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Where Are They Now? American Idol Contestants

America’s popular TV talent competition launched some of its most popular contestants into superstardom while other Idol alums veered off the charts and into the world of politics, religion and onto the Great White Way. . .

When American Idol burst onto the TV scene in June 2002, the show quickly became a national sensation. Co-hosts Ryan Seacrest and Brian Dunkleman (remember him?) guided viewers through this singing competition that promised to make a star out of a young, unknown performer. Idol proved to be the ultimate in audience participation. As Seacrest explained, “You at home decide who will become the next American Idol.”

As American Idol kicks off its 14th season tonight, let’s check in with some of our Idol favorites from seasons past. Whether an Idol winner, a runner-up or a contestant, many of the show’s alums have transformed their raw talent into thriving careers, from hit albums to award-winning film roles. Others have even branched out in politics and missionary work.

Kelly Clarkson (Season 1 Winner)

American Idol got off to an explosive start with Texas native and vocal powerhouse Kelly Clarkson. She wowed the judges with her rendition of Etta James‘ “At Last” at her audition. After facing off against Justin Guarini in the finals, Clarkson took home the title for the first season of American Idol. This victory proved to be “A Moment Like This” for her. That single became her first number-one hit.

Clarkson was soon on her way to becoming a top pop star with the release of Thankful the following year. The “Miss Independent” singer tried her hand at acting, appearing with fellow Idol alum Justin Guarini in the 2003 film From Justin to Kelly. But the pair’s popularity on TV didn’t translate to the big screen. While the film flopped, Clarkson’s singing career continued to accelerate. Her 2004 album Breakaway sold more than 5 million copies and earned Clarkson two Grammy Awards.

Even Clarkson’s split from longtime mentor Clive Davis in 2007 did nothing to slow this pop sensation down. The pair clashed over her album, My December (2007), over whether it had enough pop hits on it. While not as big as Breakaway, the album eventually went platinum. In 2011, Clarkson gave the nation an anthem on overcoming adversity with the hit “Stronger.” She even took the time to help out some aspiring singers on The Voice and Duets in 2012. 

Now more than a decade since her Idol win, Clarkson seems to have it all. A thriving music career as well as a happy personal life. She married Brandon Blackstock in 2013 and the couple welcomed their first child together, River Rose, the following year. Clarkson lives with her family in Nashville where she hosted her first annual holiday concert in December 2014 to support local charities. 

Justin Guarini (Season 1 Runner-Up)

Justin Guarini Photo

Justin Guarini became one of the finalists during American Idol’s first season, but he lost out to Kelly Clarkson. Despite his popularity on the show, he wasn’t able to translate his Idol fame into musical stardom. Guarini released his first self-titled album in 2003, but he failed to make much of a splash with his record. He also tried his hand at acting, co-starring with Kelly Clarkson in the box office disappointment From Justin to Kelly that same year. 

Guarini reached for the music charts again with 2005’s Stranger Things Have Happened, but the record failed to gain much momentum with listeners. Still he kept singing and acting, making appearances in the 2008 movie Fast Girl and on TV sitcom The Wizards of Waverly Place. In 2009, Guarini returned to reality TV as a competitor on Gone Country. He tied the knot with Reina Capodici that same year, becoming a stepdad to her daughter Lola. The couple later welcomed two sons to their family.

Before long, Guarini found success on the Great White Way. He made his Broadway debut in the musical Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in 2010. The following year, Guarini joined the cast of American Idiot, the musical based on the album by Green Day. He even landed a dramatic role in the 2013 Broadway production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet starring Orlando Bloom

That same year, however, Guarini made headlines for a blog post about his post-Idol life. He wrote about skipping meals to make sure his wife and kids had enough. But Guarini later explained his comments had been misunderstood and he and his family weren’t in financial ruin. Guarini returned to Broadway in 2014—this time as Fiyero in the popular musical Wicked

Clay Aiken (Season 2 Runner-Up)

Despite losing to Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken hit it big after Idol. His diehard fans, known as “Claymates,” helped make his first album, Measure of a Man, a number-one hit in 2003. The following year, he released a top-selling holiday album Merry Christmas with Love. Aiken also added author to his list of accomplishments with the publication of his 2004 memoir Learning to Sing: Hearing the Music in Your Life.

In 2008, Aiken took to the Broadway stage as Sir Robin in the comic musical Spamalot. He also had several changes in his personal life around this time. Aiken came out as being  gay to People magazine and welcomed his first child, son Parker Foster Aiken, with his friend and frequent producer Jaymes Foster. 

As his record sales declined Aiken switched gears and returned to the small screen. This time around, he competed on Donald Trump’s Celebrity Apprentice in 2012. Aiken, unfortunately, ended up as the runner-up again, losing to Arsenio Hall. He soon branched out in another direction, throwing his hat into the political ring. He ran for a Congressional seat as a Democrat in his home state of North Carolina in 2014, but he lost to the incumbent, Republican Renee Ellmers. But at least this runner-up is turning his defeat into TV gold. Aiken signed a deal with the Esquire Network to make a documentary series out of footage shot during his unsuccessful bid for office. 

Fantasia Barrino (Season 3 Winner)

After 19-year-old Fantasia Barrino sang George Gershwin‘s “Summertime” on American Idol, she brought down the house and won over millions of viewers. The teenage single mom had been scraping by on welfare and food stamps before competing on the show. Fantasia Barrino went on take the top honor in Idol’s third season, beating fellow teen Diana DeGarmo in the finals. Her winning performance of the gospel song “I Believe” in the show’s finale became her first number-one hit in 2004. She scored another success with “Truth Is” off her first album, Free Yourself, the next year. 

Fantasia Barrino Photo

Barrino shared her difficult past with her fans in her 2005 memoir Life Is Not a Fairy Tale. She had been sexually assaulted as a teenager, she wrote. Soon after her rape, Barrino dropped out of high school. She was only 17 years old when she had her daughter Zion and had to struggle to care for her child and herself. Barrino went on to star as herself in the TV movie version of her life the following year. In 2007, she hit the top of the R&B charts with “When I See U.” She also made her Broadway debut in The Color Purple around this time. 

Unfortunately, Barrino ran into tough times again in 2010. She became so despondent that she attempted to end her life by taking an overdose of aspirin and sleep medication. Barrino was also threatened with a lawsuit by the wife of her boyfriend Antwaun Cook for destroying their marriage. But the resilient performer soon bounced back and worked to promote her next album Back to Me. The following year, she welcomed her second child, son Dallas. In 2013, Barrino returned to the R&B charts with the hit album Side Effects of You. She even appeared on American Idol to sing her single “Lose to Win.”  

Jennifer Hudson (Season 3 Contestant)

Now known for her tremendous talent, Jennifer Hudson didn’t even make into the finals. She was a sixth place finisher for Season 3—Fantasia Barrino took the win that time around. But her time on American Idol probably helped Hudson land one of the most coveted film roles of all time. She was picked to play Effie in the musical Dreamgirls opposite Beyoncé, Jamie Foxx and Eddie Murphy

Hudson’s performance in Dreamgirls showed that she was definitely a winner. She took home the Golden Globe and Academy Awards for best supporting actress for the film. More movies quickly followed, from the 2008 comedy Sex and the City to the 2011 biopic Winnie Mandela. She also served as a spokesperson for Weight Watchers after significantly slimming down.

Hudson has also released several albums, including the Grammy Award winning R&B hit Jennifer Hudson (2008). More recently, she released the highly danceable JHUD in 2014. Despite all of her success, Hudson hasn’t forgotten her reality TV roots. She has performed on American Idol and The Voice

Carrie Underwood (Season 4 Winner)

With Carrie Underwood‘s victory over Bo Bice, American Idol launched its first country star. It’s hard to remember that she was just a college student when she first appeared on the show. If she had finished her degree in broadcast journalism, she would be after Ryan Seacrest’s job, not at the top of the music charts. Fortunately for us, Underwood followed her heart and tried out for the fourth season of American Idol.

Starting with her first album, Some Hearts (2005), Underwood quickly established herself as one of country music’s leading ladies. She scored her first number-one country hit with “Jesus, Take the Wheel” that same year. That song also earned her a Grammy Award as well. More country chart-toppers soon followed, including “Before He Cheats,” “Wasted” and “All-American Girl.”

These days, Underwood continues to thrive. Her 2012 album Blown Away earned her yet another Grammy Award as well as countless country honors. She tried her hand at acting with the 2013 live television production of the musical The Sound of Music. While critics were mixed on the show, TV viewers turned out in droves to watch her perform. She’s also about to take on a new role in her life—motherhood. She and her husband, pro hockey player Mike Fisher, are expecting their first child together in spring 2015.

David Archuleta (Season 7 Runner-Up)

David Archuleta Photo

Born into a musical family, David Archuleta was a veteran performer by the time he got to American Idol. He had already won the junior vocal competition of Star Search in 2003. Nicknamed “Archie,” the 17-year-old quickly became one of the most popular contestants of his season. He impressed both the judges and audience with such ballads as John Lennon‘s “Imagine.” 

Archuleta made it all the way to the finals, but he lost out to David Cook. This defeat, however, did not prevent him from enjoying a post-Idol career. “Crush” was his first hit single and his debut album made a remarkable showing that fall. After touring with the likes of Demi Lovato, Archuleta put out a holiday collection Christmas from the Heart in 2009. The following year, he released The Other Side of Down. Archuleta, a devout Mormon, got an opportunity of a lifetime that same year by working with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The young performer also published his autobiography Chords of Strength: A Memoir of Soul, Song and the Power of Perseverance (2010).

In recent years, Archuleta has been more focused on his faith than making the music charts. He announced in December 2011 that he would be going on a two-year Mormon service mission. On his website, Archuleta explained that “I needed to do something that has nothing to do with me.”

While away in Chile, Archuleta still managed to release new music to the public. He put out Begin, a collection of cover songs, in 2012. The following year, Archuleta released No Matter How Far, which drew much of its material from an earlier album previously only available in the Philippines. He returned from his mission abroad and continues to seek out ways to help others. Archuleta recently teamed up with former American Idol contestant Brooke White to contribute a track for a new charity album Lullabies and Happy Songs.

Adam Lambert (Season 8 Runner-Up)

Adam Lambert brought a certain glam rock style to his season of American Idol. His extensive eye make-up and edgy hairstyles made him stand apart from his fellow competitors and his renditions of such songs as the Rolling Stones‘ “I Can’t Get No Satifaction” and Johnny Cash‘s “Ring of Fire” won over TV audiences. While on Idol, Lambert saw his take on Tears for Fears’ “Mad World” become a popular download. He may have lost to Kris Allen in the finals, but this musical showdown gave him a chance to perform with the legendary rock group Queen. Lambert’s vocals on “We Are the Champions” was just a preview of things to come.

Soon after his Idol run ended, Lambert released his debut album For Your Entertainment. The record included such popular tracks as “If I Had You” and “Whataya Want From Me?” The openly gay singer ran into a bit of controversy with his performance at the American Music Awards that same year. Some felt his sexy antics were too hot for primetime. But no one could deny his vocal talents. In 2011, Lambert joined Queen on stage to perform at the MTV European Music Awards. He did such a great job that the band asked him to accompany them for some concerts the next year.

In 2012, Lambert made a splash with Trespassing. The record reached the top of the album charts and featured the hit “Never Close Our Eyes.” The charismatic performer also hosted VH1 Divas 2012 and made a guest appearance on Pretty Little Liars that same year. Lambert also landed a recurring role on the hit musical series Glee

Still Lambert continues to return to the show that launched his career: He has performed on American Idol several times and served as a mentor and a coach during the 9th and 13th seasons. There’s even talk of him taking over for Randy Jackson. But he may be having too much fun touring with Queen again in 2015 to make it back to Idol.