The Fame and Failure of ‘American Idol’ Winners

It has been a big week for the FOX singing competition juggernaut that is American Idol. Connecticut rocker Nick Fradiani was crowned the most recent Idol Wednesday over soulful Tennessean Clark Beckham. Season 14’s two-night finale began just a day after FOX’s announcement that there would only be one more winner following Fradiani as American Idol is canceled after its forthcoming fifteenth season this January.

Some winners like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood (and finalists like Jennifer Hudson) have become household names with the record sales and trophies to prove it. Other Idol winners, however, have flown a little further under the radar. Read on for recaps on each of the previous 13 Idols.

Season One: Kelly Clarkson (2002)

As the original Idol, it’s basically a given you would pick up on the traction of the new show and catapult to success. Clarkson blurred the lines on pop and rock and earned her first Grammy nomination for “Miss Independent” from her first full-length album, Thankful, in 2004. Her sophomore effort (Breakaway), however, is debatably her most successful to date, housing hits like “Breakaway,” “Since U Been Gone,” “Behind These Hazel Eyes,” “Because of You” and “Walk Away.” It was certified by the RIAA as six-time multi-platinum in May 2007 after taking home Grammy Awards for Best Pop Vocal Album and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance (“Since U Been Gone”) in 2006. Clarkson has since released 5 more albums, totaling 7 full-lengths. She snagged her third Grammy with Stronger in 2013, adding it to her collection of four American Music Awards, two Academy of Country Music Award and 12 Billboard Music Awards—just to name a few. Clarkson has continued her reign of relevancy with this year’s Piece by Piece hitting No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and its first single, “Heartbeat Song,” regularly rotating through Top 40 radio.

Clarkson still remained in contact with her Idol family, appearing in season 14 last month to mentor the Top 8 as they tackled her songs. However, a week later—after 13 years and 7 albums—Clarkson was freed from her contract with RCA Records obtained through her American Idol win. While the end of her contract left her a free agent, sources believed she would resign to RCA sans Idol, and still being listed as an artist on RCA’s official site would point to that potentially being true. Clarkson will perform at the Billboard Music Awards Sunday, May 17 on ABC followed by her Piece by Piece summer tour supported by Pentatonix and Eric Hutchinson.

Season Two: Ruben Studdard (2003)

After beating out Clay Aiken for the top spot, Studdard pre-sold 1 million copies of his debut R&B full-length, Soulful, and 400,000 more in its first week, topping the Billboard 200 in December 2003. His sophomore full-length, I Need an Angel, took a more gospel turn in 2004 but still sold enough to reach gold by RIAA standards. His next four albums spanning from 2006 to 2014 would not be as successful with the most recent, Unconditional Love, selling just 6,000 copies in its first week. In December 2014, Studdard launched a PledgeMusic page to ask for aid in producing a Christmas EP and 2015 full-length.

Studdard got into acting with cameos in the live action Scooby Doo: Monsters Unleashed (2004), Sesame Street (2004), 8 Simple Rules (2005) and Real Husbands of Hollywood (2013) as well as a starring role in Christmas flick The Perfect Gift (2011), which is complete with some Gospel church singing. He also returned to the reality TV circuit for the fifteenth season of The Biggest Loser in 2013. Despite elimination, Studdard came back for the season’s finale to reveal he had lost 119 pounds and to perform Unconditional Love’s single, “Meant to Be.” Studdard has a handful of shows this summer including headlining the Vatterott College Benefit “An Evening with Our Idols” in St. Louis August 8 with support from season two’s third-place contestant Kimberly Locke, season four’s Nikko Smith and season five’s Elliot Yamin.

Season Three: Fantasia Barrino (2004)

Following her win, Barrino dropped “I Believe” as a single, topping the Billboard Hot 100 and holding the spot for 11 weeks. The R&B track appeared on her debut, Free Yourself, whose title track features Missy Elliott. Barrino then released Fantasia (2006), Back to Me (2010)—whose single “Bittersweet” led to her first Grammy win—and Side Effects of You (2013). “Without Me,” her second single from Side Effects of You, had her working with Missy Elliot again in addition to Kelly Rowland. The track’s video was a drastic image change for Barrino with lots of sensual dance moves and neon lights in an effort to remain relevant in the ever-changing music scene. In November 2014, she posted an Instagram clip revealing a recording from working with R. Kelly for her next album.

In the midst of her debut success, Barrino portrayed Aretha Franklin on NBC’s now defunct period piece American Dreams in 2004 and lent her voice to an episode of The Simpsons in 2005. Between her first and second album, Barrino played herself in a 2006 Lifetime movie, Life is Not a Fairy Tale, based on her autobiography of the same name. She continued acting on Broadway in 2007 and 2009 as Celie in The Color Purple and performed at the 2007 Tony Awards. Barrino also had a two-season reality show, Fantasia For Real, on VH1 in 2010. Barrino is still acting and will appear in Tobacco Valley (2016) with Keke Palmer.

Season Four: Carrie Underwood (2005)

As many already know, Underwood would go on to become a country superstar. Her Idol single, “Inside Your Heaven,” made her the first country artist to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 since Lonestar’s “Amazed” five years earlier. It appeared as a bonus track on her full-length debut, Some Hearts, which was released in November 2005. The album went gold in less than a month and was certified by the RIAA as seven-time multi-platinum in February 2008. The album itself was collectively nominated for five awards in the Academy of Country Music Awards, Billboard Music Awards and American Music Awards, and she won all of them. That’s no surprise because Underwood has been nominated for 186 awards in the aforementioned award shows as well as several CMT Awards, a Golden Globe and many Grammy Awards since the start of her post-Idol career, and she has taken home 130 of them. Underwood followed up Some Hearts with Carnival Ride (2007), Play On (2009), Blown Away (2012) and Greatest Hits: Decade #1 (2014).

Underwood has also continued with TV appearances having been the co-host of the Country Music Association Awards with Brad Paisley since 2008. She made cameos on How I Met Your Mother (2010), Sesame Street (2010), Blue Bloods (2011), Nashville (2014) and more. Underwood has also taken on starring roles such as the youth ministry leader of Bethany Hamilton, the surfer who was attacked by a shark and continues to surf with one arm in 2011’s Soul Surfer and as the leading role in NBC’s The Sound of Music Live! in 2013, the latter of which received a mix of reviews. Underwood announced plans for a fourth original full-length following the completion of The Sound of Music Live!. Greatest Hits: Decade #1 also included two new tracks, “Something in the Water” and “Little Toy Guns,” the former of which has already taken home a Grammy.

Season Five: Taylor Hicks (2006)

At 29, Hicks became the oldest American Idol winner to date, but that was clearly not a hindrance in his success. His debut bluesy rock single, “Do I Make You Proud” hit both No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and gold RIAA status. Hicks penned a memoir, Heart Full of Soul: An Inspirational Memoir About Finding Your Voice and Finding Your Way, three months after winning the Idol title, which would be released in mid-2007, a few months after his debut self-titled album. In 2008, he starred in Brooks Atkinson Theatre’s Grease production as “Teen Angel” before dropping his second full-length, Early Works (2008) and third, The Distance (2009). Hicks returned to American Idol in 2009 during season eight to perform “Seven Mile Breakdown” in an effort to boost sales for his last album. If and when Hicks will release new music has yet to be revealed. His most recent endeavors include parodying Rebecca Black’s “Friday” on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon in 2011 and portraying one of three judges for a fictional reality show with Clay Aiken and Ashanti on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit in 2013. Hicks also performed at the Kentucky Derby and played at the Celebrity Pro-Am in Birmingham, Alabama this month.

Season Six: Jordin Sparks (2007)

While Hicks may have been the oldest contestant to win, Sparks was the youngest at just 17. “Tattoo” was her first single, and it snagged No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100. The poppy track appeared on her platinum, self-titled debut album, which also included “No Air” featuring Chris Brown. In February 2008, Phoenix-born Sparks performed the National Anthem at Super Bowl XLII at the University of Phoenix Stadium. That same year, she was slated to open for Alicia Keys but had to cancel several appearances due to an acute vocal cord hemorrhage. Her second album, Battlefield dropped in 2009 and was promoted through touring with the Jonas Brothers and then Britney Spears before her own headlining tour in 2010.

The next five years would be somewhat of a solo hiatus for Sparks. She notably dated Jason Derulo in this period, jumping on the remix of his track “It Girl” in 2012 and “Vertigo” from Derulo’s Tattoos in 2013 before ultimately splitting in 2014. She mentioned working on her third full-length but ultimately appeared to be actively pursuing an acting career. She made her film debut with Sparkle in 2011 as the title character, starring with Whitney Houston. Her next film, 2012’s The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete, featured fellow Idol alum Jennifer Hudson. In May 2013, Sparks revealed via Twitter that she had come to an agreement with RCA Records on the release of her forthcoming full-length, but acting conflicts pushed the release date further. One of these conflicts may have been Lifetime’s Dear Secret Santa (2013) or the 2014 sci-fi flick, Left Behind, in which she starred with Nicolas Cage and Chad Michael Murray. Sparks and RCA Records later parted ways after the latter claimed acting ultimately prevented them from releasing her album. Sparks soon announced her signing to a Sony Music subsidiary, Louder than Life, which is helmed by her upcoming album’s producer Salaam Remi. In November 2014, Sparks released her #ByeFelcicia mixtape with the announcement of her third full-length, Right Here, Right Now, for early 2015. The album’s first single, “Double Tap” featuring 2 Chainz, dropped in March.

Season Seven: David Cook (2008)

Before Idol, Cook had released a solo debut, Analog Heart, in 2006, and his rock-driven sophomore effort hit shelves after taking home the title in 2008. Immediately following the season seven finale, Cook broke a Billboard record by having 11 songs chart on the Hot 100 in their debut week, an honor that had been previously held by Miley Cyrus with 6 debut singles. He performed two tracks on a November 2008 episode of Saturday Night Live hosted by Ben Affleck and then began a yearlong U.S. headlining tour in January 2009. His most recent release, This Loud Morning, dropped in 2011 and was followed by a co-headlining tour with Gavin DeGraw and opening act Carolina Liar. In 2012, Cook confirmed he was no longer signed with RCA Records and then performed a new, self-released song, “The Last Song I’ll Write for You” on season 11 of American Idol. His next single, 2013’s “Laying Me Low,” was released by Idol creator Simon Fuller’s label, XIX Recordings. In March 2015, Cook announced he had inked a deal with Warner/Chappell who would be responsible for the release of his forthcoming fourth full-length.

Season Eight: Kris Allen (2009)

There is pretty much no denying that Allen was outshined by season eight runner-up Adam Lambert—who was even brought in as a stand-in for judge Keith Urban on season 14’s auditions—but that’s not to say Allen doesn’t have some success of his own. Allen’s first original pop-rock song performed upon his win, “No Boundaries” debuted at No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 1 on iTunes’ singles’ chart. His self-titled full-length was released in November 2009 with the first single being a cover of a The Script song, “Live Like We’re Dying,” which reached platinum RIAA status a year later in October 2010. His second single, “The Truth” with Train vocalist Pat Monahan, was performed at the Idol season nine finale in May 2010. Allen then spent the summer on his first headlining tour followed by opening for artists such as Barenaked Ladies, Maroon 5 and future Idol judge Keith Urban. Allen spent much of 2011 performing and co-writing tracks for artists like Glee’s Matthew Morrison and South African Idol winner Heinz Winckler. His second full-length, Thank You Camellia, dropped in May 2012. That same year, Allen admitted he auditioned for Rock of Ages’ leading male role to OK! Magazine, but he believes his singing far outweighed his acting abilities. This is further proven by the fact his acting resume only includes portraying himself in one show, Teen Nick’s Gigantic.

Allen has used his celebrity status for good, embracing his philanthropic nature by supporting DonorsChoose in their effort to raise money to keep music education in schools. He also participated in TOMS Shoes’ first shoe drop in Rwanda in March 2010 and aided in relief efforts in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake. He sang a new track “Where Are You Amy?” in dedication of those affected in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. Allen’s most recent musical endeavor was his third full-length, Horizons, which was released in August 2014. He has a couple of upcoming shows across the U.S. this month and next.

Season Nine: Lee DeWyze (2010)

Fans of AMC’s The Walking Dead would be quick to say DeWyze’s most successful endeavor to date was penning the folk rock track “Blackbird Song” for the zombie drama’s fourth season in 2014. DeWyze has also had tracks appear on The CW’s royal drama Reign and country doctor dramedy Hart of Dixie as well as ABC’s music centric Nashville. Immediately after his win, however, DeWyze released his first major label debut, Live It Up, charting at No. 19 on Billboard’s Top 200. The ninth Idol was dropped by RCA in October 2011 and released an album full of pre-Idol recordings, What Once Was, via WuLi Records in 2012. DeWyze announced his signing with Vanguard Records in January 2013 who released his most recent album, Frames, that May with a mere 3,000 units sold in its first week. This year, he had an eight-date, east coast spring tour that was followed by a recording plans announcement earlier this month via Twitter, saying “Heading into Studio tomorrow. It’s been a minute.” DeWyze also has several shows planned across the U.S. this June and July.

Season Ten: Scotty McCreery (2011)

The series’ second youngest winner following Sparks was country singer Scotty McCreery who was also 17 at the time of his win. His first single, “I Love You This Big” reached RIAA gold status by the end of the summer of its release. McCreery and runner-up Lauren Alaina co-presented at the CMT Music Awards and performed together at the Grand Ole Opry the month after the finale. McCreery’s debut album, Clear As Day, was released in October and featured a track co-written by Urban (“Walk in the Country”). Selling 197,000 in its first week, McCreery became the first country artist to top the Billboard 200 with a debut album. With a record like this, it was no surprise McCreery then kicked off 2012 opening for Brad Paisley with the Band Perry. His next release, Christmas with Scotty McCreery hit shelves that October and he performed two tracks from it on NBC’s Christmas in Rockfeller Center broadcast. McCreery hit the road with ABC singing competition Rising Star contestant Sarah Darling for his “Weekend Roadtrip Tour” from February to August 2013 before releasing his most recent full-length, See You Tonight, in October.

The country star has been juggling his full-time music career with a part-time enrollment in North Carolina State University since the fall of 2012 as a communications major. His off-campus apartment was recently robbed by three armed individuals in May 2014 although no one involved was injured. McCreery is currently on the road supporting Rascal Flatts on their “Riot Tour” alongside fellow openers Rick Springfield, Ashley Monroe and The Voice contestant RaeLynn.

Season 11: Phillip Phillips (2012)

Phillips took home the honor of both winning American Idol’s eleventh season and having the best-selling original song from the show. “Home” only debuted at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100, but it has garnered over 5 million units sold since its May 2012 release. The track appeared on his first full-length, The World from the Side of the Moon, which was released in November 2012 and certified platinum in August 2013. He toured in support of the album throughout 2013 first with Matchbox Twenty as his opening act and then by opening for John Mayer. He performed his single “Gone, Gone Gone” on season 12 of Idol where it was also used in the farewell montage for each eliminated contestant. His second full-length, Behind the Light, was released in May 2014 followed by a summer tour with O.A.R. There is no word on when Phillips’ next album will be released, which could perhaps have to do with an impending lawsuit he filed against American Idol’s producer 19 Entertainment. Phillips divulged information on his unhappy relationship with the company in January, which includes lack of creative control and manipulation.

Season 12: Candice Glover (2013)

The second time was the charm for season 12 Idol winner Candice Glover who had initially auditioned in 2012 and advanced to the group rounds where she was eliminated. The day after her win, both Glover’s debut pop/R&B album, Music Speaks, and its single “I Am Beautiful” were available for pre-order and download respectively. Her less than 24-hour pre-order and planned July release were the fastest in Idol history. The album was eventually pushed back to October 2013 and then again to February 2014 where it peaked at No. 14 on the Billboard 200 and No. 3 on the Billboard Top R&B Albums. The album also included a track co-written by fellow Idol Fantasia Barrino (“In the Middle”). On the one-year anniversary of her debut’s release, Glover took to Facebook to divulge she is “in the process of creating a BIGGER, and BETTER project” in reference to a future release. Glover does not have any upcoming shows listed, but she was in attendance at a few Idol tapings including Wednesday’s finale.

Season 13: Caleb Johnson (2014)

Like Glover, Johnson also auditioned before his big win, which in his case was three times starting in 2011. Once he won the title in May 2014, Johnson began working on his debut hard rock album, which dropped in August 2014 via Interscope Records. Testify snagged the No. 24 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and at three months after the finale, it was officially the fastest an Idol had released a debut album. His original Idol song and the album’s first single, “As Long As You Love Me,” was written by The Darkness’ frontman Justin Hawkins and did not chart on the Billboard Hot 100, which made him the first Idol winner not to do so. Johnson’s first music video hit his VEVO account in late March spotlighting his next single “Fighting Gravity.” He is currently out on his first headlining tour with local support in each city.

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