For more than a decade at its early and mid-2000s peak, American Idol was the nation’s watercooler. The biggest show on TV routinely roped in 20 million to 30 million viewers for its season finales, where such future superstars as Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Fantasia, Jordin Sparks and Phillip Phillips were crowned season champs after months of sing-offs, shocking early exits and countless biting insults from resident mean judge Simon Cowell.
The simple but somehow mesmerizing talent show pulled us in and held us close with corny theme weeks, one-of-a-kind characters like Sanjaya, William Hung and “General” Larry “Pants on the Ground” Platt, as well as legitimately amazing breakout finalists from Adam Lambert to Katharine McPhee, Haley Reinhart, Melinda Doolittle and Joshua Ledet.
As the ABC reboot steams to its March 11 reboot with judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan as well as returning host Ryan Seacrest, Billboard looks back at some of our favorite winners, finalists and also-rans and asks “Where Are They Now?”
Kelly Clarkson — The onetime Burleson, Texas, choir singer and cocktail waitress recently revealed she didn’t even realize she was trying out for a singing competition until her third audition. She, of course, won America’s votes in 2002 and beat Justin Guarini to score an RCA Records contract and release her debut single “A Moment Like This.” She’s racked up a string of smash singles — “Miss Independent,” “Breakaway,” “Since U Been Gone,” “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” and many more — not to mention 12 Billboard Music Awards, three Grammys and four American Music Awards. America’s first Idol and still No. 1 in our hearts.
Ruben Studdard — The “Velvet Teddybear” basically crushed it from wire-to-wire, seducing us with his bedroom R&B and melting our hearts with his take on The Carpenters’ “Superstar.” He’s released six albums to date and, fittingly, he’s about to launch his “Ruben Sings Luther” tour in support of an evening of Luther Vandross covers.
Fantasia Barrino — Things got super real in season 3 with one of Idol‘s rawest performers. ‘Tasia just brought down the house with her top-eight rip through “Summertime,” and her real story was so fascinating she landed a Lifetime movie. Plus, she’s put out six albums and starred on Broadway in The Color Purple and After Midnight.
Carrie Underwood — Season 4’s champ proved that country was king on Idol, which catapulted the onetime Checotah, Oklahoma, high school cheerleader to the fastest-selling solo female debut album in country history, plus three Grammys and more than 65 million album sales to date. Her five albums have propelled her to country superstardom, a side gig acting in TV and film, and a voice for a number of charities.
Taylor Hicks — What can we say about the most unlikely winner in Idol history? The excitable, classic rock-loving, harmonica-blowing singer energized his “Soul Patrol” on his way to a season 5 win at age 29. While his recording career went a bit sideways after a few years, he’s had huge success playing “Teen Angel” in the touring production of Grease and has made a handful of appearances on prime time shows including The New Adventures of Old Christine and Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Jordin Sparks — The teen with the million-dollar smile won season 6 at just 17 years old, becoming the youngest winner in history and launching a double-platinum debut smash with the hit “No Air,” featuring Chris Brown. In addition to three hit albums, she played the lead in the 2012 remake of the Supremes story Sparkle alongside Whitney Houston. While her musical output has slowed down, Sparks has stayed in the public eye with several Broadway shows, as well as TV work in Big Time Rush and a number of charitable causes aimed at teens.
David Cook — The second of what would later be termed WGWG (white guys with guitars), Cook took the season 7 crown thanks to muscular covers of everyone from The Who to The Beatles and Aerosmith. After landing a record-setting 11 songs debuting in the Hot 100, Cook released a double-platinum debut and a successful follow-up but parted ways with his label by 2015’s Digital Vein. He recently self-released the Chromance EP and is slated to make his Broadway debut in Kinky Boots in April.
Kris Allen — The super-approachable boy next door from Arkansas beat out personality-plus runner-up Adam Lambert in season 8 thanks to reliable acoustic-strumming takes on Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” and Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglova’s “Falling Slowly” but really raised eyebrows with his unplugged take on Kanye West’s “Heartless.” Almost 100 million votes were cast in his battle over Lambert (leading to many jokes at the expense of America’s presidential vote totals), and his self-titled debut contained an unheard of nine out of 12 co-writes and left behind his coronation song, “No Boundaries.” By his third album, 2014’s Horizons, Allen was on his own after leaving RCA/19 and has had steadily less success in music since. He’s in the midst of a 10-week campaign for the man of the year with the Leukemia Lymphoma Society, where he’s randomly choosing someone who has donated and writing a song for them.
Lee DeWyze — The third WGWG in a row was one of the most low-key Idol winners to date, rising from a struggling suburban Illinois rocker and paint store clerk to a dependable performer who won thanks to straight takes on hits by Joan Osborne, The Fray, Snow Patrol and yes, Leonard Cohen (“Hallelujah,” of course). His modestly selling debut, Live It Up, came and went quickly, and DeWyze became the first Idol to lose his label deal after just one effort. He recently released his new album, Paranoia, preceded by the moody single “The Breakdown.”
Scotty McCreery — Another year, another WGWG, except this one didn’t play as much guitar, and the big spin was that the 17-year-old country crooner who went wayyyyy down low with Josh Turner’s “Your Man” was the king of crowd work. The North Carolina native had a clean run through the 10th season with almost exclusively country content on his way to the release of his debut single “I Love You This Big.” His debut, Clear as Day, reached No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and he’s sustained a successful country career, including his recent first No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart, “Five Minutes More,” from his first album in five years, Seasons Change (March 16).
Phillip Phillips — Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before, but season 12’s winner was, yes, a WGWG, only this time he did play tons of guitar, and people thought he sounded kind of like Dave Matthews. The all-American Georgia singer sold more than 5 million copies of his coronation song “Home,” and his debut — which he mostly co-wrote — spun off another major hit with “Gone, Gone, Gone.” After a label fight that stalled his career, Phillips released the single “Miles” in late 2017 followed by his third album, Collateral.
Candice Glover — The South Carolina native broke the WGWG stranglehold with her sultry R&B style in season 12, cruising to victory on the wings of Adele, Alicia Keys and Aretha Franklin. She dropped her debut single, “I Am Beautiful,” from her twice-delayed 2013 debut, Music Speaks, both of which performed modestly in a sign that perhaps the Idol luster was fading. She eventually broke with Interscope and her management and recently told fans she’s cooking up something fresh.
Caleb Johnson — You’d be forgiven if you can’t remember this Meat Loaf-loving season 13 winner. The first hard(ish) rocker to wear the crown ran to the finale on the backs of Imagine Dragons, Rush, Journey and, yes, Adele, banging out his debut album, Testify, in three weeks and rushing it out just three months after the confetti fell. It tanked, and Johnson joined the list of one-and-done Idol winners, going indie and releasing a summer 2017 EP, Born From Southern Ground, after raising funds through a Pledge Music campaign.
Nick Fradiani — As ratings began to take a serious hit, the former Beach Avenue singer skidded to the winner’s circle with covers of agreeable songs by Magic!, Train, Kenny Loggins and Andy Grammer. His debut, Hurricane, barely made it into the top 120 on the Billboard 200 and sold 5,000 units in its first week before he parted ways with Big Machine Records after less than two years. He continues to tour and released the Where We Left Off EP in October.
Trent Harmon — Idol wheezed to a 15th and final season with perhaps its most forgettable winner, Mississippi crooner Harmon, who kept things on an even keel with performances of songs by OneRepublic, Chris Stapleton, Justin Timberlake and Sia. His coronation song, “Falling,” was co-written by Idol judge Keith Urban, and his full-length debut is still awaiting release after more than 18 months of label drama and bad luck. He has, however, recently released a new single, the twangy ballad “You Got ‘Em All.”
Finalists Who Won Without Winning
Winning Idol is sometimes not even necessary, as proven by these fantastic finalists, who got close, then ended up with some of the most successful non-winner careers to date.
Jennifer Hudson — One of the biggest WTFs in the show’s history was season 3 seventh-place finisher, who got over her early exit by winning an Oscar, SAG, BAFTA and Golden Globe in her big-screen debut as Effie White in Dreamgirls. She’s gone on to appear in a dozen movies and TV series and released three albums and appeared on Broadway in The Color Purple musical. Fans awaiting her first new album since 2014 have been keeping busy doing the #BurdenDownChallenge lately in response to the singer’s latest single.
Chris Daughtry — The only legit rock star to emerge from Idol placed fourth in the show’s fifth season, but still got an RCA Records contract with his eponymous band and lodged a No. 1 album for his self-titled debut on his way to a spot as the third most-successful Idol contestant ever behind Clarkson and Underwood. The band has released three more albums, and Daughtry has gone on to a side career that included playing Judas in 2016’s The Passion.
Adam Lambert – On a show where playing it safe was often the best strategy, Lambert broke all the rules… and landed as the season 8 runner-up in one of the biggest upsets in show history. The flashy singer who made his name by creatively re-imagining songs by Michael Jackson, Johnny Cash and Tears for Fears, Lambert jumped from No. 2 to a glittering hit debut, For Your Entertainment, a Rolling Stone coming-out cover story and his current dream job: lead singer for Queen. The singer recently revealed that he’s hard at work on the follow-up to his third album, 2015’s The Original High.
— ADAM LAMBERT (@adamlambert) February 26, 2018
Kellie Pickler — Sixth-place finish? No problem. The North Carolina native — who auditioned singing Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” — moved nearly 1 million copies of her 2006 country debut, Small Town Girl, and has followed up with three more albums that have cemented her as a bankable country star. She won the 16th season of Dancing With the Stars, stars in the CMT reality series I Love Kellie Pickler and currently co-hosts the syndicated CMT show Pickler & Ben.
Constantine Maroulis — The smouldering Jersey rocker was cut loose in sixth place during season 4 after blazing a trail with meaty covers of Blood, Sweat & Tears, Queen and Nickelback. After forming his own label to release his self-titled debut in 2007, Maroulis went the way of many Idol cast-offs, with some TV spots (Mozart in the Jungle, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit) and a vibrant, well-received run on (and off) Broadway in The Wedding Singer, Jesus Christ Superstar and his most acclaimed role, a Tony-nominated bid as Drew in the hair-metal musical Rock of Ages. (Maroulis is actually the only Idol alum to be nominated for a Tony so far.) Constantine is currently appearing in the rock musical Jekyll & Hyde at the Sandler Center for the Performing Arts in Virginia Beach and has a new single called “All About You,” co-written by Sam Hollander (“Handclap” by Fitz and The Tantrums).
Katharine McPhee — Season 5’s runner-up couldn’t swing past Hicks, but the LA native’s career has stayed in the spotlight way longer than the Soul Patroller. The lifelong musical theater nerd proved her versatility on the show, despite splitting with RCA Records after a modest-selling self-titled 2007 debut. Acting became her focus, with TV and movie roles in The House Bunny, CSI:NY, Scorpion, Smash and Peace, Love & Misunderstanding, making her consistently ranked among the highest-earning Idol performers. In late 2017, she dropped her fifth album, the standards-heavy I Fall in Love Too Easily, and she is preparing for her Broadway debut in April in Sara Bareilles’ Waitress. (Billboard premiered the first listen of the Waitress song “She Used to Be Mine” this week.)
Clay Aiken — Despite his undeniable sweet Southern charm, Aiken just couldn’t outpace Studdard in season 2, where he almost washed out during the round of 32 only to be saved by a wild-card Elton John performance that landed him in the top 12. But his bright smile and confident singing still got stuck behind the smooth steamroller that was the Velvet Teddybear, losing to Studdard by less than 135,000 votes out of more than 24 million cast. Aiken’s 2003 debut, Measure of a Man, was a certified multi-platinum hit thanks to the single “Invisible,” followed by a Christmas album (and EP), a 2006 covers album with several new songs, and a split with RCA after the release of his On My Way Here effort in 2008. Aiken, who came out after his run on Idol, has done some TV work (Celebrity Apprentice, The Office, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit), appeared on Broadway and worked with a number of charitable causes in addition to running an unsuccessful campaign for Congress from North Carolina in the 2014 midterm elections. Aiken has continued to use his voice to speak out on the topics that speak to him, including the recent mass shooting at a Parkland, Florida, high school.
— Clay Aiken (@clayaiken) February 15, 2018
Lauren Alaina — One of the most charming runners-up in Idol history is season 10 country singer Alaina, who many pegged as the next Underwood. While Alaina hasn’t reached those vaunted heights yet, the singer’s 2011 debut, Wildflower, spawned three hit singles and won her new artist of the year at the 2012 American Country Awards. Her second album, Road Less Traveled, came out last January and she is currently on tour with Cole Swindell and Chris Janson and up for two ACM Awards.
Haley Reinhart — With so many Idol contestants ending up on Broadway, it just made sense that raspy-voiced Illinois native Reinhart managed to bring a bit of musical theater jazz to her third-place finish in season 10 during her notable run. The judges loved her duet with Tony Bennett and she got some love from Lady Gaga for her cover of “You & I,” but Reinhart’s jazzy debut, Listen Up!, sold modestly. She’s since become a regular collaborator with retro-covers band Postmodern Jukebox, released a second album, 2016’s Better, and last fall’s mostly covers album, What’s That Sound?
The Best of the Rest
One of the hallmarks of Idol was that in addition to bubbling up some of the nation’s best talent, it also indulged some truly delusional, awful “singers” during early rounds, and in a few cases, way deeper into the knockouts than you might imagine, plus some decent singers who just never seemed to fit in. Here are some of the best of the rest.
Sanjaya Malakar — The OG terrible Idol singer managed to make it to a seventh-place finish in season 6 based on what was clearly a troll vote thanks to the Vote for the Worst site. Blissfully unaware of his own awfulness, the Seattle teen with the goofy ponyhawk and wobbly vocals stayed in the mix to judge Simon Cowell’s eternal consternation. Yes, he was awful, the internet loved him, and for a minute even SNL couldn’t resist parodying him. He hit it while it was hot, appearing on tons of talk shows, unironically hosted TV Guide’s Idol Stars: Where Are They Now? series, which paved the way for I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! (with not one, but two Baldwin brothers) and the surprisingly soulful single “Talking Circles” in 2016.
Anoop Desai — A decent-ish soul singer, “Anoop Dogg,” as Randy Jackson dubbed him, rose to an unlikely sixth-place finish during season 8, though he was ultimately undone by his uneven performances and goofy stage demeanor. He’s released a series of singles to little or no attention and an EP, Zero.0, in 2011, and appears to currently be living in North Carolina, though it’s unclear if he’s still pursuing a musical career.
Jason Castro — The dreadlocked guitar strummer was charming enough to score a fourth-place finish during season 7 and land an Atlantic Records album release, but rarely has there been an Idol contestant who seemed less interested in the machinery of fame. Castro melted hearts with his Jeff Buckley-favoring cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and after a string of singles and EPs, he appears to have settled into a life of happy domesticity, touring and recording with his siblings in Castro the Band.
Blake Lewis — The season 6 runner-up inexplicably almost took the crown despite thinking it was a good idea to mix beatboxing and scatting into his covers of Jamiroquai, 311, The Cure and Maroon 5. His 2008 debut, A.D.D. (Audio Day Dream), featured production and songwriting help from OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, JR Rotem and S*A*M & Sluggo and sold somewhat respectably (309,000-plus), with two subsequent albums each faring significantly worse. He doesn’t have any current dates, but when he next hits the road, you might be able to hear him beatbox over a sampler and live saxophone over “Seven Nation Army.” For real.
William Hung — The ultimate Idol fail-cess story, Hung was viral before viral existed in 2004 thanks to his truly terrible cover of Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs” during season 3’s audition rounds. The then-civil engineering student got flamed by Cowell, who mercilessly mocked his lack of any musical or theatrical skills. He became an overnight sensation, appearing on dozens of talks shows and earning a mid-season Idol return for Uncut, Uncensored and Untalented. He inexplicably got a label deal with Koch Entertainment in 2004 and released Inspiration, a glorified karaoke album and a Christmas album (Hung for the Holidays), followed by self-mocking appearances in commercials and no-budget comedy films, before he gave up music for good in 2011 to become a crime analyst for the L.A. Country Sheriff’s Dept and a motivational speaker.
“General” Larry Platt — One of the famous joke auditioners in Idol history, this retired civil rights veteran started a revolution with his screed against sagging pants, “Pants on the Ground.” Platt performed the catchy tune to the judges’ delight during the auditions for season 9, and while he was decades beyond the age limit and not a conventionally gifted performer, the tune went super viral, was released as a single and ringtone and was famously parodied by Jimmy Fallon on Late Night in the guise of Neil Young. Platt returned to Idol for the show’s series finale in 2016.