When American Idol premiered in 2002, it was the only major talent competition on the air. Once the series emerged as an unexpected kingmaker, The Washington Post reports that it paved the way for 17 other reality singing shows, cementing Idol’s place in talent show history.
A wide variety of singers and celebrity judges kept the FOX series fresh, but even the mother of the modern talent show boom grew stale and went off the air in 2016, albeit with a bang (literally, as Season 3 breakout star William Hung returned to perform his memorable rendition of Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs”). But America couldn’t quit Idol, and the show returned in 2018 — this time on ABC. The one constant throughout the show’s entire run? Host Ryan Seacrest.
While Idol is a competition, winning isn’t everything. Many musical giants have emerged from the pool of eliminated contestants, thanks to exposure they gained on the show. For example, Season 8 runner-up Adam Lambert so impressed Queen, with whom he performed during his season’s finale, that the band invited him to become their new lead singer. Meanwhile, Jennifer Hudson came in seventh during Season 3, but the vocal powerhouse now boasts two Grammys, an Academy Award, and a Golden Globe.
Winning’s not all bad, though, and many American Idol winners have gone on to great success. Let’s catch up on some of their lives and careers.
Kelly Clarkson keeps on winning, even when things get tough
The first cut is the deepest, and Kelly Clarkson carved out a ginormous piece of America’s hearts when she stepped into the audition room during Season 1 of American Idol. A fresh-faced cocktail waitress (via History) with chunky highlights and a voice from heaven, Clarkson had the “it” factor due to her undeniable raw talent and girl-next-door demeanor.
Clarkson parlayed her sudden Idol notoriety into superstardom, finding commercial success with countless pop hits, like “Since U Been Gone.” She won some Grammys, kept recording and performing, and married Reba McEntire’s oldest stepson, music manager Brandon Blackstock. Clarkson reportedly wrote the emotional tune, “Piece by Piece,” about her wonderful relationship with Blackstock and how it helped her heal from being abandoned by her father. Sadly, in June 2020, The Blast reported the couple had split. The divorce was not so amicable, per TMZ, with Clarkson accusing Blackstock of defrauding her of millions of dollars.
But with ongoing support from her fans, this musical powerhouse has maintained her titular talk show, The Kelly Clarkson Show, as well as a lucrative gig as a coach on The Voice, in addition to her ongoing career as a recording artist. Basically, the baby-faced Clarkson of American Idol has matured into a “Natural Woman” with a voice adored by pretty much everyone, including The Queen of Soul herself.
American Idol winner Ruben Studdard remains a popular performer
American Idol‘s Season 2 winner, Ruben Studdard, once told NPR that, thanks to his mother’s advice, “I was prepared for the opportunity when it presented itself.” He had no idea, though, how intense the experience or pressure would be to maintain the level of excellence he exhibited on Idol throughout the rest of his career. The soulful singer admitted, “People say be careful what you pray for because you might get a gallon of water instead of just a glass. And I really did get the gallon.”
However, the Grammy nominee handled that gallon like a champ and has kept going strong. In 2018, Studdard even appeared on Broadway with his season’s runner-up and pal, Clay Aiken, in Ruben & Clay’s First Annual Christmas Carol Family Fun Pageant Spectacular Reunion Show. Studdard also competed on The Biggest Loser in 2014, with Today reporting that he lost 112 pounds, inspiring many of his fans. He also continues to tour and release music, including his 2019 tour, Ruben Sings Luther.
On the personal side of things, Studdard also found and lost love post-Idol. In 2008, he married a woman he’d met at a CD signing in 2007. Sadly, E! reports that the marriage only lasted three years, with the couple splitting up due to “irreconcilable differences.” However, TMZ notes that they had an “ironclad prenup,” making the divorce a relatively quick and easy endeavor.
Fantasia Barrino has had her ups and downs post-American Idol
Season 3 introduced us to the ever-memorable Fantasia Barrino, who rode the wave of notoriety from her American Idol win into a successful career. People reports that she was a 19-year-old single mother when she won the top spot on the talent show. Barrino told Oprah.com, “I felt like change had come and the curse had been broken and I can finally show, regardless of what you’ve been through, you can still go after your dreams.”
And show she did, winning a Grammy and receiving 12 more nominations by 2016. In 2007, Barrino was cast as Celie in The Color Purple on Broadway, garnering rave reviews that surprised a theatre critic for The New York Times. She even wrote a memoir, Life Is Not a Fairy Tale, which was adapted into a TV Movie. Unfortunately, the stress of this demanding Broadway role, combined with the pressure of being her family’s sole breadwinner and poor sales for her second album, sent Barrino into a downward spiral that resulted in the loss of her home, broken family relationships, and a battle with depression.
“I was so busy trying to take care of everybody else, so busy looking for that love,” Barrino told Billboard in 2016, “that I was ending up in all the wrong situations.” Thankfully, she’s in the right situations these days: still releasing music, Barrino announced in November 2020 that she and husband Kendall Taylor were expecting their first child together.
Carrie Underwood is still going strong after winning American Idol
If you watch Sunday Night Football, you know who Carrie Underwood is. Really, unless you live under a rock, you know who she is. But you almost didn’t! The Season 4 winner admitted on The Kelly Clarkson Show in December 2020 that she almost didn’t audition for American Idol, because she was scared: “The thought of me going to Hollywood by myself — and I’d never been on a plane before — it was very unlike me to just go for it.”
Taking that chance clearly worked out for the country superstar. With seven Grammy wins under her belt as of 2020, she’s still recording and performing — and told CMT News that she’s grateful to do so. In her personal life, Underwood has been married to NHL star Mike Fisher since 2010, with whom she shares two young boys.
After a nasty fall outside her Tennessee home in 2017, Underwood broke her wrist and required over 40 stitches on her face, leaving her upper lip scarred. Thankfully, she’s since recovered, but had previously shared with her fan club (via People), “It’s crazy how a freak random accident can change your life … I honestly don’t know how things are going to end up but I do know this: I am grateful … that it wasn’t much, much worse … [and] for the people in my life that have been there every step of the way.”
American Idol winner Taylor Hicks became a restauranteur
Known for his prematurely gray hair and raspy voice, Taylor Hicks started his music career with gusto. The American Idol winner’s first single, “Do I Make You Proud,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Other Season 5 contestants — Chris Daughtry, Kellie Pickler, and Katharine McPhee — have fared well in the music industry, but Hicks’ career as a solo recording artist seems to have stalled. According to Fox News, his record label dropped him after two years, but that didn’t keep Hicks from riding his wave of Idol success into other ventures.
Hicks wrote a memoir in 2007, for which he received a $750,000 advance, People reports. He was also cast as “Teen Angel” in the Broadway revival of Grease in 2008, continued the role in the touring production, and followed that up with a 2012 Las Vegas residency. Since his Idol win, Hicks has also acted in an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, was featured on an episode of Celebrity Ghost Stories, and starred in the 2019 immersive production of Shenandoah in Atlanta.
One of Hicks’ most interesting post-Idol ventures, however, has been in the hospitality industry. Southern Living reports that he co-owns several restaurants in the Birmingham, Ala. area, and has hosted multiple seasons of INSP’s State Plate, for which Hicks travels from state to state seeking the best food each area has to offer.
Jordin Sparks has settled into domestic bliss since her American Idol days
Jordin Sparks has remained the youngest American Idol winner ever since nabbing the crown at just 17 during Season 6. However, she’s managed to navigate the music business quite well thanks to advice from her dad to focus on being her best. “When I was on Idol, you would think I was in competition with everybody else, but I was really in competition with myself,” she told InStyle in 2018. “… But I feel like it is the same, still. I’m continuing to try to make myself better, and to grow, and to learn.”
In addition to nabbing a Grammy nomination for her Chris Brown collaboration, “No Air,” Sparks’ first two studio albums debuted in the top ten on the Billboard 200 chart, she’s performed on Broadway in Waitress and In the Heights, and has multiple TV acting credits. While she’s still also recording music, dropping her first Christmas album, Cider & Hennessy, in 2020, she’s focused on maintaining a healthy work-life balance. Keeping busy as a mom to her toddler son, DJ, with husband Dana Isaiah, Sparks told People that her home life didn’t really change much due to quarantining during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It has been a really crazy year,” Sparks said, “but there are a lot of blessings if we take the time to look for them … It’s been nuts, but it’s been good at the same time.”
David Cook's career took off after winning American Idol
Season 7 of American Idol was famous for its “David vs. David” finale, pitting winner David Cook against runner-up David Archuleta. Judge Paula Abdul told Us Weekly she almost quit the show over it, claiming her fellow judges didn’t think Cook had a chance of winning, but she had fought for him. After nabbing the title, Cook broke Billboard records for debut entries on its Hot 100 and Hot Digital Songs charts — and his career took off from there.
In addition to delighting audiences with a 152-show solo tour in 2009 called the Declaration Tour, Cook tied the knot with Racheal Stump in 2015 (via Us Weekly). In addition to being a bona fide rock star, Cook has also performed on the Great White Way with an engagement as Charlie Price in Kinky Boots in 2018. That same year, he independently released — and did an acoustic tour for — his Chromance EP.
“I’m a homebody when I’m home,” Cook admitted to Unlocking Connecticut. “I don’t do much. I sit and write songs, watch movies and eat a bunch of food I’m not supposed to!” Like many artists, Cook was forced to postpone gigs due to the 2020 pandemic, but released his “Red Turns Blue” single that November, telling People that it addresses the anxiety he’s learned to navigate since winning Idol.
American Idol winner Kris Allen is all about his family
Kris Allen was the first married contestant to win American Idol in a finale that broke records with over 100 million votes cast, the Gazette Review reports. The finale wasn’t the only thing super-sized about Season 8, which also saw the addition of judge Kara DioGuardi alongside Idol OGs Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, and Paula Abdul.
The folk singer, who has since welcomed three kids with his high-school-sweetheart-turned-wife, Katy, bested runner-up Adam Lambert for the win (but we doubt the Queen frontman is too upset about the loss). Following his win, Allen released a self-titled album that spent 18 weeks on the Billboard 200 chart in 2009, but an injured wrist from a car crash almost ended his career four years later, he told Yahoo! Entertainment. Thankfully, the singer-guitarist has since recovered, while continuing to independently releasing music and tour.
In October 2020, Allen told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette that his family of five is his foundation in life, revealing, “My son claims he doesn’t want to do music, but I hear him sing all the time, and he does have some sort of musical ability. If I’m going to show anyone a song first, it’s going to be him.” Allen quipped, “Maybe I’m putting my whole career on a 7-year-old, but I feel like he knows what he’s talking about. He likes good music.”
American Idol's Scotty McCreery married his high school sweetheart
Season 10 ushered in some major shake-ups on American Idol. Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell left the show before Seasons 9 and 10, respectively, and were ultimately replaced by new judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler. Another first? At just 17 years old, Scotty McCreery became the youngest male Idol winner to date.
His career skyrocketed immediately after the securing the title. The country music superstar’s first album not only debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, it also went platinum, was the best-selling country music solo album of 2011, and earned McCreery the best new artist award from both the American Country Awards and the Academy of Country Music Awards, per his website. Not too shabby — especially since his next three albums also landed in the top 10.
In his personal life, McCreery went on to marry his high school sweetheart, Gabi Dugal, in 2018. “She’s my biggest fan, but at the same time she couldn’t care less — which is awesome,” he told People. “I get home and she’s like, ‘Just go take out the trash and do the laundry.'” McCreery’s 2020 single, “You Time,” from his forthcoming fifth studio album is all about finding time to spend with his wife amid their busy schedules.
Things got litigious for American Idol winner Phillip Phillips
American Idol winner Phillip Phillips did not have an easy time of it on the show. According to his father’s 2012 interview with People, the singer-songwriter suffered a major health struggle during his Idol tenure, undergoing eight surgeries to correct chronic kidney issues throughout the competition. Thankfully, Phillips pulled through and thrived on the Idol stage and beyond.
Fresh off of his Season 11 win, Phillips’ first album debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 chart, and he also delivered a top 10 hit with “Home.” The popular singer went on to tour as an opening act for Matchbox 20, John Mayer, and The Goo Goo Dolls — but Phillips had to put his new music on hold in 2015, when things got litigious with American Idol‘s production company, 19 Entertainment, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
Claiming the company was being manipulative about his career, Phillips sued to get out of his “oppressive” contract, not knowing how his career would proceed from there. “I have not felt that I have been free to conduct my career in a way that I am comfortable with,” the singer-songwriter said at the time. Following some headline-making back-and-forth — including a $6 million countersuit against Phillips — they reached an undisclosed yet “amicable” settlement in 2017. By the following year, Phillips began releasing new music again.
Candice Glover has paved her own way post-American idol
By Season 12, American Idol‘s popularity was falling among the masses. With yet another shake-up at the judges’ panel — featuring Nicki Minaj, Mariah Carey, and Keith Urban alongside OG Randy Jackson — the world was introduced to the season’s eventual winner, Candice Glover.
Sadly, Glover’s music career went bust after a series of unfortunate events, including a disastrous roll-out of her first album, Music Speaks, which had fans downloading an empty file, Yahoo! Entertainment reports. “The recording process with people who have been in the business for a really long time was kind of intimidating at first,” Glover admitted to The Hollywood Reporter in 2014. “I didn’t know how to act or what to do, and I was in the studio messing up and singing off-key because I was nervous.” The outlet asserts that a delay in releasing Glover’s debut record likely stalled her ability to ride the (albeit dwindling) wave of Idol popularity.
All was not lost for Glover, though. While she’s since “parted ways” with Interscope records and now releases songs independently on Soundcloud, the singer has also turned to acting, which has brought some onscreen success her way, as well as a Broadway stint alongside The Voice winner Josh Kaufman in 2017’s Home for the Holidays. In 2019, Savannah Now reported that Glover was studying dramatic writing at Savannah College of Art and Design, whose students wrote, directed, produced, and performed the sitcom G.R.I.T.S.
Maddie Poppe found love and her sound through winning American idol
Season 16 marked American Idol‘s official reboot on ABC, with judges Katy Perry, Luke Bryan, and Lionel Ritchie at the helm alongside host Ryan Seacrest. Maddie Poppe wowed the audience with her vocals, but this wasn’t her first stint on a reality singing show. Poppe previously auditioned for The Voice, but no judges turned around for her. (Living well is the best revenge, they say!)
Following her win, Poppe’s first album, Whirlwind, produced a single called “Made You Miss,” which debuted at No. 39 on Billboard’s U.S. Adult Pop chart. “I think I started to find my sound more along the way of making it,” she told USA Today in 2019. “It was really inside the whole Americana/folk [genre] at first, but then I got experience writing different songs, stepped out of my comfort zone and found things I enjoyed even more.” By 2020, the singer was in the process of recording her sophomore effort when the pandemic hit, she told the Melodic Caring Project.
Meanwhile, Poppe’s public romance with Idol runner-up, Caleb Lee Hutchinson, has drawn much attention — and it seems this duo is in it for the long haul. “She really is my best friend and everything,” Hutchinson told E! in 2019, while Poppe tweeted the following May, “I just rewatched Caleb and I revealing our relationship to the world. I’m crying here in bed. He is everything. I love this man.”
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