He lost his virginity on his 21st birthday, in Hollywood, where he had moved to pursue a singing career. That same year, he traveled for six months in the European production of Hair. In 2004, he got great reviews playing Joshua in an ill–fated musical production of The Ten Commandments at the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles, alongside Val Kilmer. But, he says, he felt he wasn't really getting anywhere.

He fell into a depression sometime in 2006. "I got out of my first relationship, and I was kinda downward–spirally," he says. "I was destructive . . . just numbing myself out." He started partying at nightclubs like Hyde and sleeping around a bit—or as he describes it, "being a slutbag." He was also drinking, "smoking a shit ton of weed," and doing coke. "It was everywhere," he says. "And I'm not gonna lie, I had some fun, but it's never worth it the next couple of days physically."

In 2007, he was cast in the chorus of the national tour of Wicked and finally making enough money to support himself—about $1,800 a week. "But I was burned out on the show," he says. "Wicked was humbling; I was an understudy. I didn't get to go on all that much."

That summer, on a spiritual quest of sorts, he went to the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert. While on acid for the first time, he says, "I had a spiritual epiphany about the world and where I fit into it and what I am supposed to be doing. And my epiphany was, like, I can't be afraid anymore. I have to take life by the balls and make shit happen."

When he got back to L.A., he decided to try out for American Idol.

Lambert's entrance onto the stage of the Allstate Arena is preceded by some booming thunderclap sound effects and a screen lit up in pulsating red lights that look like the electronic flames of hell. Twenty thousand fans unleash bloodcurdling screams. And they're not all girls. There are dudes—straight dudes who look up to the stage with expectation, waiting to see this guy who held his own singing with Kiss and Queen: their bands.

Lambert swaggers onto the stage amid a near–seizure–inducing light sequence, wearing a leather jacket with spiked shoulders. He launches into his trademark Zeppelin number with howling gusto, then plunges the mic stand between his legs and rubs it up and down as if teasing his manhood. The crowd goes insane.