Ruben Studdard sang in gospel choirs as a child and graduated from Alabama A&M University with a voice studies degree in 2000, but the 28-year-old couldn't break into the music industry until he auditioned for a certain reality competition series in 2002.

"I tell you what -- the one thing I can say is that I tried my whole life to be a professional singer and nothing ever worked until American Idol came around," the Fox mega-hit's second-season winner told the Richmond Times-Dispatch in an interview published Thursday.  "I'm appreciative of everything they've ever done for me, and I will always sing their praises."

While Idol may have launched Studdard's career into pop stardom he proved that he could also remain faithful to his roots, as his 2004 gospel album "I Need an Angel" was certified gold after selling more than 500,000 copies since it's release.

"The gospel album started off being a Christmas album and [RCA chairman and producer Clive Davis] said, 'You grew up in the church and gospel is something you really love,'" Studdard explained to the Times-Dispatch.  "Plus, Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway, my favorite singers, have all done gospel albums. I got a chance to pay tribute to some singers that I grew up listening to, and because of it, everyone thought I turned into a gospel artist."

Studdard characterized those thoughts as a "misconception" and backed that up with 2006's "The Return," an R&B album that may have only sold 226,000 copies since its October release but definitely has a more soulful sound than Idol fans are used to hearing from him.

"[With 'The Return'] I knew I wanted to come out with something everyone would love," Studdard told the Times-Dispatch.  "The album took so many directions. I worked on it for two years, so you can imagine how many directions you could go. But it turned out exactly the way I wanted."

The "Velvet Teddy Bear" said he plans on starting to work on his fourth album in July and his sights set on recording a duet with a fellow Idol winner.

"I really want to do a duet with [Idol 3 champ Fantasia Barrino] on this next album," Studdard told the Times-Dispatch.  "We met while she was on [Idol] and have been friends ever since. I'm hoping this next album will be more soulful than all the ones I've ever done."

Studdard's sound isn't the only thing that's constantly changing, as he's also dropped some serious weight recently when he made the decision to become a vegetarian.

"I wanted to do something different as far as my diet was concerned, and what could be more different than being a vegetarian? It's working. I have a lot more energy. I've probably lost 85 to 90 pounds," he told the Times-Dispatch.  "I do exercise -- cardio and weight training -- but I'd taken a month off and today was my first day back, so I'm a little sore."

Because Studdard knows not every aspiring singer will have the opportunity to show-off their abilities on Idol, he founded the Ruben Studdard Foundation in 2003 to help others attain their dreams.

"[It's] a scholarship organization to help deserving high school seniors studying music and to give grants to schools that need sheet music. Anything musical, we try to give money for it," he told the Times-Dispatch.  "I had a wonderful music education in high school -- that's what promoted me in college. There's no way a child could come from high school with a not-so-good music program and major in it in college... We are just looking to do whatever we can do [to give kids the same opportunity]."
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Despite a cameo in 2004's Scooby Doo: Monsters Unleashed as well as several small television roles, Studdard said he has no immediate plans to attempt a Jennifer Hudson-like move and take the plunge into acting.

"I just want to make the music, man. All the rest of that stuff will come when it comes," he told the Times-Dispatch.  "I'm big on going with the flow. I never like to push things. If an opportunity presents itself, I'll take it. People voted for me to sing, so that's what I feel I should bring to them."