Several hours before Phillip Phillips would get more of the 132 million votes cast than Jessica Sanchez to become the 11th American Idol — the fifth guy in a row to win — past contestants and celebrity guests gathered on the recycled red carpet (where diesel-fuel trucks provided the power) to weigh in on the season, the competitors, and the "Idol" experience.

"I love Jessica. She was my pick from day one," said Haley Reinhart, who just released her debut album "Listen Up!" and plans to tour in the fall. The "Idol" experience "has meant the world because it's gotten me here. No regrets, everything that I've done has led me up to this point," she said, adding that in this year's talented group, "I think everybody has the potential for a successful career and I'm a prime example that you don't necessarily have to win." She said she always recycles, as does fellow Season 10 alumnus Stefano Langone, who is "very concerned about the environment. The whole world should be," said the singer, whose video "I'm on a Roll" debuts today. The single is already getting airplay, and he's been making appearances to promote it. Also a Jessica fan, he advised whoever won to make the best use of "this amazing platform you're given and have a good work ethic."

Season 10's Jacob Lusk, who stopped using plastic utensils and straws and is going to buy a Ford Escape hybrid for his next car, compared being back to attending a high school reunion, with lots of people he was eager to see. Being managed by Gladys Knight's team, he's working on a record he calls "a feel-good album. It's R&B, it's pop. You'll be happy with everything you get," he said, hoping to release it at the end of the summer. He has a few appearances in the works before then, and is happy with the way things have gone for him, thanks to "Idol." "It lets you know that you can do anything that you want to do if you put your mind to it," he said.

"It's like coming back home," Naima Adedapo, also from Season 10, said of seeing her fellow contestants. Like Lusk, she felt empowered by her "Idol" experience. "It taught me to go after what I want, go after my dreams. And it taught me a whole lot about growing as an artist. I just got signed to My Rock Records and I'm recording in the studio. There will be a few covers, definitely 'For All We Know,' the Donny Hathaway song I sang on the show. I don't want to rush the project. But I have a single coming out in the next month called 'Free Your Mind' that will be available on iTunes." She'll also be making appearances including one this Sunday, opening for Lil' Kim in Milwaukee.

Otherwise, Adedapo hopes to fulfill a lifelong dream to perform on Broadway, enabling her to combine her love of music, acting and dance. At home, she uses cloth instead of paper napkins and is raising her two kids, ages 2 and 4, as vegetarians. "I'm a vegetarian for about seven years now," she said.

Actress Melora Hardin, attending with cast mates from her forthcoming TBS comedy series "The Wedding Band," which premieres Nov. 10, was firmly in the Phillip Phillips camp. "He's a rock star," said the mother of two, who looked forward to a Tuscany family vacation this summer. A vintage shopping aficionado, she loves to make great new outfits from recycled pieces. One of her favorite finds is a vegan (non-leather) purse she bought for $49. "Everyone thinks it's like $600," she confided.

Leading up to the winner reveal were two hours of great performances by the likes of Rihanna, judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler with his band Aerosmith (debuting new single "Legendary Child" as well as classic "Walk This Way"), and this year's Top 12 in various combinations and collaborations with artists like Chaka Khan, Reba McIntyre, John Fogerty, Neil Diamond and Jennifer Holliday on a show-stopping "And I am Telling You I am Not Going" with Sanchez, plus "Idol" winners Fantasia Barrino, doing a great duet on "Take Me to the Pilot" with Joshua Ledet, and Jordin Sparks performing "You'll Never Walk Alone" with Hollie Cavanagh, There was even a surprise proposal, with former contestant Ace Young (Season 5) popping the question to Diana DeGarmo (Season 3) on stage.

Afterward, Phillips met the press and confessed, "I'm still numb. It's so unreal. Did I think I was going to win? No. It hasn't sunk in yet." He said he didn't think he'd make it to see the judges during the auditions. "I'm not a great singer. I just love music and having fun on stage. I'm just a lucky guy." He's looking forward to recording his first album but will have surgery for a kidney problem before heading out on the "Idol" summer tour.

He declared his duet with John Fogerty his favorite performance of the season, and was happily surprised that Ben Neil, his inspiration and brother-in-law was given a new Ford Escape, in addition to the choice of Fords he received. "I'm so blessed to have all this happen," he said. "I can't wait to see what comes next."

Sanchez didn't seem at all disappointed by her loss. "I don't have any regrets at all. I made the Top 2, that's crazy. I'm happy. When they announced that it was Phillip I was so happy. I gave him a big hug. He deserved it. I think we'll all have careers," she said, excited to see what's ahead for her now that the insular "Idol" bubble she's been in for months has popped. She agreed with the judges' assessment that her "Change Nothing" song wasn't the best choice, and wants to make a record "in the urban R&B [vein] with a little bit of pop." Performing with Jennifer Holliday "was amazing," she raved. "She's the sweetest, and a monster of a singer."

Music legends Khan and Aerosmith took the opportunity to remind that they're still going strong four decades into their careers. "It's my 40th anniversary in the business and I'm working on a CD right now," said Khan, and Steven Tyler declared that the band's new album will be deep in radio-ready singles. "The music speaks for itself. We're really happy about it," he said. Assessing the finalists, he believed Phillips won because "he's real and vulnerable and America loves that. I see him as a movie star. I look in his face and I see James Dean. Both have a future. [Sanchez] has such a beautiful voice and with the right songs she'll be on her way." As for the rumors that Jennifer Lopez may not return next season, he'd be sad to see her go, "but everything evolves."


The night before the finale, last year's "Idol" champ Scotty McCreery returned to perform "Please Remember Me," and praised the "two totally opposite artists" and called it a "tight race," but declined to pick a favorite. "Early on, I decided I can't have a favorite because I know how each and every one of those kids are feeling. I've been in their shoes and I know how their heart is pounding before the show and the nerves and their stomachs are in knots, so I feel for them. And afterward I'm relieved for them."

Still close to many of his Season 10 co-competitors including James Durbin, now touring with Buckcherry, and Lauren Alaina, whose Greek Theatre show with Sugarland he hoped to catch later that night, McCreery is looking forward to his high school graduation on June 7th, even though it means flying back for the day from Nashville, where he'll be appearing at the CMA Fan Fest.

The aptly titled "Undefeated," which he co-wrote with fans as part of Coca-Cola's Perfect Harmony Program, marked Jason Derulo's return to the stage after a harrowing accident last January in which he broke a vertebra in his neck while rehearsing an acrobatic stage move. The recovery process wasn't easy and sent him into a depression, but with the help of girlfriend — and Season 6 "Idol" winner — Jordin Sparks, whom he calls "the backbone I needed," he's fit and grateful. "It's taught me to love life and live every day like it's your last," he said.

Creating "Undefeated" with fan-submitted and voted-on lyrics was "kind of a rough process, but I had a lot of fun," said Derulo, who's now working on songs for a new album. Rooting for Sanchez, whose "brilliant voice" he believes will take her far whether she wins or not, he's made a wager with Phillips fan Sparks on the outcome: if Phillips wins, he owes her a cooked meal (even though he can't cook) and if Sanchez wins, Sparks owes him a foot massage — "and she just hates feet."

At home, Derulo makes sure to recycle bottles and shut off the faucet when he brushes his teeth. "I don't leave the water running," he said.

Photos: Michael Bender/Fox

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