Throughout last season's "American Idol," Kellie Pickler heard people call her a ditsy, dumb blonde - and she understood why. She was 19 years old from the small town of Albemarle, North Carolina. She had never been on a plane before. She had never heard of calamari and wasn't sure how to pronounce salmon. She isn't a dumb blonde. She just wasn't used to Hollywood, or anywhere outside of Albemarle for that matter. "If that's the worst they're saying about me then I'll just take it," she explains with a laugh. When she left the show, that Jessica Simpson-esque persona helped her land a spot on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno as a guest correspondent, and people slowly began to realize, Pickler isn't ditsy - she's hilarious. They're also recognizing her vocal talent. Despite not winning the Idol crown, Pickler released her debut album, appropriately titled "Small Town Girl," in October, and it promptly shot to number one on the country charts. She recorded it while on the Idol tour last summer and didn't see too much of a difference between performing live and recording. "I sing my heart out every time I sing, regardless of whether I'm singing in front of one person or 40 million people," she explains to andPOP with her thick, southern drawl, which hooks you from the minute she says hello. But all the attention she received from Idol was nothing, she says, compared to when she heard her song on the radio for the first time. "It was really weird," she says, "because it really sunk in that my dreams are becoming a reality." And that reality started when her southern wit captured people's attention on "American Idol." Pickler may be the most grateful Idol finalist ever. She didn't even make it to the top three (she finished in sixth place), but she's fine with that. "I'm glad that I left when I did and I stayed as long as I did," she says. "I really can't complain about a thing. It would just be ungrateful of me and selfish if I were to complain about something that has happened to me so far. If this is as far as I got, then I've got it good." The topic switches to the current "American Idol" controversies, how the judges are said to be too mean this season. Pickler is blunt about her thoughts on the subject. She says there is a detailed contract the people auditioning must sign, and there is no guarantee that the judges will not be mean. Pickler says that even when she went into her audition, she worried that the judges would cut her down. "I knew when I got in line, there was a chance that Simon [Cowell] might say something that would hurt my feelings or embarrass me or whatever, and it's just a risk you take and every one knows that when they get in line. "You know what you're signing up for, so I don't think you can complain about anything. It would be different if they led you to believe something else, but you know exactly what you're getting into." She is also very vocal about how some more established artists say appearing on "American Idol" is taking the easy way to getting discovered. Pickler says the show teaches an artist about the industry and how to handle the time commitment that artists face. "American Idol" is like a "musical boot camp," which prepares them for what is to come when they sign with a label. "Ever since the show's been over, it's been easier. And I have to completely disagree with anyone who says that we are not deserving of this. We worked just as hard as anyone else to get here. Everyone is discovered in different ways," she explains. When it comes to a favourite Idol moment, Pickler pauses and says she enjoyed every minute of the experience and wouldn't change a thing. She says the experience of working with musicians like Queen and Rod Stewart was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. "Every day there was something new and exciting. There was never a dull moment. I guess the most exciting thing about it is just the whole ride. Just thinking that your dreams are becoming a reality. It's amazing."