A funny thing happened while the world was busy cheering on American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson and jeering at her runner-up, Justin Guarini: Nikki McKibbin, the rockin' redhead who trounced Tamyra Gray to steal third, all but disappeared! And take our word for it, she was no happier about her vanishing act than were the millions of us who admired her powerful pipes and defiant demeanor. "I was angry at first," she tells TV Guide Online. "I was signed to a record deal the same day as Kelly, Justin and Tamyra — I was sitting at the same table as they were! — but I was getting no press for it at all."

For better or worse, the single mom, now 25, had a bigger issue to resolve: RCA wanted to turn her into a country crooner. "I'm from Texas, I love country. Who doesn't?" she exclaims. "I could cross over and do that. But I felt like the fans who kept me on the show would not have followed me [into that genre]; they kept me around because I was a rocker. So I figured it would be a huge disappointment to them if I sold out.

"RCA said, 'Well, you're going to do country,' and I said, 'No, I'm not,' and walked away from the deal. I think I was a little too strong-willed for their liking," she adds. "I wasn't going to let them mold me into something that I wasn't. I knew what I wanted to do."

At long last, McKibbin is doing exactly what she wants, laying down rock tracks that she likens to "Stevie Nicks and Pat Benatar meet techno." (Having heard three cuts, we can happily report that the future hits are so gutsy and galvanizing, not even sourpuss Simon Cowell would be able to deny their appeal.) "I don't want an album that's all ballads or all straight-ahead rock 'n' roll," the latter-day Debbie Harry explains with the enthusiasm of a born entertainer. "I want an album that everybody is going to be able to enjoy one or two songs off of. I want people to be able to laugh and cry and do it to my music!

"I have no label at the moment; I'm working on this album on my own, hoping to get picked up along the way. But," she concludes, the trail-blazer in her peeking out again, "I'm still doing it."