NEW YORK (AP) - Chris Daughtry wishes we would forget his shocking elimination from last year's "American Idol," a contest he was widely favored to win. It's kind of a touchy subject.
"You hear one of two things: `You were robbed' or `you shoulda won,"' he says about attention from sympathetic fans, who continue to offer unsolicited condolences and pep talks about his controversial departure (Taylor Hicks eventually took home the title).
"I'm just gonna be real: I hate hearing it," he says. "It makes you feel like they're stuck in that moment from where you were on the show. You want them to kinda break out of that and follow you where you're at now, and see that things are fantastic and there's nothing to be upset about. Get over it, you know, because I'm doing all right."
He's doing more than all right. Daughtry, who was voted off "American Idol" a few weeks before its finale, is having another moment in the spotlight - one he hopes will last long after the Fox talent contest crowns its final winner. His band, called Daughtry, saw their self-titled debut album, released in November on Sony BMG's RCA label, jump to No. 1 last week. The disc has sold nearly 1.3 million copies on the shoulders of its single, "It's Not Over."
The 27-year-old father of two was a musician based in McLeansville, N.C., when he decided to heed his wife's advice and audition for "Idol," which has turned out hitmakers like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. He needed the exposure to "get to that next level," he says.
Along came "Idol," overnight celebrity and a "massive amount of rabid fans." He made Paula Abdul blush - OK, all you need is to be young and male to do that - and won over viewers with impassioned, rock-infused covers of songs ranging from Elvis numbers to pop ballads.
Unlike stars like Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera, who signed record deals before they were boldfaced names, Daughtry was discovered first by "Idol" judges and then by voting viewers. They "feel responsible" for his success, he says. That's why they stop him on the street to say "You were robbed!!"
"It's the power of TV," he says. "They feel like they know you. ... And then once you REALLY get to know me, you probably wouldn't like me," he jokes, laughing heartily.
He wouldn't trade places with the gray-haired Hicks, who is a tougher sell to younger listeners. His album, released in December, has sold less than half of Daughtry's CD.
"I don't feel like I would have been able to do what I wanted to do with my career. ... I would have been a solo artist. It would have been an album that I probably would have regretted," says Daughtry, who longed to front his own band.
His "biggest" fear was that he'd wind up on rock radio's blacklist. "I think it would have stomped on my credibility a little bit," he says.
Well, the show certainly boosted his career. Following his fourth-place finish, Daughtry found himself in demand: He turned down an offer to be lead singer for the band Fuel, and later signed a record deal with music mogul Clive Davis in conjunction with 19 Recordings Unlimited, the label managed by "Idol" creator Simon Fuller.
The deal allowed him to form his own band. He hired four new bandmates, who did not record on the album. They will, however, perform songs on their 25-city tour, which kicks off Thursday in Los Angeles, and contribute to a follow-up disc.
Drummer Joey Barnes, who has known Daughtry since their days "playing the same circuit," boasts that the band's next album will be "really, really good." But he's also crossing his fingers that they "don't go through the sophomore slump."
For all his talk about preferring to be among bandmates, Daughtry was out there all alone performing the national anthem at the recent National Football Conference championship game between the Chicago Bears and the New Orleans Saints. He shed a tear as he sang.
"It's perfect timing," he says. "I mean, it comes out right at the right moment. ... There's all kinds of emotions going on."
In the course of this interview, Daughtry, who appeared stoic at times on "Idol," reveals himself to be an easygoing guy. He gets especially animated when discussing the first mini-scandal of his career, perpetuated by none other than actress Melissa Joan Hart, of TV's defunct "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch."
In a recent post on her MySpace.com page, an angry Hart claimed that Daughtry and his good friend, "Idol" also-ran Ace Young, were taking all the credit for writing "It's Not Over." Her husband, musician Mark Wilkerson, wrote an early draft of the song with producer Greg Wattenberg, who later asked Daughtry and Young to add a chorus.
"I've never met Melissa Joan Hart," says Daughtry, who phoned Wilkerson, who was not aware of Hart's rant, to smooth things over. "I don't know her from Adam. If she's mad at me for something that I don't know about, that's pretty funny actually! ... I was like, Sabrina's mad at me? For WHAT?"
Hart has since removed the post, yet Daughtry remains bemused. Stuff like this comes with the territory - especially for a rock star on the make.
He turns serious when discussing his goals, which include replicating the successes of arena-packing bands like U2 and Bon Jovi.
"I wanna look back 20 years from now and still be in the game in a big way," he says. "I wanna be...a very important part of the music industry, whether it be playing or developing other bands. I would still honestly like to be performing every night and doing what I love to do."
Even Simon Cowell, that acerbic king of sarcasm, wouldn't scoff at such earnestness.