Men's Fitness: You were a favorite to win Idol in 2005-why did you bow out after you made the Top 12?

Mario Vazquez: American Idol gave me the stage to be seen by 30 million people. But opportunities had risen that I just felt would be better for me, so I left. I would have been really restricted on how I wanted to present myself as an artist. And, just seeing previous [Idol] acts, especially overseas-it looked kinda corny. And that's what I told my producers-it's very, very important that my music not be cheesy.

MF: Did you wrestle with your decision to leave?

MV: Yeah. I felt pressure from Idol and from my family. That's why I couldn't tell anyone at the time - they would have guilt-tripped me: "What the fuck are you doing, are you crazy?" But it actually all worked out to my benefit because [the media blitz] kept my name in the public eye. I got more publicity than the third-place winner.

MF: Let's talk about your new album, which is out later this month.

MV: It's not mediocre shit. Everything I've ever been exposed to is in there: pop, R&B, dance, Motown, Latin jazz. . . . When you're involved with a major record company like J Records, they hook you up with the best. And everyone I've been involved with has been amazing-no "divo" attitudes. But the pressure's definitely there to come out with a great debut.

MF: What was it like auditioning for Clive Davis, the mastermind behind Whitney Houston and Alicia Keys?

MV: The day after Carrie [Underwood] had been crowned American Idol, I was in his office. I sang a Stevie Wonder song. I think it was . . . [sings] "Overjoyed." I used to sing backup for Michael Jackson, so I also sang one of his songs, "Whatever Happens," which I did for my Idol audition. It's been my lucky song. I got signed the next day.

MF: Any pressure to replicate the success of Whitney and Alicia?

MV: Wow. Can you imagine? That would be great. But I want to do it day by day; it keeps me grounded. And I'm trying to be realistic. And enjoy every moment. The album might be hit or miss, you never know. But I feel like it's gonna be a hit.