Even though TV had been dipping its toes into reality entertainment for a while, there wasn’t a whole lot in the way of competition shows. The year 2002 changed that with the introduction of American Idol. Suddenly, anyone within a certain age range could become a superstar.
After all these years, some participants stood out more than others. Follow along with us through the past to find the best American Idol contestants.
1. Kelly Clarkson
Being the first winner of the brand new, most talked about TV show carries a lot of weight. It was so popular, in fact, that Kelly Clarkson and runner-up Justin Guarini made a silly movie in the aftermath. The audience was so invested that Kelly could not help but become an actual idol. Not only has she put out several successful albums, but she has also transitioned into a true star who dabbles in a little bit of everything entertainment-wise. She is the most successful American Idol to date.
2. Carrie Underwood
During the fourth season, Carrie Underwood came on as America’s sweetheart through her country style. It was clear from the very beginning that her voice was powerful, so when she won, it was no surprise. Carrie used the genre preference to her advantage and built a wildly successful country music career. From hosting award shows to going on worldwide tours, she has shown no signs of slowing down.
Next: The best country singers of all time (our complete list)
3. Jennifer Hudson
Not winning doesn’t necessarily mean failure. Jennifer Hudson is the best example of that. She was a finalist in the third season, which came close, but she exited the show too early. For many others, that was the end of the story. However, Jennifer’s incredible talent did not go unnoticed. She made such an imprint with her voice that she actually was swooped up by another label.
Not only does she sing her own music, but Jennifer appeared in movies. For starters, she combined her love of singing with acting in the musical Dreamgirls alongside another voice powerhouse, Beyoncé.
Next: Top musical songs ever recorded (our complete list)
4. Jordin Sparks
During the sixth season of American Idol, much of America had a soft spot for the teenage singer Jordin Sparks. She had a bubbly personality and a sound that rivaled that of her competition. She ended up being the youngest person to ever take home the top trophy. Pretty quickly, they had her lined up with duets and tours. Not only have her albums taken off but so has her acting career.
5. Adam Lambert
When Adam Lambert moved up the ranks as a contestant in the eighth season, he was definitely a fan favorite. He had a very unique style and stood apart from the other competitors. It was actually a huge upset in the end when he did not claim the winning title. While it may have felt disappointing to everyone then, he has surely made up for it since. Adam has sold over three million albums and five million singles. Most notably, he stepped in as a member of the global music sensation Queen.
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6. Fantasia Barrino
When viewers learned the plight of Fantasia Barrino, they made room for her in their hearts. She had a tough life before auditioning for the third season of American Idol. The win felt like a Cinderella story and America was here for it. The entertainment industry saw an opportunity to shine a light on her past as an inspiration for others and made a movie about her life. She’s gone on to star on Broadway and was nominated for 12 Grammys and won one.
7. David Cook
American Idol isn’t necessarily for newbies. Before David Cook auditioned for the show, he had a strong hint that he was actually pretty good musically. You see, he was in a band and even started a solo career. That’s five albums he had taken part in already. Clearly, David had a good idea of what it could take to be a successful American Idol, which probably helped him win the seventh season.
8. Chris Daughtry
Shocking results in the fifth season had Chris Daughtry eliminated from winning by taking fourth place. He had been a fan favorite for his love of rock and was expected by many to win. He did such a good job performing the well-known song “Hemorrhage (In My Hands)” that the band called and offered him a spot with them. Chris turned Fuel down in order to make something for himself. His popularity went sky-high after releasing his first record, and he ended up even playing for the Super Bowl pre-game.
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9. Clay Aiken
Many viewers spent the second season of American Idol trying to figure out Clay Aiken. After he finished as the runner-up, that curiosity translated into record sales. His first album went multi-platinum and gave him 10 years as a successful singer. Eventually, Clay wanted to try something else. Gaining a fanbase helped him pivot into politics. The singer ran on the Democratic ticket twice in his home state of North Carolina. While he may not have become a congressman yet, he has worked in a variety of capacities with the government.
10. David Archuleta
David Archuleta was already an auditioning pro by the time he took on American Idol during the seventh season. He won a talent show in elementary school and that led to multiple television appearances for singing, including a version of Star Search. Even though he didn’t win the top spot, he was the runner-up. The exposure David got helped his album debut in second place upon release.
11. Phillip Phillips
If the name didn’t catch your attention, his voice sure does. The eleventh-season winner had the best-selling song in American Idol history from his first album. It’s kind of funny that Phillip Phillips won because beforehand he had auditioned for another show, America’s Got Talent. One way or another, the public was going to get the Phillip experience. The win kept him busy for years with tours and collaborations with other musicians, but not too busy to remember his roots. Phillip has gone back to visit American Idol multiple times.
12. Katharine McPhee
Finishing American Idol as the runner-up in the fifth season was positive for Katharine McPhee. She followed up by being signed to a major label and releasing an album the following year. It hit the charts in second place while her second album was at number 27. Singing wasn’t her only talent, though. Katharine has transitioned into acting on both the big and small screens.
13. Taylor Hicks
Not only did Taylor Hicks have his own unique sound that didn’t really fit in a genre, but he also stood out for other reasons. In order to audition, you had to be between the ages of 15 and 29. The 29-year-old was completely gray-haired when he stepped onto the stage. Many viewers were pulled in by curiosity and stuck around for that chill voice. Having more than one thing as part of your image is an easy way to be memorable, right? His interested fans didn’t turn into die-hard album buyers, but he did end up forming his own label.
14. Scotty McCreery
Looking at the fresh-faced 17-year-old Scotty McCreery prepared absolutely no one for his voice. To throw off everyone, he has a deep country voice. It didn’t seem to fit, but the combination worked so well that Scotty won the tenth season. His debut album was certified platinum, making him an instant sensation.
15. Kris Allen
Kris Allen is another American Idol winner who had the advantage of being in the music business beforehand. He had released an album on his own before auditioning. While he did have some hit singles, Kris never got raised to the ranks of being a true American Idol in the sense of success. Even so, he still goes on nationwide tours and writes his own music.
16. Candice Glover
In an effort to get a bump in ratings, ABC execs started changing the show. There was an unusual time of overly dramatic judges. It was great for ratings but not necessarily for the talent. Candice Glover was on the show during perhaps one of the most interesting combinations of judges; Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj clearly didn’t like each other. Despite the noise, Candice made a name for herself after winning season twelve. Her soulful sound captured fans from all over the music world. Her first album hit as high as 33 on the charts the week it was released.
Next: Top soul singers of all time (our complete list)
17. Lee DeWyze
The Lee DeWyze Band was just not enough for the lead singer. He made the decision to take his singing and songwriting talents to a nationwide level by auditioning. Since his win in season nine, Lee has released six albums. If you can’t travel for a concert, you’re in luck as he performs virtual shows. Using his notoriety, he regularly teams up with charities to help build awareness and donations to a cause.
18. Sanjaya Malakar
In the sixth season of American Idol, a guy with a fun personality and amazing hair had everyone talking. Sanjaya Malakar represented the Indian-American population during his tenure on the show. He may not have won, but he is one of the most memorable contestants. He also wasn’t done with reality TV, as he went on to, I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! Sanjaya may not have that long, wavy hair anymore, but he is still making music.
19. Crystal Bowersox
After three long years of no females in the top two, Crystal Bowersox became a finalist in the ninth season. She didn’t win, but she did get a record deal with Jive Records. Unfortunately, Jive’s parent group, RCA, split up, which left Crystal without a production company to release her music. However, the folk-rock singer has worked on five albums and has done some acting.
20. Bo Bice
Being runner-up in the fourth season did good things for Bo Bice. To be fair, he had been making music before he tried to take a chance on national television. Not only had he been performing at nightclubs, but Bo also had released albums. After American Idol, he hit the top of the charts with the release of his new album. He was eventually dropped by RCA Records. That was the catalyst he needed to start his own label and continue to put out music.
21. Elliot Yamin
Placing third on the fifth season of American Idol doesn’t sound like the greatest mix of things. Lucky for Elliot Yamin, his name, sound, and image were blasting onto TV sets across the country. Therefore, even after he exited, he had options. He used the momentum to release an album named after himself. Elliot’s bet worked, and the album was an immediate hit.
22. Melinda Doolittle
Using her experience as a backup singer to the likes of Michael McDonald and Aaron Neville, Melinda Doolittle auditioned for American Idol’s sixth season. Judge Simon Cowell was disappointed when she finished third, believing she had what it took to take home the top title. Her sound has been described as a mix between Gladys Knight and Tina Turner. After churning out some original songs, Melinda wrote a book that circled around her life before, during, and after her stint on the show.
23. Haley Reinhart
Haley Reinhart finished third on season ten of American Idol. Her time spent showing off a vocal range helped Interscope Records decide to bring her on as a talent. The success of her debut album got the singer an invite to perform at the beloved music festival Lollapalooza; Haley was actually the first American Idol contestant to do so. A few years later, a cover she made of a popular Elvis Presley song was used in a commercial. That made Haley a viral sensation as well as a recording artist. No need to limit that voice to music, she is also a voice actress.
24. William Hung
Okay, technically, William Hung was only a very short-lived contestant on American Idol. He was not a good enough singer to get the golden ticket to Hollywood, but he did something else; he resonated with America. It takes a lot of guts to perform in front of a live audience knowing it will be on TV.
His rendition of “She Bangs” by Ricky Martin ended up as more fun than talent. Who doesn’t love a good underdog? That was the idea behind how he was signed to a record label. After making a few albums with not enough success, William put down the microphone. He now works for the Department of Public Health in Los Angeles.
25. Kellie Pickler
For someone who placed sixth, Kellie Pickler has done quite well in her entertainment career. During season five of the show, she was able to show off her country sound and charm viewers everywhere. So, after her time on the show ended, Kellie signed a record deal. Her debut album sold almost one million copies. The singer may not have won the singing competition, but what about dancing? In season sixteen of Dancing With The Stars, Kellie and her dancing partner Derek Hough took home the trophy.
Next: Greatest female country singers of all time (our list)
26. Ruben Studdard
Ruben Studdard just so happened to have been an American Idol winner at the right time. On one hand, he’s a good example of how being insanely popular across the nation on TV doesn’t necessarily make you a superstar when the curtains close. That includes even when you title your album as such.
On the other hand, when his album sales stunted, his entertainment career flourished. Ruben has been on The Biggest Loser, performed on Broadway, and released seven albums. Off stage, he was given an honorary Master of Arts degree and teaches classes at UT Chattanooga.
Despite her ninth-place finish on the fifth season of American Idol, Mandisa was the fifth contestant to go on and win a Grammy. Since the show, she has had a successful career singing contemporary Christian and gospel music. Mandisa’s first album hit number one on the Christian charts; she’s actually the first female to pull that off in the chart’s entire history. In the years following, she has come out with a handful of albums, enough to support a greatest hits collection in 2020.
Next: Our playlist of the greatest Gospel songs of all time
28. Josh Gracin
Josh Gracin was in the middle of military service when he decided to audition for the second season. Apparently, the Marines were patient enough to wait until almost the very end of the show to get him back since he made it to fourth place. After the show, he finished his time with the military and was immediately signed to a label. Josh may not be a household name, but he continues making music and tours regularly.
Next: The greatest songs about patience ever made
29. Diana DeGarmo
Diana DeGarmo competed in season three and made it as a finalist. As the runner-up, she ended up getting a record deal of her own shortly after the show ended. The success led her to Broadway, where she started her career in musical theater. In the years proceeding, she’s gone on national tours with the theater company. As it happens sometimes, acting on stage brought Diana to the small screen where she was on The Young And The Restless.
American Idol did more for her than just give a musical boost. It’s also what led her to meet her husband. Season five’s Ace Young worked with her on Broadway, and they found love together.
30. James Durbin
Fourth place on American Idol’s tenth season set up James Durbin for years following his appearance. His sound is rock, and it was what got him a record deal after he left the show. Being a popular contestant, he was on several talk shows that kept viewers thinking about him. James’ first album hit the charts at 36. While it may not have propelled him into the stratosphere, it did provide him with enough fodder to keep his fame flame burning for years as he is still making new music.
31. Tamyra Gray
The first season of American Idol was arguably the best. Tamyra Gray was on the show long enough to be memorable after all these years, even though she didn’t advance past fourth place. She did end up releasing her own music and working with others, such as Kelly Clarkson and Jessica Simpson. Beyond that, Tamyra has been on Broadway and television.
32. Ace Young
When Ace Young competed on American Idol in the fifth season, MTV had a popular video show called TRL. So, after he was eliminated from the show, being the first contestant invited on was a pretty big deal. He was able to perform and get more exposure there. Since then, Ace has gone on to form his own band and get involved with other productions and charities.
33. Lauren Alaina
The top two finalists in season ten were country singers; Lauren Alaina ended as the runner-up. That helped her get a record deal and begin her country music career. She took home the New Artist award at the American Country Awards that same year. As Lauren continues to put out country music, she has won more awards, such as Breakthrough Video of the Year.
34. Justin Guarini
Being the first-ever runner-up comes with its own list of positives and negatives. Immediately following the end of the first season, he starred in a movie with the winner, Kelly Clarkson. Unlike other almost-winners, Justin didn’t have a massively successful album; instead, he went to Broadway. He’s also a character in Dr. Pepper commercials.
35. Constantine Maroulis
Constantine Maroulis was already a rocker from another band when he got to sixth place in the fourth season of the show. While he didn’t win, the singer did go on to Broadway and received a Tony nomination. Constantine’s work on stage has kept him busy throughout the years. He even almost played the title character in a show loosely based on his life.
As the Head Editor and Writer at Music Grotto, Liam helps write and edit content produced from professional music/media journalists and other contributing writers. He works closely with journalists and other staff to format and publish music content for the Music Grotto website. Liam is also the founding member of Music Grotto and is passionate in disseminating editorial content to its readers.
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