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Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Carmen Rasmusen was a finalist on "American Idol." She calls the experience "magical" and "tough."
Editor's note: Beginning Friday, "American Idol" finalist and Utahn Carmen Rasmusen will write a weekly column about this season's show.

Five years after she was a top-six finalist, Carmen Rasmusen still gets excited about "American Idol."

"To this day, when I hear that (theme) music, my tummy does a flip-flop," Rasmusen said.

And she hopes to share her excitement in a weekly column about the current season of "American Idol" a feature that debuts in today's Deseret Morning News.

"I'm so excited about it!" Rasmusen said.

Like all "Idol" contestants, she was a complete unknown when she became part of the TV phenomenon in early 2003. Unlike all the other contestants, she was a 17-year-old high school senior from Bountiful.

"My life completely changed and will never be the same again," Rasmusen said. "I feel, more than anything, I've grown up a lot. I'm really happy for the experience that it gave me and for the knowledge that it gave me."

Knowledge about the music business, that is. Both the good and the bad.

"It is wonderful and it is magical, but it's also really dirty and really tough," Rasmusen said. "And for a teenager — a 17-year-old — going into that, all of a sudden there's drugs and alcohol and pornography and the temptation to wear next-to-nothing on stage. Growing up in Bountiful, Utah, it was two different worlds completely."

Rasmusen admitted, "I thought I was totally ready for it, but I wasn't. I was just a baby. Looking back, I don't think I would have been as strong and as grounded if I hadn't had standards and the values ingrained in me as a little girl growing up to withstand the temptations."

Her father tried to warn her things would be different in Hollywood, and she pretty much brushed him off. But his advice to set her standards and stick to them before she went to the "Idol" finals "was what helped me the most as a teenage girl living by myself in a house with 12 strangers in Hollywood."

She went into the show hoping it would launch her on a big music career. She came out of the show thinking her lifelong dream had shattered.

"It was so overwhelming for me that I didn't want to sing after 'American Idol.' I'd given up," said Rasmusen, who's convinced the stress affected her voice.

So, she decided to chuck it all and go to Brigham Young University, where she started classes two days after the "American Idol" tour ended in the summer of 2003.

"It was a really great time for me to kind of relax and make friends. I didn't have a senior year of high school, I was in L.A," Rasmusen said. "I could just be a teenager and not worry about being famous."

It took six or seven months, but she decided she did want to sing again. She "got up the courage" to find a manager, go to Nashville and record a CD.

She released a CD in 2004 that didn't do much business. She's done a few other things along the way — acted a bit (a small part in the 2003 movie "Pride and Prejudice: A Latter-Day Comedy"); done some commercials; appeared on a celebrity edition of the TV show "Fear Factor," and performed various concerts at a variety of venues.

In 2007, Rasmusen signed a new recording contract and released an album and a single that appeared briefly on the Billboard charts. And she spent several months on the road promoting them — time that was spent away from her husband, Bradley Herbert (the son of Utah Lt. Gov. Gary Herbert), whom she met at BYU and married in December 2005.

"It was really hard being away from him five days a week. I mean, we're newlyweds." Rasmusen said. "But I thought, 'This is my life. This is what I've chosen to do.' And I want to really give this a shot. And I gave it everything I had."

Then she wrote a book toward the end of 2007 titled "Staying in Tune."

"It's basically about all my experiences and, specifically, about how all the LDS Young Women values helped me when I was on 'American Idol' and touring the country and doing this Nashville career," Rasmusen said. "And I enjoyed it so much. I've always wanted to write, and I thought maybe I could do something with writing."

While promoting the book, she "took another step back and thought, 'What do I want out of my life and what do I want to do?"'

She wasn't excited about the prospect of spending the next few years trying to build a big-time country music career.

"I don't know that I'm willing to sacrifice my life, my husband's life and my future family life for possibly five to 10 more years, and then that would be my life for who knows how long?" Rasmusen said. "I love singing so much, but I thought maybe there's a way to do this where I can write and do things that I love and sing and ultimately have a family, which is what I really want. So, that's kind of the road that I've decided to go down."

She's not giving up singing altogether. She still performs frequently, like at the Picabo Street charity gala at the Sundance Film Festival last week. This week, she's at a convention in North Carolina.

"I just made the decision that I would still sing and still release CDs but maybe not focus so much on the national market," Rasmusen said. "And kind of tone things down, I guess, so I would be able to have a family but still do what I love. Family has been, and always will be, my No. 1 priority."

Making that decision was like having a weight lifted from her.

"Last year, when I kept feeling like I was competing with Kellie Pickler and Carrie Underwood, I was thinking, 'This is so unfair! How come my CD hasn't taken off? How come my single hasn't taken off?'"Rasmusen said. "I was kind of really bitter about it and didn't watch 'American Idol' as much and wasn't excited about it.

"And this year, because I've made some new decisions and new goals, I actually turn the TV on, was so excited to watch it. And it's magical again."

She's still in contact with some of her "Idol" cohorts from time to time.

"Clay Aiken and I text every once in a while," she said. "Whenever I'm out in California, I'll run into Kim Caldwell and we'll say 'hi.' I think we're bonded for life. Even if we don't see each other for a couple of years, if we run into each other, it's like nothing's changed. A traumatic experience like that — it just bonds us for life."

And she's been on hand for the "Idol" finals every year, where she has a chance to see the show's producers, host and judges.

"Simon (Cowell) always gives me a big hug and kiss. 'How are you, dahling?' He's really such a nice guy," Rasmusen said. "I know it's hard to believe, but he's so nice. I really like him."

And she'll always have fond feelings for Cowell because he was the judge who brought her back as a "wild card" after she'd previously been eliminated, allowing Rasmusen to make the top six.

And she has absolutely nothing negative to say about her time on "American Idol."

"I can't believe that I was on that show!" Rasmusen said. "I can't believe that I did that! That's so cool!"

E-mail: pierce@desnews.com