Certainly, few talent shows have had as big an impact as American Idol. Between 2002 and 2016, the series introduced us to some of modern music’s biggest stars – as well as some of its most hilarious chancers. But though a number of its contestants have gone on to enjoy successful careers, others haven’t been as lucky. And some have made good on their fame in unique and surprising ways. Here’s how the series’ winners and losers have fared after appearing on the show.
20. Kelly Clarkson
American Idol’s very first winner, Kelly Clarkson received the top prize back in 2002. After her debut single “A Moment Like This” reached the top of the Billboard charts, the singer cemented her fame with songs such as “Since U Been Gone.” These days, Clarkson is still going strong and her 2016 deal with Atlantic Records should ensure the hits keep coming.
19. Trent Harmon
Next we go from Idol’s first winner to its last. Trent Harmon walked away with the top prize in 2016. While time will tell regarding his career’s longevity, Harmon – who is best remembered for his version of Sia’s “Chandelier” – is currently working on his country-tinged debut album.
18. Justin Guarini
Despite losing to Kelly Clarkson in Idol’s first season, Justin Guarini nevertheless went on to forge a career of his own. Besides an ill-fated move to acting with the aforementioned From Justin to Kelly, Guarini released two albums and currently performs on Broadway. However, an open letter from 2013 – in which the star admitted to sometimes skipping meals – shows that his ride hasn’t always been easy.
17. Jordin Sparks
The youngest contestant to ever be crowned winner at the time, Jordin Sparks was only 17 when she emerged victorious on Idol’s sixth season. Following her first single “This is My Now,” Sparks went on to duet with Chris Brown and made her film debut in 2012’s Sparkle. However, she still finds time for music and released her third album Right Here Right in 2015.
16. Ruben Studdard
Following his phenomenal season two win, Ruben Studdard seemed poised for big things. Indeed, his debut album Soulful received one million pre-orders and his single “Superstar” earned a Grammy nomination. Now acting as well as performing, Studdard is also famous for his stint on The Biggest Loser through which he lost 112 pounds.
15. Lee DeWyze
Although he became Idol’s sixth season winner, Lee DeWyze didn’t sustain success for long. In fact, the singer was quickly dropped by RCA Records, which had released his debut Live It Up. However, DeWyze – now signed with Vanguard Records – doesn’t seem to feel any ill will. “I thank God every day that I get to do what I love,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 2013.
14. Phillip Phillips
Like fellow winner DeWyze, Phillip Phillips suffered some bad post-Idol luck. After his season 11 victory, the singer was sued by label 19 Recordings for the monumental figure of $6 million. Nevertheless, Phillips remains hard at work and is currently working on his third album.
13. Adam Lambert
Although he never managed to win over Idol’s audience, season eight runner-up Adam Lambert gained praise from an incredible source. After his stint on the show, the singer was asked to fill Freddie Mercury’s sizable shoes by the remaining members of Queen. Now fronting one of the greatest rock bands of all time, Lambert has been touring steadily with the group since 2011.
12. Fantasia Barrino
Since winning the third season of Idol, Fantasia Barrino has accomplished feats most singers could only dream of. In 2011 – seven years after rising to fame – the musician earned a Grammy on the back of her single “Bittersweet.” If that wasn’t enough, just two years on from her Idol victory she starred in a TV film about her life.
11. Taylor Hicks
Peer respect is a treasured commodity in the music world and Taylor Hicks has it in spades. Following his fifth season win, the singer would go on to perform with legendary artists such as Jackson Browne and Willie Nelson. But Hicks isn’t content with musical success alone. In fact, he reinvented himself as a TV star with INSP’s cooking show State Plate.
10. David Cook
Despite winning over Idol’s seventh season audience, David Cook hasn’t had the same rapport with certain music industry bigwigs. In 2012 the singer parted ways with RCA Records, even though his self-titled debut had sold one million copies. Thankfully, Cook bounced back and he continues to release music through Warner/Chappell.
9. Ace Young & Diana DeGarmo
Neither Ace Young nor Diana DeGarmo walked away from their respective seasons with the top prize, but they both managed to find something even better. After meeting at a 2010 production of Hair, the fifth and third season contestants instantly hit it off. And following a three-year relationship, the pair eventually married in 2013.
8. Nick Fradiani
Being dropped from a label can be painful, but season 14 winner Nick Fradiani has kept his smile since parting with Big Machine this year. “It just wasn’t the right fit,” he told Billboard in January 2017. “I couldn’t be more happy.” Let’s hope the young singer finds a new outlet for his music in the near future.
7. Scotty McReery
In a similar vein to Nick Fradiani, Scotty McCreery found his fortunes wavering after winning Idol’s tenth season. In 2016 he was released from his contract with Universal Music after two chart-topping albums. While his future in music looks uncertain, McCreery seems to be turning his attention to writing, with his first book hitting stores in late 2016.
6. Kris Allen
Since winning season eight of Idol, Kris Allen has maintained a steady career with five albums to his name. But the singer experienced near-tragedy in 2013 when a car crash left him with extensive damage to his wrist. Although he’s still relearning how to play the guitar, Allen has continued soldiering on with his work.
5. Clay Aiken
It’s not unusual for musicians to change direction mid-career, but Clay Aiken seems to have outdone them all. Indeed, in 2014 the second season runner-up commenced an impressive election campaign for North Carolina’s 2nd congressional district. Although he lost to Republican Renee Ellmers, the Democratic candidate gained a respectable 41 percent share of votes.
4. Candice Glover
When Randy Jackson declared her cover of The Cure’s “Lovesong” to be “one of the greatest performances” in Idol’s history, Candice Glover seemed destined for big things. Nevertheless, the season 12 winner’s Music Speaks album became the lowest selling debut by first-week sales for any Idol champion. Let’s hope Glover – now working on her sophomore effort – can still make good on her potential.
3. Caleb Johnson
Another Idol winner who parted ways with their label, season 13 winner Caleb Johnson left Interscope records in 2015. However, the singer has found a new lease of life through crowdfunding sites. As of 2016 Johnson has been working on new material financed through PledgeMusic.
2. Carrie Underwood
Few Idol stars have even come close to the level of success enjoyed by season four winner Carrie Underwood. She’s gone on to sell 15 million albums in the U.S., which is more than any other contestant. In fact, she’s become one of the best-selling country musicians of all time, and her eight-time platinum debut Some Hearts is the century’s highest selling country record. Underwood also became the only country artist to reach number one six times with 2015’s Storyteller.
1. William Hung
While he didn’t even make it past the audition stage of season three, William Hung won over audiences with his so bad it’s good performance of Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs.” Since then, the former engineering student has become a minor celebrity and even sang at the Rogers Centre in 2004. Nonetheless, Hung has given up on music and now works with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.