judges on TV and you're wondering why they're not looking at the performer [on stage], it's because they're looking down at a monitor, one in front of each judge. Simon is infamous for that, looking down [at the monitor], but he just wants to see how we're being portrayed on TV in front of America. So if it looks like he's not paying attention, that's not the case."

... why Paula gets so emotional, baby:
"I just think she loves my voice and enjoys my singing, and I think she likes me as a person, and the feelings are mutual. We've had some good talks after the show and on stage, and she has a big heart, like I do. I think that's probably why she identifies with me. And we're both Jewish, too, and you know how us Jews kind of have a bond at birth."

... his dream collaborators:
"[Producers] Quincy Jones and Scott Storch, Kanye West, John Mayer... the list goes on. I love all kinds of music and I'd love the opportunity to work with any of those people."

... his role as Idol's always-smilin' singer:
"Why not be happy? What's there to be upset about? This is the best thing I've ever done in my life, for myself and for my family. So why not let it show?"

... winning by losing:
"There are great things that come along with winning [American Idol], obviously  you're guaranteed a record deal, radio spins, hits. But the fact that I didn't win [means] I wont have those obligations to the management company and so forth, which is not a bad thing at all. I'll have an opportunity to go out and fish for the best deal I can possibly get, and I'm looking forward to that."

... a Taylor-made friendship:
"Taylor [Hicks] is my homeboy, man. We've gotten quite close and have built a relationship that's going to last forever. He is one of the funniest guys I've ever met on this entire planet, and I'm going to miss that everyday camaraderie."

... his personal-best performances:
"'Moody's Mood for Love' elevated my status and boosted me to a higher level [in the competition]. That was a transitional moment. 'A Song for You' did the same thing, and validated me even more as an artist and singer. Those two performances were instrumental in my successes on the show."

... his maternal idol:
"[My mother] has been living all this vicariously through me, sharing it with me, so it's been great to see her like a kid again. She's been very sick and ill, but she's back to her old self, a way she hasn't been in about three years. It's been an incredible year, and it's only going to get better from here!"