"MY FIRST talent show was in the seventh grade at Montgomery Village Intermediate School," recalls Tamyra Gray.

"When I told my mom, she said, 'What are you going to do?'

"I said 'Sing.'

"And she said 'Sing? But you can't sing!' "

"And I went, 'Well, I am now.' 'Cause she'd always heard me singing in the house to the radio. My family would always go 'Shut up, shut up,' because I sang to everything that came on the radio.

"My mom came to that particular talent show and it was, 'Oh my God, she really can sing!' "

Funny, that's pretty much what Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson said, too, when Gray looked to be a favorite to become the "American Idol" on Fox's strobe-lit search for a superstar. The congenitally mean Mr. Cowell called Gray "a world-class singer with superstar potential" and compared the 25-year-old to Mariah Carey and Celine Dion.

And when viewers surprisingly voted Gray off the show in late August -- she just missed being one of the final three -- Cowell donned his other hat as a talking head on television's "Extra" to blast the stay-at-home judges.

"It's just wrong," Cowell fumed. "How can you let a great singer like that leave a competition? Wrong!"

When the vote was announced, Abdul looked like she was going to cry, Cowell looked devastated, and the ever-gallant Jackson tried to ease Gray's crash landing with "in my mind, you are a superstar." The booing of the crowd and subsequent e-mail protests -- Gray's ouster provoked more mail than any previous finalist -- suggested a great disgruntlement, but the singer's own reaction was gracious and classy.

As Gray told the CBS "Early Show" 12 hours later, "I think that each week, it's voted on your performance. And in my eyes, my performance wasn't the best that week, so it was only fair that I got voted off, you know?"

Two weeks later, Gray's former roommate, Kelly Clarkson, bested Justin Guarini and became the American Idol.

On Sunday, those three, plus the other seven finalists, will reunite at MCI Center for "Top 10 American Idols Live," supporting the recent release of "American Idol: Greatest Moments," which debuted at No. 4 on Billboard's Top 200. A Christmas television special looms as well.

Going out as compatriots rather than competitors, however friendly, is a vastly different experience than being judged and whittled down on a weekly basis, says Gray, who was born in Takoma Park and grew up in Gaithersburg until her family moved to Georgia when she was 13.

"We are having a ball, and it's great because it's right before we're all about to start our own careers," she explains. "It's like we started this together, we're now on tour together, and as soon as it's over, we're all doing something separate. We're all doing what it is we set out to do in the beginning, and that's making our albums."

Clarkson was the first signed -- after all, a record deal was the big prize in the show that wed "Star Search" and "Survivor" -- and she immediately scored a No. 1 single with "A Moment Like This." But Gray was actually the first Idol signed to a management contract, by 19 Entertainment, Cowell's company, and she recently signed her own record deal with RCA Records.

There'll probably be a thank you on that album (due next year) for Gray's first mentor, at Watkins Mill Elementary School.

"I had the best chorus teacher in the world, Mrs. Garcia," Gray gushes. "She taught me how to breathe, pretty much taught me the foundations, and that's the only structured training that I've ever had."

As teenagers growing up in Norcross, Ga., Tamyra and her sister Kim (one of 10 siblings) were encouraged by their parents to investigate the music industry that's sprung up in nearby Atlanta over the last 20 years.

"We started going to different studios to perform and meet with different producers, basically singing wherever we could," Gray says. At Georgia State University, she majored in business, law and sound recording technology.

"My whole thing is, I want to know everything that there is about the music industry, everything pertaining to my craft, the behind-the-scenes things that most artists don't get into, as well as learning the production side of things, knowing exactly what it is that you have to do. Everything that I was doing was to prepare myself to get into the industry."

That included working non-industry jobs to pay the bills. In Gray's case, that meant teaching prekindergarten kids at the Primrose School.

"Not only was it the security that allowed me [to pursue a music career], but I love children," Gray says. "So whenever I wasn't doing anything, I enjoyed going back to my kids, being with them and working with them, because we would sing and we would dance and we would do everything that I was doing when I wasn't in school."

Young as they were, the kids followed Gray's journey on "American Idol," and when she made the final 10, she went back to Primrose to visit, "and one of my students said, 'Miss Tamyra, I saw you on TV, are you going to sing for us?'

"And I went, 'Well, what should I sing?'

" 'Well, you said you're going to love me on TV . . .' It was touching to know that they were watching," she says. "I almost started to cry."

That was something Gray didn't do even when she was voted off the show, which may have had to do with her mind-set that winning or losing was ultimately irrelevant.

"When I started 'American Idol,' I had already centered my mind that I was going to challenge myself, that I was competing against myself in the competition," Gray explains. "Every week, I set out to do better than I did the week before, the reason being that I wanted to get everything possible from this competition before I got eliminated. It was a matter of learning how to trust myself, because when you're on stage you have to take risks. So I made sure that I did everything that I possibly could each and every week. In my eyes, no week was ever good enough; I had to do better the following week."

Turns out that Gray, not Cowell, was the toughest judge on "American Idol."

"I had to be, because the way I saw it, if things happened the way I thought in my head, I would get a deal, and I had to be as prepared as possible for it."

Clarkson may have had the biggest voice, but many viewers felt Gray was the most captivating performer and the most accomplished vocal stylist on "American Idol," the one best able to invest her performances with genuine emotion. For instance, her flapper-influenced reading of "Minnie the Moocher" was equal parts music and drama, and it's likely what caught the eye of television producer David Kelley, who asked Gray to come in for a reading. In January, she'll be shooting a four-episode arc as a Winslow High School student on Kelley's "Boston Public," with her first appearance coinciding with the February sweeps.

Students and teachers alike love singing in "Boston Public" -- that talented school chorus is almost a character unto itself -- but Gray has no idea what the role will require. "I have no clue, but I'm hoping that my character is far away from myself," she says with a laugh.

Meanwhile, Gray's show-stopping version of "A House Is Not a Home" can be heard on the "American Idol" album (its composer, Burt Bacharach, gushed to People that Gray was "as good as anybody I've heard on television"). Her solo album will come out next year.

"We'll be doing some stuff with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and I'll be writing some material," says Gray, promising a wide range of styles. "I think that everything that I do will fit, will blend in perfectly, because I'm just showing people who I am. Truthfully, I'm the kind of person who listens to every type of music -- you name it, I have it. I'm looking for longevity -- I'm not looking to be a here-today-gone-tomorrow-type artist.

"Basically, we're just going to do a great album. That's my goal, to do a great album."

TAMYRA GRAY -- Appearing in the "Top 10 American Idols Live" tour Sunday at MCI Center. * To hear a free Sound Bite from Tamyra Gray, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8121. (Prince William residents, call 703-690-4110.)

Tamyra Gray, who lived in Takoma Park and Gaithersburg as a child, may have been a tougher judge than sharp-tongued Simon Cowell on "American Idol."