Imagine: You’re a singer plucked from thousands in cities across America to compete on American Idol. Some combination of talent and luck gets you through the first round and on to Vegas. And then you keep going. Every week you stand up in front of millions of Americans and sing. Every week the audience votes for you, and one of your competitors goes home until one week, it’s just you and one other singer left as the winner is announced.
Maybe you’re like Ruben Studdard in 2003, and you just stand there, your forehead sweaty, a big grin on your face, and Clay Aiken hugging your right side. Maybe you’re giddy like Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood. Maybe you’re stone-faced like Taylor Hicks.
“All that hard work, all that pressure, culminates in this tonight,” frosted-tipped host Ryan Seacrest tells you, “and you are the new American Idol.” The audience applauds wildly; people are jumping up and down, crying, hugging. You’re a superstar now. Right?
Immediately after the finale, for the next week or so, you’re up before the crack of dawn. Talk shows, interviews, mall appearances. The 7 former Idol finalists I talked to barely remembered this period of time—things were moving so fast.
But then what?
“That’s probably the hardest road you’ll ever walk,” Danny Gokey, who came in third place in season 8, told me. “The road after American Idol.”
From the very beginning, American Idol promised to pluck a talent from obscurity and make him or her a star. America would watch as judges traveled across the country, listening to thousands of young people sing renditions of “Amazing Grace” and “A Whole New World”—diamonds in the rough. Idol would find these hidden talents, give them a spotlight, and make them famous.
But, of course, first and foremost, American Idol is a televised talent show. The true goal was not to launch an unknown into superstardom, but to attract viewers. Still, it sold the American Dream. When the program premiered in 2002, the iTunes store hadn’t even launched yet. There was no YouTube. A hopeful singer had to go the traditional, mysterious route of somehow getting a record label's attention. But American Idol convinced viewers that by participating in the show, they were choosing America’s next pop icon.
To the show’s credit, sometimes it worked. American Idol produced a couple of bonafide superstars. Kelly Clarkson, the show’s first winner, remains a successful commercial artist 15 years later. Carrie Underwood, the fourth season’s champ, is equally as powerful. Underwood shared that season with Jennifer Hudson, who went on to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 2006.
But while those three are stars, other finalists are less well-known. Jordin Sparks sang the incredibly popular song “No Air,” but hasn’t had a Top 10 hit since 2009’s “Battlefield.” Season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken and winner Ruben Studdard are names pop culture junkies might recognize. Beyond that? The other names have little cultural significance. They certainly aren’t “idols.”
Of the 42 American Idol finalists, fewer than half (14) have been on tour in the last three years. Only 19 have produced new music since 2013. Caleb Johnson, the season 13 winner, sold only 11,000 copies of his post-Idol debut album in the first week.
It's an example of how much Idol—and the world in which it exists—has changed. When Ruben Studdard released his first album Soulful in 2003, he sold 400,000 copies in the first week and debuted at number one.
Studdard was on the show at its height. “When I auditioned, there had only been the first season,” Studdard told me. “So there was buzz, but it wasn’t huge. When our season started, it was complete pandemonium. You’re in this bubble, so you don’t really get to see how crazy people are about the show.”
And people were crazy about American Idol back then. A whopping 24 million votes were cast in the season 2 finale. But after his win, Studdard still had to find his footing in a steadily-shifting music business—one which would completely transform over the next decade.
Studdard wasn’t completely new to the industry when he auditioned. Before Idol, he was in a jazz band, and only tried out because one of his band’s back-up singers wanted him to go with her to the auditions in Nashville. “I got up there and something just told me, like, this might be your shot.” He was right.
Almost all of the 42 Idol contestants who finished in the top 3 had some music experience before they landed on the show. Kelly Clarkson had already put out a demo. Studdard had been studying music since he was 9 years old. Carrie Underwood had been performing since she was 14. Danny Gokey was playing music at two different churches. Jessica Sanchez, season 11 runner up, had already competed nationally on America’s Got Talent. Blake Lewis, season 6 runner up, performed a show the night before he auditioned for Idol.
“There was a whisper going around that we didn’t work for our success after Idol,” Gokey told me. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. I had been working as a musician for years, and with some medium success. They just didn’t know that.” That’s how powerful the American Idol hype was. Viewers didn’t see the contestants as former starving artists; they saw the contestants as recipients of all America had to offer: Fame, fortune, and the chance to be on TV. And in some ways they were right.
American Idol took small town performers and gave them a national stage. “I didn’t come into the show wanting to be a superstar. I just wanted to sing,” Studdard told me. “I wanted the opportunity to do what I loved as a profession. I wanted to be able to do that on a bigger scale.”
Idol threw its contestants into the spotlight, but it didn’t necessarily teach them what to do as reality TV stars or “idols.” And it didn’t warn any of them that they might not actually be idols.
The mechanics of American Idol are fairly simple. There are some special rules like “judges saves,” but for the most part, the contest isn’t complicated. Every week, contestants perform a song. The judges review their performance. America votes people in, thereby voting people out. This repeats for several weeks until America crowns one of them the winner.
“That whole show was crazy, but in a good way,” Jessica Sanchez told me. “It was like boot camp. There’s no other way I can describe the show. You’re working all day every day. We did stay in the mansion they show on TV, but we didn’t even get to enjoy it because we were always out working.”
Everyone I spoke with mentioned the relentless schedule. “I had two days off that year. So much happened,” Blake Lewis told me. “I haven’t even seen my season of American Idol because it never came out on DVD and they never gave it to me.”
American Idol comes on FOX two days a week. On Wednesday, the contestants perform and America votes. And on Thursday, someone goes home. That means that contestants have a single week to come up with a vocal performance that will wow America. There are restrictions as to what a contestant can perform and how.
“I had to fight with the producers to be myself. Because they really like to manipulate you for television,” Blake Lewis told me.
“I kind of just realized that it was a singing competition and not really a songwriting competition,” Jena Irene, the runner up for season 13, told me. “I like to write my own music to express myself. I didn’t have 100% closure that I could express myself on the show.”
Danny Gokey, who came in third place in season 8, told me over the phone that his entire stint on the show was an incredibly emotional experience for him. “I was crying in the try-out line,” Gokey said. His wife had died just a month before the American Idol auditions. He hadn’t wanted to try out at all, but had promised her that he would. “I respect the stage and the platform that I come from. I never would deny that American Idol helped me become the performer that I am today. Does American Idol hurt you at the same time? Yes, Absolutely it does.”
For Gokey, and many of the other contestants I talked to, the ways American Idol “hurt” them didn’t have to do with popularity. The show set them up for a career they never really wanted. They had to make sacrifices regarding their sound and look to appeal to the broadest possible audience—when that wasn’t necessarily who they wanted their fan base to be.
“American Idol is a crash course in the entertainment business. You basically have six months from the time that the show starts to figure out just how business runs,” Studdard told me. Some of that, he said, was good: You learned how songs were marketed and what kind of performances could get you fans. But there was a sharp edge to this knowledge once the season ended. “Everybody knows me from Idol. That doesn’t mean they were fans of my music.”
Singing to win—or at least, compete—on Idol often meant singing songs that weren't what you really wanted to sing. “On Idol you have to do a lot of ballads because you’re trying to [showcase] your voice,” Jessica Sanchez told me. “It’s hard when I was 16 and singing ballads, and now I’m 20, and saying 'This is who I am,' and it’s someone different.”
Some artists weren't able perform the kind of music they think defines them. “It was a great starting point for me, but now that I get to actually speak my mind… it took a while for me to be comfortable with it,” Irene told me. “It’s a family-oriented show. I felt like I always had to put a face on.”
And it’s hard to find yourself in the wake of such an exhausting and public process. As soon as the season ends, finalists start prepping for the American Idol Tour, which puts them in theaters around the country and (hopefully) in front of label executives who might want to sign them. The hope, by most contestants, is that they’ll get signed to 19 Entertainment.
19 Entertainment is the company that manages the show—every contestant signs a contract with 19 to appear on the program. If a contestant makes it through the tour, 19 has the option to renew their contract and take them on as a full time client.
“I think one of the biggest misconceptions about that show is that if you do well, you’re set. But everyone goes on that show to get signed to that contract,” Gokey told me. “The Idol contracts are some of the best in the industry. If Idol doesn’t want you? They drop you.”
Gokey didn’t get signed to 19 Entertainment at the end of the tour: “It’s hard not to feel like a failure.” He had to find his own way in an industry where he now had a fanbase, but no representation to help him make and distribute music.
For contestants with a good understanding of the industry, the opportunity was one they could capitalize on. Take Elliot Yamin, who finished third in season 5, for example. “I feel like I had a leg up, looking back. I have a cousin who was a successful music producer and had been for years,” Yamin said. Once he found himself on national TV, the cousin started taking his calls. “19 manages you on the show, and you aren’t allowed to talk to [other companies]. But my cousin introduced me to my first manager, so I was able to figure some things out early.”
Yamin realized that 19 Entertainment was not going to pick up his option at the end of the tour, so he says he called Simon Cowell, who judged many of the seasons, and they struck a deal. Idol told Yamin he could work on his first album as long as he didn’t put one out before his season’s 2 finalists: Katherine McPhee and Taylor Hicks. (19 Entertainment did not respond to requests for comment.)
"Somebody has to really sit you down and say listen, this is what’s going to happen, and also you have to understand that people expect a lot out of you,” Studdard said.
But for so many former contestants, nobody ever does.
“American Idol is such a commercialized show, they have it down to a science and they are successful for a reason,” Irene told me. “[But] I had to find someone to work with after the show ended, to help me.”
Success is never guaranteed. Even the artists who won American Idol, and got the contract, still had hurdles to jump.
“You go from being able to be yourself at home to [needing] police officers to [protect] you at the grocery store,” Studdard said. “It was a weird transition and I had no idea how to handle it.”
And though not every Idol winner has had to navigate the level of fame that followed Clarkson, Studdard and Underwood, they all had to try and create a successful first album as quickly as possible.
“If you don’t make it with your first record deal, then you just don’t make it.” Gokey said. “If you don’t know how to balance, the expectations will drill you to the ground because you feel like you’re a has-been. There have been so many people on that show and the great majority of them are probably not doing what they want to be doing.”
But some artists saw Idol as a stepping stone. For Kris Allen, who won season 8, the program has allowed him to do something he loves for a living—even if it didn’t give him everything he wanted in a career. “It’s just an opportunity,” he told me. “It’s a TV show that puts you in front of a lot of people and gives someone like me—who had no opportunity or even the thought of playing music for a living—a chance.”
Today, in the 15th season of American Idol, that statement already feels outdated. The idea that TV is a good way to break through as a musical artist predates the rise of internet stars. As Spencer Kornhaber wrote for The Atlantic, “For a chance to be discovered, you needn’t line up for a day to sing for 30 seconds of 'I Have Nothing' in front of Jennifer Lopez. You need only get on YouTube or Vine and start selling yourself with much the same combination of skills and expertise any viewer could pick up watching Idol for a few seasons.”
Since 2010, the show has steadily lost viewers; this final season is being watched by a fraction of its former audience. When Ruben Studdard won American Idol in 2003, 38 million people watched. When season fourteen’s champion Nick Fradiani won last year, only 8 million people tuned in for his final performance.
In many ways, the life cycle of the show has mirrored the careers of its winners. After a strong and prominent rise to fame, the hardest part is keeping a career afloat—building a fanbase that will stick with you if you change genres or appearances. Unlike the show, though, American Idol’s contestants aren’t giving up.
Despite how few contestants have become true superstars, so many of them have found moderate success. Excluding the season 14 finalists, 33 of the 39 Idol finalists with enough time to complete an album have done so. Of the 42 total finalists, 30 have had a single chart on the Billboard 200.
“The value of being on American Idol is that you get people to hear you,” Studdard told me. Idol may not give you the American Dream, but it certainly gives you a chance.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.