All eyes are on Katharine McPhee as she walks into a New York City restaurant. It's not the fact that she looks so familiar-or even her new, short cut and blond color-that's making people stare, however. The American Idol alum, whose new CD, Unbroken, was recently released on Verve Records, is also glowing with confidence. It's a far cry from the shy girl who was too self-conscious to wear a bikini on our January 2007 cover. What's changed? "For the last year and a half, I've taken the time to really slow down and remove myself form the whole Hollywood thing," says the singer. During that break, she gave herself a makeover, resulting in a stronger, sleeker body and an improved attitude about everything from her diet to her relationships. "Three years ago, I thought I knew so much," says Katharine, 25. "Now I have the maturity to understand I still have so much to learn." Katharine shares the important lessons that have helped her feel confident and capable of taking on anything-and everything-that comes her way.

1. Try something new; it can be freeing

For months Katharine toyed with the idea of a new look but wasn't sure what she wanted-something subtle or a dramatic change. The answer didn't come to her until she sat down in the stylist's chair. "I was feeling rebellious. That's when I knew I wanted something big," she says. "So I said to my stylist, ‘Just chop it all off and make me a blond!'" When she looked in the mirror afterward, she was a little freaked out, but by the next day, Katharine says she was a different person. "I felt edgy and playful. I went out and bought new clothes for the new me. It was definitely a good thing to do."

2. Embrace the unexpected

When Katharine married her boyfriend and manager, Nick Cokas, two years ago, she thought she knew exactly what it would be like to be a bride and a wife. "I have a huge imagination, so I envisioned what my perfect wedding would be like," she says. "I was going to be Cinderella in a carriage. Needless to say, I set myself up for disappointments. Yes, it was beautiful, but nothing like that! I was like, ‘Oh, my God, my dress is so tight. I'm so hungry!'" Living together also turned out to be tougher than she thought. "Everyone said it would be hard, but I didn't believe them," she says. "Surprise, surprise. It was really difficult! I had to switch from ‘me' mode to ‘we' mode. But that's not a negative thing, it's just a challenge. That's been my biggest lesson since Idol and getting married, that life is not what you expect. Acknowledging that helped me grow up fast."

3. Stop obsessing and you will see change

The last time we spoke to Katharine, she had recently completed an outpatient program for bulimia, an eating disorder she struggled with for seven years. "The more I focused on my weight, the worse my bulimia got," she says. "Now I'm more easygoing. I stopped fighting myself and became more forgiving of my body. Ironically, the weight came off naturally through exercise but no dieting."

These days reaching her fitness goals is her main priority-and she's well on her way. "At my last physical, the nurse took my vitals and said, ‘Wow, you must be taking care of yourself! Your blood pressure is perfect. You're very healthy,'" says Katharine. "Hearing her say that made me feel better then seeing an ‘ideal' number on the scale."

4. Don't fight what comes naturally

Katharine's biggest confidence booster, and the reason she was actually excited to get into a bikini this time around for Shape, is her new commitment to exercise (turn to page 62 to see her supercharged moves). Getting started was relatively easy; it was finding the inspiration to keep going that proved to be a challenge. "When it comes to getting to the gym, I have three requirements." She says counting down on her fingers. "One: location. I found a place right down the street, so I have no excuse not to go. Two: timing. I finally figured out the best time for me to work out. If I try to force myself first thing in the morning, I won't do it. But by 11 a.m.? I'm good to go. And three: Make it fun! I've always been athletic. My trainer, George, incorporates things like tossing a football around so I never get bored."

5. Ask for help when you need it

Despite her can-do attitude, Katharine still finds herself battling the blues occasionally. "I've tried writing down affirmations, but thst doesn't work for me," she says. So every Monday, she attends a women's group meeting organized by her church. They begin the session by talking about the highs and lows of the week. "Sometimes I don't even remember what I did," Katharine says, laughing. "This exercise is so cool because it allows me to reflect on where I am in my life, and also to hear what others are going through. When we're done, I feel more connected to the world and not so lonely. It's the best way to start my week.