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For ‘Idol’ vets, awakenings usually aren't rude

Billboard asked nine “American Idol” stars to reflect on what the show has meant to their careers, what their favorite moments are, and how they’ve managed the transition from the small screen into the cold, hard world of the music business.
/ Source: Billboard

“American Idol,” which begins its sixth-season premiere Tuesday on Fox, is a phenomenon unlike any other. The contestants who have filed through its ranks in the past five years are forever bonded by their formative experiences on the show.

Billboard asked nine “Idol” stars to reflect on what the show has meant to their careers, what their favorite moments are, and how they’ve managed the transition from the small screen into the cold, hard world of the music business.

“I think it’s all about taking every single opportunity that you have in front of you and just making the best of it,” 2006 third-place finisher Chris Daughtry says. “I’m not saying you have to go on a TV show, but you definitely have to put your neck out there, and sometimes you’ve got to open a lot of doors to go through the right one. You don’t know which opportunities are gonna be the ones that seal your fate.”

Clay Aiken
2003, secondChart history: The Billboard 200: “A Thousand Different Ways,” 2006 (No. 2, 489,000); “Merry Christmas With Love,” 2004 (No. 4, 1.4 million); “Measure of a Man,” 2003 (No. 1, 2.8 million). The Billboard Hot 100: “This Is the Night,” No. 1; “Invisible,” No. 37; “Solitaire,” No. 4.

I’ll clear up a misconception people have. When I watched the show last year, I said to myself, “I’d much rather be the second-place winner because the first-place person is tied into the contract and the second-place person can go and shop their own.” Well, that’s not the case. I signed with RCA — there was a right of first refusal with RCA, so I signed with RCA automatically at the end of the show. But there’s definitely not a downside to that at all. I’m happy with that. Every person who’s been on the show at some point wants to distance themselves a little bit, but no matter what, I came from there. I’m only here because of that show, and so I can’t help but be appreciative of that. Any time that they want me to come back, I’ll be happy to. (Working with Simon Fuller) has turned into a really great relationship. I mean, he’s really exactly what anybody would want in a record label head. We auditioned for the show because it looked like fun. I think every year after that, the fourth and fifth (season) especially, you found people who got into the show because they knew something big was going to come out of it. I kind of liked seeing contestants come up out of obscurity. It’s lost a little bit of its innocence, and so it’s not as much fun for me anymore.

Bo BiceSeason/Finish: 2005, secondChart history: The Billboard 200: “The Real Thing,” 2005 (No. 4, 661,000). The Billboard Hot 100: “Inside Your Heaven,” No. 2; “The Real Thing,” No. 56.

I’m just a normal cat from Alabama, and I never really had any idea how big “Idol” was. I would get off work and go play gigs. So I wasn’t really familiar with the show. I got passed on by three major labels before “Idol,” so it definitely helped me. I’d already been chasing the dream for 13 years, making a living at this. That’s a blessing in itself. I had a great career selling albums at gigs and out of my car. I wasn’t doing too bad. I mean, it took a while to obviously build that career up. I’ll always be grateful for “Idol,” and I wouldn’t really run from it. But obviously I want people to look past that and see what I do, like playing instruments and writing songs. I’m not really a pop guy; I’m more of a Southern rock guy. My favorite “Idol” moment was playing “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Freebird” with Lynyrd Skynyrd. I’ve gotten to play with them several times since then. You never get used to playing with your idols, people that you grew up listening to and learning from. It’s cool to see people like that and say, “OK, cool, I can adjust to this. I’m still the same normal Bo that I’ve always been. It’s just on a different kind of level.” It’s just a matter of adjusting. I think back to the auditioning process, the first actual one I did in Orlando (Fla.). Everything was so new. If I could only go back and tell myself what I was in store for that night when I was laying there with 17,000 other people crammed in this building.

Chris DaughtrySeason/Finish: 2006, fourthChart history: The Billboard 200: Daughtry, “Daughtry,” 2006 (No. 2, 1.1 million). The Billboard Hot 100: “It’s Not Over,” No. 28.

I didn’t know a lot about the music business as a business, so everything we did was really new information — the royalties and how you get paid on an album, how many people it takes to complete your team and all the people it takes to promote your album. It’s just amazing to me how many people you don’t see behind the scenes that are working so hard for you. They basically have the option to sign you. That’s their choice; you’re not obligated to anything coming off the show, especially if you don’t win. I was just very fortunate that Clive (Davis) wanted to work with me, and I thought 19 Management did a great job with us on the show, so I decided to stay with them. But my arm wasn’t twisted to do anything I didn’t want to. Everybody’s well aware of the possibilities; they don’t blindside us with anything. For me, (”Idol”) wasn’t about necessarily winning as much as it was, in the beginning, to hopefully get more gigs with my band. It definitely took on a life of its own, and I don’t regret it at all. It was a fantastic opportunity to get my face out there and use it to show the world what I was able to do. It’s all about taking the opportunities that are in front of you and making the best of them and using them to your advantage. I don’t think it’s cheesy one bit. I’m glad I didn’t win simply because I was able to form a band and come out as a band, not just Chris Daughtry. I was never too keen on being a solo pop artist or a solo guy — if I won, that’s what I would’ve been, and I didn’t want that. All I ever wanted to be was part of a successful rock band.

(Daughtry finished fourth on “American Idol” last year, but that hasn’t stopped him from becoming the most successful spawn of the fifth season. As part of the rock band that shares his last name, the artist has been a fixture on The Billboard 200 with his self-titled debut, which has already sold more than 1 million copies. The group just announced a winter U.S. club tour, beginning Jan. 28 in Anaheim, Calif., and its latest single, “It’s Not Over,” is steadily climbing at a variety of radio formats.)

Justin Guarini
2002, secondChart history: The Billboard 200: “Justin Guarini,” 2003 (No. 20, 143,000).

What surprised me most about being part of (“Idol”) was the quick education I got in the business, and the fact that I had so very little control. I was under the naive notion that I would have a little more of a say and be a little more of an artist as opposed to a product, but now I’ve learned how to juggle that. “Idol” for me was the key to the career I’ve always dreamed of. I’ve been working steadily for the past five years doing exactly what it is that I love — entertaining people, not just here but all over the world. I just can’t begin to think of how that could’ve happened without it. My favorite “Idol” moment would have to be the big band night we did. I always loved jazz, and the fact I got to sing with a bunch of great musicians really was an inspiration for a jazz album I released last December. I think the most important thing for me is that people, after five years, still remember who I am and are interested in what I’m doing. There are other people who have come in second, third or fourth in other seasons who have not been able to maintain that kind of visibility, so I’m really thankful for that.

Taylor Hicks
Season/Finish: 2006, first
Chart history: The Billboard 200, “Taylor Hicks,” 2006 (No. 2, 540,000). The Billboard Hot 100: “Do I Make You Proud,” No. 1, “Takin’ It to the Streets,” No. 69.

I saw bits and pieces of (past seasons), like Bo and Ruben. My hometown was big into it. But on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, I was playing restaurants as background music. You know what’s so cool about it? Not only does it teach a child about the history of music and what styles certain songs come from, it is really about America. It’s not about the A&R rep at a label that goes out and hears a person sing and signs that person to a deal. It is about the single mom in North Dakota that enjoys a particular singer on the show and votes for that singer. It’s such a deep, home-grown, American thing. I was an old, gray-headed man in the “Idol” competition. Me as an artist, that stopped for a year, because my writing was not allowed on the show. There were some creative parts of the show from a visual, entertaining aspect. But from a creative, musical aspect, it was very minute. I was able to write all of the endings to the songs I was performing. There were maybe 20 seconds of the songs I sang where I could be creative, musically. There’s a lot going on around you. You’re becoming well-known. You’re gaining notoriety. There are the phone calls from friends that see you on TV and the people who recognize you and want to talk to you when you go out to eat. For me, working so hard to try and catch a break all those years, I really kept my head down and studied my music. I lived and breathed that show, and it has done wonders for me.

Mario VazquezSeason/Finish: 2005, left the show after the final 12 contestants were chosenChart history: The Billboard 200: “Mario Vazquez,” 2006 (No. 80, 56,000). The Billboard Hot 100: “Gallery” (No. 35).

Leaving the show — if you want to call it rebel cred, that’s fine. I just feel like I made a business decision for myself. I just felt restricted, and I wanted to do the best I could for me. I wanted to venture into specific producers, and there were things I wanted to experiment with which I didn’t think (the “Idol” camp) would be into. So I just felt like if I’m gonna succeed, I think this would be the best bet for me to do it. I’m just grateful for the opportunity to be able to move on from “Idol,” because there’s other acts, unfortunately, that haven’t. They’re all in their struggle now. What surprised me, I guess, was going into big business and basically realizing that, OK, it’s not only about making your dreams come true and being a recording artist — it’s a business. I think you wake up and realize you are a business. That happened on the show for me, and you just have to make the best of your business as you’re going. For me that meant going off in my own way. I think anyone involved with “Idol” will always be connected to “Idol” no matter what. It’s such a phenomenon. It’s just up to the individual to break free from it as much as you can, in a sense of gaining your own independence. I think what’s different now is I’ve definitely developed more as an artist. It’s always a hustle, but it’s not as much of a hustle as when you are a starving artist trying to get signed by a major label.

Jennifer HudsonSeason/Finish: 2004, seventhChart history: The Billboard Hot 100: “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” No. 84.

Before “American Idol,” I worked for Disney on their cruise ship line for six months at a time. I narrated and also did all the lead singing for the “Hercules” show and also did “Circle of Life” from “The Lion King.” I think I was on the right track for my singing career before “American Idol,” as I had a vocal coach and was singing on the Disney cruises. But “Idol” did help speed my career along. I didn’t think things could get any bigger or busier than when I was on “Idol,” but it has. “American Idol” is part of my history, and I’m proud of it. It’s helped me establish myself as a true artist. Now it’s up to me to further my career on my own. In addition to working on my album, I’m looking for the next right acting role. I definitely want to pursue both music and acting. My advice to aspiring artists is to just stay true to who you are and never, ever give up. Do your thing and enjoy what you’re doing.

(Chicago native Jennifer Hudson kept a low profile after being voted off “Idol,” but has roared back into public consciousness of late thanks to her role as an R&B singer in “Dreamgirls.” In the film she belts out “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going,” which has drawn standing ovations from theater audiences. The New York Film Critics Circle recently named Hudson best supporting actress for her performance, and she received a Golden Globe award in the same category on Monday. Her debut album is due in the fall via Arista.)

FantasiaSeason/Finish: 2004, firstChart history: The Billboard 200: “Fantasia,” 2006 (No. 19, 217,000); “Free Yourself,” 2004 (No. 8, 1.7 million). The Billboard Hot 100: “I Believe,” No. 1; “Truth Is,” No. 21; “Baby Mama,” No. 60; “Free Yourself,” No. 41.

I could talk your head off about what surprised me most about the music business after “Idol.” There’s just a lot of stuff out here to deal with. You have to really be very strong-minded and believe in yourself. There’s a lot of hype in this business. You can lose a lot of people you love behind this and even lose yourself. I’m getting wiser and wiser with each year. I don’t think I would have made it without “Idol.” It’s so hard nowadays to get into a record company, to get people to listen to your music. I’m from a small town where (labels) don’t scout for talent. “American Idol” is a door-opener even if you don’t win — look at Jennifer Hudson. The one moment I won’t forget is when I sang “Summertime.” That was the day everything changed for me on the show. I wasn’t getting a lot of votes, and my past was kind of standing in the way, my being a young mother. I wasn’t really crossing over to people. But after singing that song, people were coming up to me saying, “I wasn’t into you, but when you did ’Summertime,’ I changed my mind.” I don’t mind still being associated with “American Idol.” But I’m not the “Idol” anymore. To some artists and producers, “American Idol” is just a reality TV show, and they don’t take you seriously. My main focus now is to improve myself as an artist. For me in 2007, I just want to tour and continue to prove myself.

Ruben StuddardSeason/Finish: 2003, firstChart history: The Billboard 200: “Soulful,” 2003 (No. 1, 1.8 million); “I Need an Angel,” 2004 (No. 20, 467,000); “The Return,” 2006 (No. 8, 187,000). The Billboard Hot 100: “Flying Without Wings,” No. 2; “Sorry 2004,” No. 9; “Change Me,” No. 94.

I’d been doing everything I could to try to be in the position I’m in now, but I do credit “American Idol” with putting me in this position. Winning was everything and more. But if I hadn’t done “Idol,” I still would have been pursuing my music career very diligently. I always wanted to be a professional singer. I was a music education major in college for 3½ years. I’d trained vocally from the age of 12 through high school and college. I did everything to prepare myself. I’m proud of the accomplishments I made with “American Idol” and glad people still associate me with the show. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. I feel blessed to even be in such great company and to even call myself a recording artist. To have a third album out is also a huge feat. The way the industry is now, a lot of artists don’t get a second album. My favorite moment was when I won, of course. I don’t think there could be any other favorite moment than being the last person standing. Outside of that, my other favorite moment was hearing Fantasia sing “Summertime.” That was an outstanding performance. Aspiring artists should just continue to dream, stay focused and practice your craft. It’s a cliché to say, but practice makes perfect.