Judges Keith Urban, left, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr. onstage at FOX's "American Idol XIV" Top 3 Revealed on May 6, 2015 in Hollywood, California.
Photograph by Michael Becker — FOX via Getty Images
By Daniel Bukszpan
May 13, 2015

For a while there, it was hard to find a show more popular than “American Idol.” The singing competition debuted in July 2002 and launched the careers of such household names as Ruben Studdard, Jordin Sparks and William Hung. In June, 2011, TV Guide reported that it had become the most watched prime time show in America for the eighth consecutive time.

But inevitably, every blockbuster must lose its gleam, collect dust and fade into history. The ratings of “American Idol” began this process in 2012, and in May 2015, the Fox network announced that the forthcoming 15th season would be the show’s last. Oh, how the mighty had fallen.

Not everyone was upset by the news. Some media reaction was giddy with schadenfreude, as in the case of Gawker, which reported the news with the not entirely charitable headline, “American Idol’s Rotting Bones Finally Laid to Rest.” Ouch.

Love it or hate it, the show’s impact on pop culture in the last 13 years can’t be denied, nor can the people that it turned into stars — some of whom never even sang a single note. Host Ryan Seacrest toiled away for years on such long-forgotten shows as the Family Channel’s “Wild Animal Games,” but once he took the gig hosting “Idol,” his days of sharing hosting duties with chimpanzees were over. His stock rose to such a degree that he signed a two-year contract extension in 2012 for a rumored $30 million, according to Reuters.

But ultimately the show is about the performers. Here’s a look at the most successful people who got their start on “American Idol,” based on domestic album sales data from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

 

Daniel Bukszpan is a New York-based freelance writer.


5. Fantasia Barrino

Fantasia Barrino (Photo by Ray Mickshaw/WireImage)
Photograph by Ray Mickshaw — WireImage/Getty Images

Fantasia Barrino, better known simply as Fantasia to her friends, family and everyone who bought her album, was the winner of the third season of “American Idol” in 2004. She followed up her win with the debut single “I Believe,” which briefly topped the Billboard charts that July.

Her 2004 album “Free Yourself” sold over one million copies, earning it platinum certification from the RIAA. And while she never again climbed to the top of the charts, she counts as a fan no less an authority than Patti LaBelle.

“I love Fantasia,” LaBelle said on “The Queen Latifah Show” in 2014. “She’s phenomenal.”


4. Clay Aiken

BURBANK, CA - MAY 06: Behind the scenes during the making of hit shot 'American Idol'. Finalists Clay Aiken, Ruben Studdard and Kimberly Locke practice before the show's grand finale on May 21, 2003 at the Universal Amphitheatre in Burbank, California. Studdard won the competition to become the new 2003 American Idol. Hosted by Ryan Seacrest and with its celebrity judges, Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell the show is now in its six season and has become one the most watched t.v shows of all time.(Photo by Charles Ommanney/Getty Images)
Photograph by Charles Ommanney — Getty Images

You didn’t have to win “American Idol” to become a star, and Clay Aiken is living proof of that. In the show’s second season, he was the runner-up, but while the debut album of winner Ruben Studdard went platinum, Aiken’s 2003 release, “The Measure of a Man,” went double platinum, and he followed it up the next year with the million-selling “Merry Christmas With Love.”

In 2008, he publicly acknowledged that he was gay in People magazine, and in 2014 he ran against incumbent North Carolina congressional representative Renee Ellmers. She beat him like a redheaded stepchild, besting him by 18 percentage points.


3. Chris Daughtry

LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 24: Former American Idol Chris Daughtry performs with "Live" during the American Idol Season 5 Finale on May 24, 2006 at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images)
Photograph by Vince Bucci — Getty Images

Chris Daughtry is the most successful “American Idol” alumnus to record as part of a band and not as a solo artist. The band he sings and plays guitar for is called Daughtry, so its designation as a band is pretty much a technicality. But after selling four million copies of the group’s debut album, “Daughtry,” who’s going to argue?

Like Clay Aiken, Daughtry didn’t win first place when he competed on the show’s fifth season in 2006. In fact, he wasn’t even the runner-up. He came in fourth place, and the winner that season was one Taylor Hicks. But while Hicks’ post-“Idol” release struggled mightily to achieve platinum certification, Daughtry did it many times over.

 


2. Kelly Clarkson

American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson sings after winning the contest at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, Ca., Sept. 4, 2002. (photo by Kevin Winter/ImageDirect)
Photograph by Kevin Winter — Getty Images

Kelly Clarkson is the winner of the first season of “American Idol,” which ran in 2002. Her first album, “Thankful,” traded on her girl-next-door image and easily went double platinum. But she underwent an image makeover that was more rock and roll and less apple pie for her 2004 follow-up, “Breakaway,” and it went on to sell over six million copies.

Clarkson also appeared with fellow “American Idol” competitor Justin Guarini in the 2003 movie “From Justin to Kelly.” It failed to earn back even half of its paltry $12 million budget, and earned savage reviews, such as that by Scott Tobias of The A.V. Club, who called it “spectacularly awful” and a “stinking piece of pop-culture flotsam.”


1. Carrie Underwood

Singer Carrie Underwood performs after being named the next American Idol during the American Idol Finale: Results Show held at the Kodak Theatre on May 25, 2005 in Hollywood, California.
Photograph by Kevin Winter — Getty Images

 

While Kelly Clarkson shed her good girl image to court greater commercial success, Carrie Underwood, winner of the fourth season of “American Idol,” rode it to glory like the mechanical bull at Gilley’s in Pasadena, Texas. Her debut album, 2005’s “Some Hearts,” reached platinum status seven times over on the strength of the singles “Jesus Take the Wheel” and “Before He Cheats,” which went double platinum and quadruple-platinum respectively.

More recently, she portrayed Maria von Trapp in NBC’s live 2013 broadcast of “The Sound of Music,” which was watched by 18.62 million viewers, a gargantuan number. Her acting, however, was much less warmly received. Critic Kevin Fallon wrote in The Daily Beast that she seemed to be “a proud graduate of the school of ‘If I don’t blink, they’ll think I’m acting!’” Perhaps Underwood, like Clarkson and Aiken before her, should stick to singing.

 

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