As Season Six of "American Idol" debuts Tuesday, it turns out that the drama onstage is nothing compared to the soap-opera antics offstage - in the luxury bunkhouses where finalists share bedrooms, bathrooms, meals and a general disdain for the onerous rules and curfews.

Based on interviews with 10 past contestants from different seasons, The Post can reveal what life is like in the "American Idol" dorm.

Katharine McPhee repeatedly sneaked out to visit her boyfriend. Ryan Starr spied on neighbor Jennifer Lopez's house. Scott Savol and pals made frequent trips to Hooters. And Bucky Covington says the boys' rooms were stinking pigsties.

On the other hand, Josh Gracin often cooked breakfast.

Each season, contestants who make it past the national auditions are flown to Los Angeles, where they live two to a room in a hotel. Once Simon, Paula and Randy winnow the group to 12 finalists, they're moved into private accommodations.

During the first three seasons, home was a four-story mansion on Mulholland Drive in Bel-Air. Since then, contestants have lived in a luxury apartment complex just three miles from the studio.

They are thrown together 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Each is given a cellphone, but there's very little other contact with the outside world.

No visitors are allowed at work or at home, there is little freedom to come and go, they aren't allowed to drive and there's a strict curfew: 11 p.m. during the week, and midnight on the weekends.

They are surrounded by chaperones - from producers to contestant coordinators making sure the Idols are where they need to be - and they are attended to by chefs, chauffeurs, stylists and security guards.

They have to get permission from the production and security staff to go anywhere alone - and they must have a security guard accompany them.

At the beginning, "we didn't know what to expect," says Season One seventh-place siren Ryan Starr, 25. "We didn't know there were 34 million people watching the show."

When Starr and her nine castmates - in the first season, only 10 finalists were selected instead of the 12 in later seasons - moved into the mansion, "we were like kids in a candy store," she says.

"We were running up and down the stairs, using the elevator, and we jumped in the pool with our clothes on. We had never seen a house that big."

The house, hidden behind gates, was rumored to be owned by an Indian princess.

"J.Lo lived down the hill - you could see her patio," adds Starr. "We had binoculars and we used to spy on her. We never saw her, though. Just people cleaning."

"It's way easier to be on the show now," says Starr, who is currently recording an album and pitching a reality-television show about trying to make it as a female rock artist.

As the seasons rolled by, competitors benefited from a stylist and a clothing allowance - not to mention gifts from designers. But in Starr's day, they did their own shopping and used the per-diem allowance they received to buy their own clothes for on-air performances.

"We rode around in one big van that smelled really bad. We'd have three hours to go shopping. I often made my own clothes; I'd be in the closet, sewing my costumes together."

There was very little glamour.

"It was like a boot camp," says second-season seventh-place finisher Kimberly Caldwell, 24. "All we did was practice. We worked our butts off, from 5 or 6 a.m. to 10 at night."

They rehearse, pick songs, film the Ford commercials, do interviews and get their pictures taken when they're not on air. Because they're always in one big group, they're often hanging around in the green room while fellow contestants finish up.

"It was stressful. We didn't relax when we were on the show," adds Caldwell, who is a host on the TV Guide Channel and is recording an album.

"The only time we got to chill was on Wednesdays; it was the last dinner for whomever got kicked off, so we went to an Italian restaurant and ate too many carbs."

"You kind of get cabin fever after a while," chimes in second-season third-place finisher Kimberly Locke, 29, who had a hit post-"Idol" single, "Eighth World Wonder," and will appear on VH1's "Celebrity Fit Club" this spring.

"There were a lot of rules. To have someone tell me that I can't go out and take myself to the store, that took a lot of adjusting."

Still, there was time for fun. Fourth-place Idol Josh Gracin always made breakfast, says Caldwell, "Eggs, omelets, all that stuff."

And cliques formed, too: "Me, Trenyce and Julia [DeMato] were a little clan," says Caldwell. "We were the girls always trying to get into mischief. Let's just leave it at that."

"All the girls slept in one room," says Locke. "There were six of us. At times, women are hormonal - after a while, we all got on the same cycle."

But the stress of 12 to a house became too much, and, beginning with Season Four, the mansion life was swapped for rental apartments, in which the finalists live in smaller groups.

"We found it wasn't really fair [to the contestants]," says executive producer Ken Warwick. "They were living on top of each other. It was very nerve-wracking. It was detrimental to the show."

The luxury apartment compound includes a pool, a spa and concierge service - not to mention Hollywood-friendly floor-plan names, like the Hepburn and the Monroe.

The contestants live in two-bedroom apartments, usually two to a room in twin beds, and are shuffled about as their numbers dwindle.

During the fourth season, Vonzell Solomon, 22, who is the CEO of her record label, Melodic Records, and is recording her sophomore album, bunked with Nadia Turner and Jessica Sierra and, later, Carrie Underwood.

Things had improved in the sense that they had stylists and they were getting recognized.

"One day, when I was shopping with Scott Savol, we saw Ice-T at the mall - and he recognized us!" recalls Solomon,

Tuesday nights were all about the voting - every contestant cast numerous votes for his or herself, using phones provided by the show. ("Idol" is broadcast live on the East Coast but airs three hours later on the West Coast, when the contestants can watch and vote.)

"I remember sometimes being in the apartment after the show was taped, with everyone voting for themselves on their cellphones," says Solomon.

"I'd text, text, text, all night long," says fifth-place Savol, 30, on how he voted for himself.

Savol roomed with Anthony Federov and Anwar Robinson (who was later replaced by Bo Bice).

"We'd sit and watch the show at 8 p.m. our time. We'd make fun of each other for stuff we did. We teased Bo for jumping on tables, Anthony for his little dance moves. A lot of people teased me for looking mean," Savol says.

Group excursions included a trip to Dolce, Ashton Kutcher's restaurant, and bowling. "Nadia's a great bowler - I never would have thought that," says Solomon.

And, while Kimberly Locke from the second season complained to The Post that she "couldn't have a glass of wine," others said you just couldn't be seen drinking.

"They told us never to have drinks unless they're in a glass," says Savol. "No beer bottles."

Newlywed Savol, who is recording an album, says he and the guys made frequent outings to Hooters.

"Anthony Federov's such a clean-cut kind of guy; Hooters to him felt like a gentleman's club," Savol says.

And there were pranks, too, like the time they put plastic wrap on Federov's toilet seat, or the time they stole food from the girls' dressing room.

Most nights, however, were about unwinding. "Me and Nadia would have a glass of wine and watch TV," says Jessica Sierra, 22, who is recording an album and recently performed for the troops in Iraq.

"Our room had lots of candles, and we always had incense burning. People would come over; it was really nice and relaxing."

The guys, too, would mostly hang out, watch TV and order food, says Savol.

Romance blossomed as Sierra dated fellow contestant Nikko Smith - though "we didn't get much time together," she says. Their relationship continued while on tour after the show, but has since fizzled out.

She says her "Idol" living arrangement was sometimes brutal: "I'm not going to say we all got along, because we didn't. Constantine [Maroulis] was very competitive and cocky; sometimes that really got on people's nerves. It's not all one big family like people say."

To deal with the stress, "Idol" provides "mentors," says Warwick, the producer. "We have a psychiatric team that they can go to any time if they're upset about anything."

"We'd tell them, 'Don't go on the Internet,'" says Warwick. "'There are people trying to make you upset. Don't read what people say about you.'"

"You lose touch with the outside world the whole time you're there," says fifth-season contestant Covington, 29, whose first single, "A Different World," is due out this week.

"If you go out to eat, there were security guards with you. You don't drive anywhere; someone drives you. I'm one of those people who can't stand not having my own car. But you stay so busy you don't have time to think about it."

Still, some contestants bristled under the restrictions - and some rebelled.

"I snuck out. Totally," says McPhee, 22, who lost last season to Taylor Hicks.

"They didn't know. And I did it often. I never slept in my parent's house, but I did go to my boyfriend's."

Roommates were assigned, and the producers put the fifth season's youngest contestants, Lisa Tucker and Paris Bennett - who were accompanied by their mothers - in the same apartment.

After Tucker's elimination, Bennett and McPhee bunked together.

And while everyone ate meals prepared by the chef, sometimes Bennett's mom cooked for the clan.

"I'm a Southern girl; I love my chicken and my mac and cheese," says Bennett, 18, whose album hits stores next month.

"Taylor would come over - he's from the South, too - or everyone would come over. It'd be like one big party. Definitely."

Says contestant Kellie Pickler, "Anytime we were in the apartments, we were dead asleep. Any free time we had, we were shoving our faces with food." For Pickler - who famously tried "exotic" foods like salmon and spinach salad on the show - a highlight was In-N-Out Burger.

"Ace [Young] introduced me to them," says Pickler, 20, who has a sitcom deal with Fox and whose album came out in October.

Pickler started off rooming with McPhee, Mandisa Hundley and Tucker, but, by the time she was eliminated, she was living alone.

"If the smoke detectors went off, it was all Pickler's fault," she says. "I was probably the butt of every joke. They'd make fun of me and it would take me a little while to get it."

Even though contestants had maid and laundry service, things still got a little messy - especially the guys' rooms. "Thank God you can't smell through TV," jokes Covington.

"It was a stressful thing - and it was a fun thing," says Covington.

"It's a full, full-time job," adds Pickler. "The future 'Idol' contestants are going to have their work cut out for them."