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First season ‘Idols’: Where are they now?

From Justin to Kelly, singers have found varying degrees of success
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Editor's Note: "American Idol" returns to FOX on Jan. 17. Each week until then, we'll take a look back at what happened to some of the more famous names from each "Idol" season.

Four years ago, no one knew who Kelly Clarkson was. Today, she’s superseded even the title of “American Idol,” becoming an equal alongside established and famous stars of the music industry.

While three other people have since shared the “idol” title with her, Kelly has lived up to it perhaps more than any of the others, becoming an actual worldwide idol. Besides placing second in the “World Idol” competition, her songs have been top 10 hits in countries from the US to Australia. She just finished touring in New Zealand and Australia, and will embark on an 11-city tour in Ireland and Great Britain early next year.

It hasn’t been an easy path: Remember the disaster that was “From Justin to Kelly,” the craptacular film that starred both Kelly and runner-up Justin Guarini? Since then, Kelly has pulled away from the “Idol” machine, divorcing herself from her “Idol”-mandated management and contract. Her second album’s title, “Breakaway,” made it clear that she was no longer just a reality TV show winner.

“Breakaway” was a little more rock than pop, and it was a smash. For the past year, since its release, it’s been in the top 20 of the Billboard 200. The album was nominated for a Grammy this year, as was its aggressively catchy second single, “Since U Been Gone,” which surprised many people who wrote Kelly off as just another bubblegum pop star.  She’s such a huge star that someone tried to auction off an abandoned water bottle that allegedly carried Kelly’s DNA on eBay.

Other season one top-10 finalists have had mixed success. Nikki McKibbin and Ryan Starr have each gone on to little more than reality TV fame; they competed together in Bravo’s “Battle of the Network Reality Stars,” while Nikki appeared in E!’s “Kill Reality” (and the resulting film “The Scorned,” which was almost as bad as “From Justin to Kelly”). Ryan filled the reality TV star role on a season of “The Surreal Life.” The only openly gay "Idol" competitor, Jim Verraros, got a makeover and released his own solo album, and had a part in an independent film.

But it’s Tamyra Gray who has gone on to the most mainstream success. After “Idol,” she was dropped by her label, J Records, for being regarded as “difficult,” she says, because they wanted her to perform songs similar to those of season-three winner Fantasia Barrino. Instead, Gray released an album with 19 Entertainment. She also wrote the lyrics to “I Believe,” the song performed by season three’s two finalists, Barrino and Diana DeGarmo.

Outside of the music industry, Tamyra has appeared as a guest star on a number of TV shows, and she’s also starred in a film, “The Gospel,” and in a Broadway musical, “Bombay Dreams.”

Season one runner-up Justin Guarini has not, however, had the same sort of three years as either Kelly, Tamyra, or some of the other finalists. Justin was dropped by RCA after his album failed to sell more than 134,000 copies, he was ticketed after almost hitting a five-year-old girl with his jet ski, and he got sued for more than $100,000 after being involved in a car accident. (The suit was later settled, but the amount and details were not disclosed.)

Justin, who also hacked off his trademark hair, has just independently produced a jazz album titled "Stranger Things Have Happened, which is available via his . The site notes that he “continues to entertain in various locations all over the country, and the world, and looks forward to many more concert, television, and film appearances in 2006.”

As if it wasn’t embarrassing enough that other top-10 finalists have done better than Justin, the next season’s runner-up quickly proved that winning the competition isn’t necessary for success. Coming in second place can, we learned after “American Idol 2,” make for a wildly successful career.

is a writer and teacher who publishes reality blurred, a daily summary of reality TV news.