The coronation comes Wednesday night. But if the real prize is a jump start on a career in show business, “American Idol” will, as usual, end the season with more winners than just the official one.
The previous four first-place finishers on TV’s top-rated program have stretched their 15 minutes into recording careers ranging from promising to inarguably successful.
So, too, though, have many of the weekly castaways, who have also landed sweet gigs in music, movies and the stage. (Exhibit A: second season runner-up-turned-unlikely heartthrob Clay Aiken).
Kelly Clarkson, who won the show’s first edition in 2002, has lived up to her title. The 24-year-old spiced up her girl-next-door image — and distanced herself from “Idol” — to become a major star, nabbing two Grammys this year for best pop vocal album for “Breakaway” and female pop vocal performance for the song “Since U Been Gone.”
Clarkson nurtured her “Idol” afterglow by collaborating with respected music producers and writers, and, in turn, delivering “great hit material,” said Tom Corson, executive vice president of J Records, a label within the Sony-BMG company, which signs the show’s singers.
For contestants, whether they finish No. 1 or No. 11, the key to becoming a legitimate artist — not a one-note “souvenir,” as Corson called it — is “making great albums and having hit singles,” he said. “It all starts with that, and from that, you can build out the artist as a brand.”
Ruben has seen smallest payoffThat formula seems to be working for last year’s winner, Carrie Underwood. The 23-year-old Underwood, a blonde, blue-eyed country crooner from Checotah, Okla., has sold about 3 million copies of her 2005 disc, “Some Hearts,” the fastest-selling debut of any “Idol” champ.
“It’s a Cinderella story,” said Corson, predicting Underwood will become the “next Faith Hill or Shania Twain.”
Fantasia Barrino, who won the show’s third edition, is another local-gal-makes-good tale. The Grammy-nominated Barrino — a 21-year-old single mom and high-school dropout from North Carolina — sold nearly 2 million copies of her 2004 album, “Free Yourself.”
And in her first major acting gig, she’ll star as herself in an upcoming Lifetime movie. Working title: “Life Is not a Fairy Tale: the Fantasia Barrino Story.”
Barrino, set to release a new R&B record this fall, is filled with appreciation for what “Idol” has done for her.
“It changed my whole life,” the raspy-voiced diva told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “That show was a blessing. I tell people I would do it over and over again... It allows you to have the opportunity to be heard.”
Then there’s second season champion Ruben Studdard. The big-voiced soul singer dubbed the Velvet Teddy Bear is, so far, the winner with the slightest payoff. His two discs — “Soulful” and the gospel-flavored “I Need an Angel” — chalked up solid sales but lacked the buzz of the records by his female counterparts.
Stars of second placeOn the it-doesn’t-hurt-to-lose side of the “AI” ledger, Aiken, who lost out to Studdard, has invited comparisons to Barry Manilow thanks to his theatrical style and loyal fans, known as Claymates. Aiken, 27, sold nearly 4 million copies, combined, of his records “Measure of a Man” and “Merry Christmas with Love.”
“I think in a way it actually was an advantage for him to be the runner up,” said Geoff Mayfield, senior analyst for Billboard magazine. “I think that there was already a devotion (between him) and the people that were voting for him. And when he didn’t win, it was like, ‘Well, we’ll show THEM.”’
None of the also-rans have hit as big as Aiken, certainly not in terms of record sales. But career doors have clearly opened.
Diana DeGarmo, season-three runner-up to Barrino, sold a barely modest 164,000 copies of her 2004 debut album, “Blue Skies.” Rocker Bo Bice, who finished second to Underwood, saw lower-than-expected sales this year for his “The Real Thing.” And Clarkson competitor Justin Guarini’s self-titled record flat-out bombed.
Still, for many, thanks to the “AI” bounce, career doors keep opening.
The 19-year-old DeGarmo has just completed a run on Broadway in the musical “Hairspray,” and has joined the national tour of “Brooklyn: The Musical.” Feisty Jennifer Hudson, who also got the boot in the show’s third edition, beat out Barrino to star opposite Beyonce Knowles and Jamie Foxx in the upcoming musical “Dreamgirls.”
DeGarmo is but one of several “Idol” non-winners to win a spot on the Great White Way. Josh Strickland, a season-two contestant, has the title role in Disney’s “Tarzan,” which opened last week to mixed reviews. Frenchie Davis, disqualified in 2003 when it was revealed that she’d appeared on an adult Web site, is in the cast of “Rent.” In 2004, Tamyra Gray of season one was featured in the musical “Bombay Dreams.”
And then there’s season-two finalist Kimberly Caldwell, who now interviews “Idol” contestants as a TV Guide Channel correspondent.
“They didn’t give up,” Barrino told the AP of her castmates. “They got record deals. They’re acting. They’re doing different things, so it’s like an opportunity... Even if you don’t win, you still come out a winner.