ATLANTIC CITY - Even before Adam Lambert took the stage at Boardwalk Hall, Friday's "American Idols Live!" tour stop felt like a coming-out party.

Now in its eighth year, the televised Fox talent show relies heavily on the big revelation. After months of being stretched and stomped, every weedy kid-turned-winner can claim to have been kneaded into shape.

But like balls of unbaked dough, the losing contestants never get their chance to rise - at least, not on prime-time TV

But when the judges' critiques are done and the top 10 contestants hit the road, the tour offers the also-rans that opportunity to bake.

"Idol's" fans know this.

"You don't need to win the show to make it anymore," said Kayla Burciar, who traveled down from Toms River brandishing a magazine cover of Lambert, who came second to Kris Allen in this year's contest.

She named a string of others who lost past races but won themselves lucrative careers.

"Just look at Jennifer Hudson. Or Chris Daughtry," she said, each of whom has since made some serious dough of their own.

With some fans believing Lambert was robbed of this year's title, Friday's crowd made clear their loyalties were always flexible.

"I'm an Adam fan - except I really like Danny Gokey more," explained Margaret Klapatch, a mom who accompanied her daughter, Amanda.

And with Paula Abdul, one of the judges who taught each contestant to walk the walk, now walking herself - after an unresolved contract dispute - Friday night's show felt geared to showing those who placed lower in a good light.

In keeping with Abdul's stance as booster for the contestants - often at odds with the harsher words of Simon Cowell - the event presented every singer as a finished product.

So what if they didn't win? Michael Sarver (10th place) stepped out on stage with a popped collar to deliver his preppy, romantic version of Gavin DeGraw's "I'm In Love With a Girl."

Megan Joy countered the predominantly tween audience by blossoming into a steamy torch singer. In a fuchsia-pink short dress, she crooned Corinne Bailey Rae's sultry "Put Your Records On."

And while Scott MacIntyre stole the early part of the show with his rendition of Keane's "Bend and Break" on a grand piano, he went one better by uniting with Matt Giraud to play Billy Joel's "Tell Her About It" on dueling pianos.

By contrast, it was the top four who seemed more constrained to their TV-selves. Lambert showed his rock loyalties via a duet with Allison Iraheta of Heart's "Barracuda," but his perennial goth makeup was paired by the hair stylists with a huge quiff to make him look like Elvis in eyeliner.

And winner Allen finally took the microphone on a totally bare stage - true to his acoustic-rock roots, of course - but it was almost a cry to shed the hype the show usually confers.

Abdul, of course, would be proud. At her urging, every one of the top 10 has pushed through to achieve some of his or her potential. But by the looks of it, the lower ranks might be having more fun.

E-mail Juliet Fletcher:

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