Contestants on American Idol don’t necessarily need to win the reality competition to achieve fame. Over the course of 18 seasons, a number of hopefuls have gone on to build careers that outshined the success of the series’ victors. Some have had hit albums, others parlayed their fame into acting gigs, and one even pivoted to a career in politics.
As we gear up for the premiere of Season 19, slated for February 14, 2021 on ABC, let’s take a look at the losers who still ultimately proved they have what it takes to be a star.
Haley Reinhart, 30, finished in third place on Season 10. She subsequently inked a deal with Interscope Records, and The New York Times described her 2012 debut Listen Up! as “a taut album full of meaty, thickly arranged pop-soul that suits her booming voice extremely well.”
Reinhart since signed with music publisher Anthem Entertainment, but the switch from a major label to an indie hasn’t hurt her. In 2015, she collaborated with Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox to release a jazzy cover of Radiohead’s “Creep.” It spent 58 consecutive weeks on the Billboard Jazz Digital Songs chart.
Another cover song—Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling in Love”—hit 16 on the Billboard US Adult Contemporary Chart. It was also used in a commercial for Extra Gum.
Reinhart is also taking small steps towards an acting career. Since 2015, she’s voiced Bill Murphy in Netflix’s animated series F is for Family. And in 2020 she made her film debut in Robert Rodriguez’s We Can Be Heroes.
Connecticut native Katie Stevens was just 16-years-old when she auditioned for American Idol in Boston. Once she advanced to Hollywood, then-judge Kara DioGuardi told the contestant, “You could be the potential winner.”
Unfortunately, the judge’s prediction was off. Stevens landed in the bottom three on two episodes before she was eliminated in ninth place. While it wasn’t the deepest run, it didn’t get in the way of future success.
Stevens put singing on pause and tried her hand at acting. The shift proved to be a wise move. From 2014 until 2016, she played Karma Ashcroft on the MTV rom-com series Faking It. And since 2017, she has been the lead actress on the Freeform comedy-drama The Bold Type. Her character Jane Sloan is loosely based on Joanna Coles, former editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan magazine. The series, which follows her life as a young woman in the big city, has received favorable reviews from publications including Vulture, Vox, and Vanity Fair.
Hindsight is 20/20, but Tori Kelly is definitely one that got away. She appeared on Season 9 of American Idol, but if you blinked you may have missed her. Kelly made it to Hollywood but was promptly axed when the top 24 was cut to the top 12.
The 28-year-old was undeterred by the elimination. In 2012, she released the self-produced EP Handmade Songs by Tori Kelly. By the next year, she hired Scooter Braun as her manager and was signed to Capitol Records.
Kelly’s 2015 debut album Unbreakable Smile was a hit. The record peaked at number two on the Billboard 200, and its lead single, “Nobody Love”, reached number 16 on the Mainstream Top 40 chart.
For her second album, Hiding Place, Kelly won two 2019 Grammy Awards (Gospel Album and Gospel Performance/Song).
She has also graced us with her voice in unexpected forms. In 2016, she voiced Meena the elephant in the animated film Sing (she will also return in 2021 for Sing 2). And in 2020, she appeared as a seahorse on The Masked Singer. Kelly survived most of the series, only to be cut from the final three.
Following her appearance on the popular FOX program, she released the holiday album A Tori Kelly Christmas.
Season 10 runner-up Lauren Alaina did not need to clinch the American Idol title to prove her worth. The 26-year-old has been singing since she was 3, so when she was bested by Scotty McCreery in the finale, she still managed to get deals with Interscope Records and Mercury Nashville.
Alaina released her first studio album Wildflower in 2011. It debuted at number five on the Billboard 200, and its lead single, “Like My Mother Does”, hit the Top 40 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.
Her sophomore effort was even better. “Road Less Traveled”, from her second album of the same name, was her first number-one song on the Billboard Country Airplay chart. Alaina hit again that same year when “What Ifs,” a collaboration with former classmate Kane Brown, simultaneously took the top slot on five different charts. As of 2020, the single was certified six times Platinum.
Alaina is as comfortable in dance shoes as she is in front of a mic. In 2019, she competed in the 28th season of Dancing With the Stars. She and partner Gleb Savchenko made it all the way to the finale, finishing in fourth place.
Texas native Todrick Hall appeared on the ninth season of American Idol after wowing the judges with a self-composed song about the show. The 35-year-old made it down to the top 16 contestants, but he was eliminated after a performance of “Somebody to Love” by Queen.
Hall hasn’t struggled for work since his time on the show. His official YouTube channel—which boasts a mix of musical content and parodies—has 3.58 million subscribers. And in 2015, he starred in his own MTV docuseries Todrick. You can also catch him as an occasional judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Hall has released three studio albums to date, including a holiday record, but he shows the most promise on stage. From 2016 to 2017, he performed in the Broadway musical Kinky Boots (the role was even offered without an audition.) And from 2017 to 2015, he played attorney Billy Flynn in Chicago.
David Archuleta was just 17 when he earned 97 million votes to become the runner-up on season 7 of American Idol. He capitalized on his fresh-faced, squeaky-clean image with his 2008 self-titled debut album. His first single, “Crush”, was released less than three months after Idol’s season finale and peaked at number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100.
A devout Mormon, the rising star took a two-year hiatus in 2012 to serve as a missionary in Chile on behalf of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Archuleta has released a total of nine studio albums, his most recent being 2020’s Therapy Sessions. The single “Just Breathe” was dedicated to frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic and money earned from YouTube views was donated to the nonprofit organization Direct Relief.
Season 5 runner-up Katharine McPhee couldn’t edge out soul singer (and winner) Taylor Hicks to take the title, but that’s alright. American Idol was just one stop on a journey that led her to the stage and small screen.
McPhee’s self-titled debut album was released in 2007. The first single, “Over It”, peaked at number 29 on the Billboard Hot 100. But all the while, the young artist was taking steps to boost her acting career. She made a cameo on Ugly Betty and appeared in the 2008 comedy The House Bunny starring Anna Faris. She’s also had guest parts on CSI: NY and the NBC comedy Community.
McPhee was given more prominent billing in NBC’s Smash and CBS’s Scorpion. She’s also an impressive stage actress—in 2018 and 2019, she starred as Jenna in the Broadway and West End productions of the musical Waitress.
Country singer Kellie Pickler finished in sixth place on American Idol’s fifth season, but her post-Idol career is nothing to sneeze at. The North Carolina native, 34, has released four studio albums to date. Her debut, Small Town Girl, was certified Gold and boasts three singles that made in onto Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.
In 2013, she partnered with Derek Hough to win the sixteenth season of Dancing with the Stars.
But Pickler fans appreciate her girl-next-door personality as much as her musical and dancing talents. From 2017 to 2019, she and media personality Ben Aron co-hosted the syndicated daytime talk show Pickler & Ben.
Clay Aiken has had a busy and diverse career since losing to Ruben Studdard on Season 2 of American Idol. In 2003, his album Measure of a Man debuted at number one on the Billboard 200. It was certified double Platinum and was the highest-selling debut for a solo artist in 10 years.
Aiken had small spots on a number of TV shows (The Office, Drop Dead Diva, 30 Rock). In 2008, he made his Broadway debut as Sir Robin in Monty Python’s Spamalot. This marked the first in a string of stage performances (The Drowsy Chaperone, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Grease).
But his next move was the least expected. In 2014, he ran for a seat in Congress representing North Carolina’s 2nd congressional district. He won the Democratic primary, but the general election was a repeat of his Idol run: incumbent Republican Renee Elmers defeated Aiken by almost 17 points.
After taking fourth place on the fifth season of American Idol, Christ Daughtry went on to become the most successful male contestant in the history of the show.
In 2006, the aspiring rock star formed the band Daughtry. Their self-titled debut album instantly took the number one spot on the Billboard 200. It was certified Platinum a stunning six times and had four singles that made it into the top 20 on the Billboard 100.
Like other former contestants, Daughtry has spent recent years polishing his acting chops. He made his acting debut in 2008 on an episode of CSI: NY. In 2016, he played the part of Judas Iscariot in the Fox musical The Passion: Live.
But you wouldn’t recognize him if you saw his most recent project. In 2019, he competed on the second season of The Masked Singer. Daughtry was disguised as a rottweiler as he earned runner-up status on the series.
Season 8 runner-up Adam Lambert barely waited for American Idol to wrap when he jumped into the studio to record his debut album. For Your Entertainment, released in 2009, debuted at number 3 on the Billboard 200. “Whataya Want From Me,” one of its hit singles, earned him a 2010 Grammy nomination for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.
Lambert’s second album, Trespassing, debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, making him the first openly gay artist to earn the spot.
2011 marked the birth of Queen + Adam Lambert, a collaboration between the legendary British rock band and the Idol alum. Their most recent release is 2020’s Queen + Adam Live Around the World, a live album featuring footage selected from over 200 concerts.
Lambert still works on solo projects, too. In March 2020, he released Velvet, his fourth studio album. It received favorable reviews, with Variety writer A.D. Amorosi describing it as “grimily soulful and sleekly funky.”
Jennifer Hudson took seventh place on Season 3 of American Idol, but the artist still managed to achieve an A-list career in quick time.
To start, her role as Effie White in the 2006 film adaptation of Dreamgirls earned her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She has since appeared in 13 more films, including Sex and the City, The Secret Life of Bees, and Chi-raq. In 2021, Hudson will star as the late Aretha Franklin in the biopic Respect.
All that and she still managed to put out three albums. Her 2008 Gold record, Jennifer Hudson, debuted at number two on the US Billboard 200 and Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums charts. It also won the 2009 Grammy for Best R&B Album.
Hudson, like many of her peers, has been an enormous success in the world of theater. In 2015, she played Shug Avery in the Broadway revival of The Color Purple. For her work, she won a Grammy for Best Musical Theater Album. No one else has never made losing look so good.