As American Idol sprints through its final season (the “for now” ever understood), it’s interesting to reflect on how impactful the show has been on the entertainment world.
Over its first 14 seasons, American Idol has generated a lot of entertainment industry careers. Not always “stars,” but people who have consistently managed to work in music, films/TV, theater and modeling. Some managed sustained success in a niche. Others managed a hit or two. And lots of alumni have found regular employment playing live, even if they never quite became recording stars.
But a handful of American Idol graduates managed some truly impressive success.
The Genuine Superstars of American Idol
If nothing else, American Idol can lay claim to having launched two genuine music superstars: Season 1 winner Kelly Clarkson and Season 4 winner Carrie Underwood. Both are multiplatinum artists with sustained careers and a string of hit singles. Clarkson is a genuine pop star. Underwood is one of the few women to break through the boys’ club to become a country star. Both have made successful crossover inroads to the other genre.
Clarkson and Underwood each have multiple Grammy wins. They’ve dabbled in acting and fronted major national ad campaigns. They’ve reached a level in their careers where being an American Idol winner is merely one facet of their C.V.s. And far from the most interesting one.
They’re the undisputed American Idol sales champs. Estimates put Clarkson’s worldwide album sales north of 20 million. Underwood has sold over 17 million albums worldwide, but boasts the most successful album from an American Idol alum in the U.S.: Some Hearts has sold over 9 million copies. Underwood has racked up an astonishing 13 #1 country singles, with a #1 pop single thrown in for good measure. Clarkson has 3 #1 pop singles and a #1 country hit duet.
The success of Clarkson and Underwood gives American Idol a credibility not seen by most TV talent shows. Their careers will continue long after the show that launched them has been put into the vault.
Other American Idol Winners Who Found True Success
Winning American Idol isn’t a guarantee of success beyond the show. Several champs have found themselves relegated to the “where are they now?” column rather quickly. A few managed some minor success, with a hit single or two or an album that sold well. But a handful of other winners, while not approaching the success of Clarkson and Underwood, have done rather well.
Season 2 champ Ruben Studdard often gets dinged because his runner-up overshadowed him in the album sales department. But he has nearly 2.5 million in total album sales. He boasts a string of successful R&B singles and two pop top 10s. And he snagged a Grammy nomination.
Season 3 winner Fantasia has become a fixture in the R&B world. Her four albums have sold over 3 million copies and spawned a string of R&B hits, including the long-running #1 single “When I See U.” She also topped the pop singles chart with her American Idol coronation song “I Believe.” She’s scored numerous Grammy nominations and won for “Bittersweet.” In addition, Fantasia became a genuine Broadway star, headlining The Color Purple and After Midnight, while racking up some TV acting credits.
Season 6 winner Jordin Sparks has managed worldwide album sales in excess of 2.5 million. She has three top 10 pop hits (and another that landed in the top 20) and made some inroads at R&B radio. Sparks has made more of a mark with her acting career, with several well-received film roles and a turn in Broadway’s acclaimed In the Heights.
David Cook parlayed his Season 7 victory to global album sales of nearly 2 million. He generated a string of successful pop and adult pop singles (with “The Time of My Life” and “Light On” each receiving a platinum certification). More recently, he’s gone back to his indie roots while remaking himself as a successful Nashville songwriter.
After taking the Season 11 crown, Phillip Phillips released a platinum-selling album. His first two singles, “Home” and “Gone Gone Gone” have combined for almost 8 million downloads sold. Moreover, the two songs were a licensing goldmine, appearing in numerous TV and film placements. Phillips has two #1 singles, and a third top 10, at the difficult-to-crack (and highly influential) adult alternative format.
They Didn’t Win American Idol, But They Won
Clay Aiken was a runner-up, but has total U.S. album sales of around 5 million, in addition to a string of moderately successful soft rock singles. Aiken also boasts a long run in Broadway hit Spamalot and has become a regular TV presence.
Chris Daughtry is probably the most successful non-winner in the sales arena. His Grammy-nominated eponymous band has worldwide album sales estimated to approach 10 million and several hit pop singles, including four adult pop #1s. The band even overcame the credibility obsession of rock radio to land two singles in the rock top 10.
Possibly the biggest all-around star to emerge from American Idol is Jennifer Hudson. Her time on the show helped her land a featured role in the movie version of Dreamgirls, which netted her just about every film award you could name, including an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She’s maintained a successful acting career, with a string of movie and TV roles. She recently made her official Broadway debut in a revival of The Color Purple. On the music side, Hudson is a multiple Grammy winner whose three albums have sold nearly 1.5 million copies. She’s released several successful singles, including the #1 R&B hit “Spotlight.”
Katharine McPhee didn’t become a music superstar after her second place finish in Season 5, though she managed a genuine pop hit with “Over It” and has had several additional singles do well at soft rock and dance formats. McPhee has had much better success as an actress. A role in the hit movie The House Bunny and several TV appearances landed her the lead in the Steven Spielberg-produced musical TV drama Smash. When that series flamed out after its second season, McPhee moved onto the ensemble action drama Scorpion, which is going strong halfway through its second season.
Mandisa only made it to 9th place on Season 5 of American Idol, but she’s gone on to become a major star in the world of Christian music. Her five albums have sold nearly a million copies and produced a steady stream of Christian hit singles, including #1s “Stronger” and “Overcomer.” Mandisa is a multiple Grammy nominee and won in 2014 for her album Overcomer.
Honorable mentions go to other alumni and winners, including Scotty McCreery, Adam Lambert, Kellie Pickler, Josh Gracin, Kimberley Locke, Bo Bice, Constantine Maroulis, Bucky Covington, Chris Sligh, David Archuleta, Elliott Yamin, Kris Allen and Lauren Alaina. They all managed some high profile success after their time on the show that have enhanced the Idol brand.
Even if you don’t win American Idol, being in the right place at the right time and working hard can pay off.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on February 8, 2016.