<EM>American Idol</EM>'s Elliott Yamin American Idol's Elliott Yamin

There was a time when no one wanted to hear Elliott Yamin sing. "I was always loud, interrupting my mom on the phone or my brother doing his homework," the 27-year-old Virginian recalls with a laugh. "I would annoy everybody."

Today, it's a different story. Yamin may have come in third on American Idol, but he endeared himself to millions during its record-breaking fifth run. (As of May 30, an AOL poll placed him fifth on its "Best Idol of All Time" list. Winner Taylor Hicks tied for third; runner-up Katharine McPhee tied for sixth.)

Elliott's graceful, grateful farewell was the kind of two-hanky sobfest usually seen on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. In just a few short months, the guy with the bowl haircut, chinstrap beard, goofy grin and health issues partial deafness and diabetes was transformed from a kid in hip-hop threads to a charismatic, smart-dressed crooner. His mom, Claudette Yamin, summed it up when she saw her son dressed in white in the May 22 edition of TV Guide: "Elliott looks sexy."

The change was more than cosmetic. As Idol turned his self-described "pipe dream" of a music career into a reality, he was the lovable mutt who, some would argue, became the best-in-show. Even host Ryan Seacrest asked on air what had happened to the old Elliott. "That guy is gone," the singer replied with a smile.

That guy was born Efraym Elliott Yamin in Los Angeles to Claudette, a former big-band singer, and Israeli Shaul Yamin. "My dad was a part-time [house] painter and part-time layabout," Elliott says. After his parents moved the family to Richmond, Virginia, their marriage ended and Claudette, Elliott and his younger brother, Scott, moved into an apartment. Elliott was 14 when his parents split. "It definitely hurt," he says of the breakup, after which, he says, "my mom had to turn into Supermom."

Elliott suffered from ear infections that eventually caused 90 percent hearing loss in his right ear. He left high school his sophomore year. Then, at 16, he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. He lived at home and subsisted on menial jobs, but he found a champion and role model in Tony Klisiewicz, the manager of a Foot Locker who gave him a job on the condition that he earn his GED. "I didn't want to see him fail," Klisiewicz has said.

Elliott, who used to turn out the lights to sing in front of friends, was encouraged to go for Idol after waltzing off with the $1,000 first prize at a karaoke contest last year. He and his girlfriend, Amanda Parker, tried out in Boston. While she didn't make it through the auditions, he quickly became a Paula Abdul favorite. "She has a big heart, like I do," Elliott says of the woman he reduced to tears.

Though he acknowledges that his songs could've been more accessible  he favored semi-obscure Donny Hathaway tunes  Elliott chose the music he loves. He's eager to get the "E-train" rolling on the American Idol tour. For the July 29 stop in his hometown, 9,000 tickets sold out in less than 15 minutes, besting the tour led by Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken in 2003. And he hopes to release a classic R&B record.

"Elliott was a little lost boy," Claudette says. "This is what he was looking for." Her son echoes her words. "Before Idol, I was lost.... Now I've actually followed through with something. I am a better man for it!"

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