Now that American Idol has eight winners — including Kelly Clarkson, Ruben Studdard, Fantasia Barrino, Carrie Underwood, Taylor Hicks, Jordin Sparks, David Cook and Kris Allen — judge Randy Jackson whittles down the list to his two favorites.

Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood are my favorite American Idol winners,” he tells me. “I think what they’ve done is amazing, and they’ve stayed tried-and-true to their audience. I love that.”

He continues, “I talk to them all the time, see them quite often. Love them. Really, really love them a lot. So talented.”

Perhaps Randy will receive an invitation to Carrie’s wedding as she recently announced her engagement to Ottawa Senators hockey player Mike Fisher.

How has the Cowboy Casanova crooner’s life changed since she won the show in 2005?

“I think I’ve grown up a lot,” Carrie, 26, says. “I think this is a time in anybody’s life where they do a lot of growing, personally and emotionally, so on and so forth. But I think a lot has happened and I feel more comfortable with myself, being in front of people. I’ve been working on it, of course. I don’t feel like a lost little puppy anymore. I’m really able to sit back and enjoy everything more, instead of ‘what am I doing? What’s going on? Everybody’s dragging me everywhere. I don’t know what to do.’”

She scoffs when asked if American Idol has hurt her career.

“No!” she tells me. “No. I mean, I wasn’t planning on being in music at all. American Idol is the only reason – the one and only reason that I get to do this. They haven’t held me back. They’ve given me everything.”
This season, original Idol winner Kelly has supreme confidence in Ellen DeGeneres as a judge, and offers no tips.

“Are you kidding?” she laughs. “I’m not going to school her or anything. No, she’s hilarious. I think she’s going to do really great.”

The Texas native, 27, has stayed true to herself through all the ups and downs, and relies on family and friends to keep her sane. In fact, like her song title, her life would “suck” without them.

“That’s the cheesy answer, but it’s totally true for me,” she tells me. “I live in Texas with my family, and they keep me grounded and they’re fun. My little nieces and nephews are killer. I love ‘em.”

The ninth class certainly has big shoes to fill.

Catch American Idol tonight on Fox.

Here are a few of my photos with American Idol winners Carrie, David and Kris:


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