OMAHA Neb. — Maddie Poppe is learning that winning “American Idol” isn’t all confetti and “Good Morning America” appearances.
In reality, it’s a lot of time on a small bus, a lot of bad food and not a lot of independence.
She's found that crisscrossing the country on the “Idol” tour has been totally different from being on the show, in fact.
On "Idol," Poppe said she got to choose what she wore, how she did her hair and her makeup and what songs she sang.
But on tour, there are "very strict on the rules," she said, "like you can’t even step somewhere without someone yelling at you and you can’t do anything that you haven’t been told that you have to do.”
For Poppe, who built a following on being unique and independent, the transition to songs and outfits that make her feel like “this is not me” has been “overwhelming and stressful.”
"I think it's just part of paying your dues, but hopefully one day I will be able to call my own shots and say, 'I don’t want to do this,'" she said. There have been things that have been “testing of who I really am, but I think I’ve handled it fine.”
A few hours before a show in Omaha, Poppe can’t stop yawning. The tour’s schedule is grueling, the 20-year-old Clarksville, Iowa, native said.
The Top Six on the last season of "American Idol" travel by bus, falling asleep in one state and waking in another.
They sleep until about noon, do interviews at 2 p.m., soundcheck at 4 p.m., start a show at 7 p.m., get on the bus by 10 p.m. and hang out until 3 or 4 in the morning.
"We do usually like three or four shows in a row and then a day off," she said.
Poppe’s rocket to fame mirrors a viral star more than it does most rising musicians. With a Norah Jones voice and a late Beach Boys songwriting vibe, Poppe spent years gigging around the Midwest.
But she was plucked from obscurity, gaining a management team, a label, a record deal, a tour and a very public boyfriend in between commercial breaks.
"It just happened so much faster than it usually does for other people,” she said, “My life just changed overnight. It wasn’t gradual at all.”
Poppe cringes at the word celebrity. That still feels like someone else, she said, because nothing about her has changed, it’s just that her career is on a bigger scale now.
Little girls "can’t believe you are actually taking a picture with (them) and that’s a weird feeling because you are just a normal person,” Poppe said. “I don’t think of myself like they think of me."
With her newfound celebrity, Poppe’s also had to face decisions about how to use her public platform. During her hometown visit on "Idol," she got choked up talking about a high school classmate who had been killed weeks before.
Recently, she shared messages of hope and support for Mollie Tibbetts on her social media.
I asked her what she would like to say to the Tibbetts family in light of Mollie’s body being found. Poppe said she hopes they know, “everyone is praying for them and thinking about them.”
When I asked her the same question with a camera rolling, she declined to answer.
If she’s uncomfortable with the picture-taking part of celebrity, she’s downright distressed with the public-facing part of celebrity. She just doesn’t want to get caught saying the wrong thing, she said.
"Even though I do have a strong opinion in politics. … I don't ever want that to be part of 'my thing,' because I think that’s splitting your audience right in half as soon as you say anything," she said.
Frankly, Poppe doesn’t have a lot of time to think about politics. Utmost in her mind is how she hasn’t had time to work on her album.
She recorded a song in L.A. a few weeks ago that’s scheduled to come out in October, but she hasn’t been writing much outside of that.
“I can’t remember the last time I sat down and had an idea for a song or even wanted to write a song, which is sad but it’s just like we are doing this constantly," she said. "You don’t get any alone time ever."
"I just haven’t really had any inspiration. I’m just kind of going through the motions right now."
But everybody gets to these points, Poppe said, times when there are so many texts and emails telling you to do this or that and "it’s just like, I can't."
She stops to caution me: It’s really not all bad. She’s constantly with people in her same age group who have the same dream, and they are all going through this together.
They eat what you expect teenagers and 20-somethings to eat, including Hot Pockets, Cheetos and ice cream.
She likes the bus: "It's comfy and dark."
“Every night, we’re laughing so hard,” she said. But “all of it is like super inside jokes … it wouldn’t be funny to anyone else.”
And she has Caleb. They’re around each other so much that they’re like an old married couple, she said.
“I don’t think I could do it without him,” she said. “He is my home away from home, (so) it’s nice having each other.”
Poppe misses her family and her community terribly. She’s excited to get back to doing shows in Iowa, and she’ll definitely play RAGBRAI next year.
For now, she’s trying to hang on to who she is while on tour.
“It’s a short life, and you don’t ever want to pretend to be somebody you are not or try to conform to be what other people want you to be,” she said.
“You’re only going to be happy if you’re making your decisions.”
Hopefully, she’ll get back to that soon.
COURTNEY CROWDER, the Register's Iowa Columnist, traverses the state's 99 counties telling Iowans' stories. You can contact her at (515) 284-8360 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.