When the first episode of “American Idol” aired in June 2002, few could have predicted that the reality singing competition show would transform the television landscape. Voting by text message for your favorite contestants (and watching them get played off by Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day”) became a national pastime for much of the early aughts. “Idol”s massive success gave way to shows like “The Voice,” “America’s Got Talent” and “The Masked Singer,” but none have managed to capture the dynamic of original judges Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell, anchored by longtime host Ryan Seacrest. The sovereignty of the Y2K pop diva, coupled with a tabloid-fueled culture and twice-weekly episode format set the stage for “Idol” to dominate water cooler conversation.
“Idol”s handle on the cultural zeitgeist (it was the highest-rated show on U.S. television for seven consecutive years) gave it the ability to launch winners into the national spotlight. Early victors like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood and Jordin Sparks channeled their overnight stardom into sustained careers. Other winners were less fortunate, or eventually overshadowed by their runner-up (see: Adam Lambert).
On the 20th anniversary of “American Idol,” TheWrap takes a look at each season’s champion and where they landed in the years following their big win.
Season 20: Noah Thompson
The 20th American Idol is 20-year-old Louisa, Kentucky native Noah Thompson. The country musician won the title in late May after entering the competition with no formal training. He’s already found early success with his single “One Day Tonight” climbing to the top of the charts.
Season 19: Chayce Beckham
Hailing from Apple Valley, California, Chayce Beckham defeated runner-up Willie Spence to win the 19th season of “Idol.” During the finale, he performed The Beatles’ “Blackbird,” Chris Stapleton’s “Fire Away” and Ed Sheeran’s “Afterglow.” His coronation song “23” reached No. 1 on iTunes and spent 21 days on the U.S. charts.
Season 18: Just Sam
Samantha Diaz, who performs under the name Just Sam, competed in “Idol”s first pandemic finale when she was 20 years old. The singer from Harlem, New York had auditioned for “The Voice” and “America’s Got Talent” before stepping into the national spotlight on “Idol.” She released her version of the song “Rise Up” under the label Hollywood Records. However, after leaving the label last year she claimed that she went “broke” trying to buy back her own songs and hasn’t released new music yet.
Season 17: Laine Hardy
Laine Hardy had a unique path to “Idol” victory, having actually competed on the show the previous season. Although he didn’t intend to compete again, the judges wooed him back after he accompanied a friend to her audition. He released an EP, two singles (including his coronation song “Flame”) and one album, “Here’s to Anyone” in late 2021. In late April 2022, he was arrested for bugging his ex-girlfriend’s dorm room and faces a felony charge.
Season 16: Maddie Poppe
Maddie Poppe became only the third woman to win “American Idol” in more than 10 years when she walked away with the top prize in 2018. Before competing on “Idol,” she independently released the album “Songs From The Basement” in 2016, and unsuccessfully auditioned for “The Voice” around the same time. In 2019, she followed her win with the album “Whirlwind” before touring with Ingrid Michaelson. She toured her 2020 EP “Christmas From Home” around her home state of Iowa during the holiday season.
Season 15: Trent Harmon
Trent Harmon was the final winner of “American Idol”s 15-season run on Fox (it now airs on ABC). The Mississippi country singer wrote his coronation song, “Falling” with then-judge Keith Urban. As part of his prize, he signed with Big Machine Records, only to leave in 2019. Instead of immediately releasing his first album (2018’s “You Got ‘Em All”) he started with a self-titled EP in 2016.
Season 14: Nick Fradiani
“American Idol” wasn’t Nick Fradiani’s first live singing competition rodeo. He made it to Judgment Week on “America’s Got Talent” with his former band Beach Avenue in 2014 before claiming “Idol” victory in 2015. He performed his coronation song “Beautiful Life” at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup that same year. After releasing his debut studio album “Hurricane,” he left Big Machine Records and released 2017’s “Where We Left Off” as an independent artist.
Season 13: Caleb Johnson
Like his immediate predecessor, Caleb Johnson auditioned for “Idol” three times before making it to the Top 20, where he performed a wide range of rock, country and pop songs. Prior to competing, he put out an album with the band Elijah Hooker. After winning in 2014, he released the solo album “Testify,” then parted ways with his record label and independently released “Born From Southern Ground” and “Mountain Mojo, Vol. 1” with his band Caleb Johnson & The Ramblin’ Saints.
Season 12: Candice Glover
The third time was the charm for Candice Glover, the first person to audition three times before being cast on “American Idol.” Glover hit the pavement after her win, releasing her debut single “I Am Beautiful” one day later, followed by her debut album “Music Speaks.” Another single from the album, titled “Cried,” spent 19 weeks on Billboard’s R&B chart. While she hasn’t released another album since then, she’s acted in shows like “GRITS: Girls Raised In The South” (2019) and the short film “Colors” (2021).
Season 11: Phillip Phillips
At age 21, Phillip Phillips broke the record for best-selling “Idol” coronation song with “Home,” which sold more than 5 million copies. The Georgia native’s platinum-certified debut album “The World From The Side of the Moon” also featured the Billboard chart-topper “Gone, Gone, Gone.” The folk-rock singer, whose style has drawn comparisons to Dave Matthews and James Brown, went on to release two more studio albums. Along the way, he’s toured with John Mayer, Gavin DeGraw, the Goo Goo Dolls and has performed with Bruce Springsteen.
Season 10: Scotty McCreery
Thanks to Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina’s showdown, “Idol” enjoyed a momentary uptick in ratings (before steadily declining each successive year). A few months after the country vocalist claimed victory, he released his debut album “Clear as Day,” which went platinum in the U.S. and reached the top spot on the Billboard 200. He followed that with a Christmas album in 2012. “See You Tonight,” the title track from his third album became his first song to hit top 10 on Billboard’s Country chart. “You Time,” a single from his album “Same Truck” became his fourth and consecutive song to reach the top spot on that list in Oct. 2021.
Season 9: Lee DeWyze
In 2010, 24-year-old singer-songwriter Lee DeWyze came to Hollywood by way of Mount Prospect, Illinois to defeat Crystal Bowersox for the “Idol” crown. Before getting on the show, he had already recorded two albums (2007’s “So I’m Told” and 2010’s “Slumberland”) with an independent record label with The Lee DeWyze Band. He followed his “Idol” win with five studio albums, most recently 2018’s “Paranoia.”
Season 8: Kris Allen
One of “Idol”s more contentious finales came down to Kris Allen and Adam Lambert, who was long considered the frontrunner. Paula Abdul was right when she predicted his post-“Idol” success, regardless of the outcome: Lambert would sell more than three million albums and five million singles worldwide, before filling in for Freddie Mercury as the lead singer of Queen. Lambert remains “Idol”s most successful male contestant and has been voted the runner-up who most deserved to win.
On the other hand, Allen’s first album came out in 2009 and secured a spot on the charts, with lead single “Live Like We’re Dying” rising to No. 8. He’s since released five studio albums, most recently in 2016.
Season 7: David Cook
Season 7’s battle between Davids Cook and Archuleta ended in victory for the former, although the runner-up went on to record eight studio albums and write a children’s book. Cook won the judges over with a rocking rendition of Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer.” Later in 2008, he released a self-titled album featuring the Billboard Hot 100 single “Time Of My Life.” The platinum-certified album gave way to four studio albums and three EPs. He’s also taken his talents to Broadway, starring in a 2018 production of “Kinky Boots.”
Season 6: Jordin Sparks
At age 17, Jordin Sparks became the youngest person to win “American Idol” in 2005, and remains so today. The Arizona native parlayed her newfound fame into her self-titled debut album, which went platinum with the help of top 10 hits “Tattoo” and “No Air.” The latter became the third-highest charting single by an “Idol” champion after songs by Clarkson and Underwood. “Battlefield,” the title song from her second album, and “One Step at a Time” from her third album both made it to the top of the charts. In addition to a handful of film and television roles, Sparks starred in Broadway productions of “In The Heights” and “Waitress.”
Season 5: Taylor Hicks
Season 5 is best remembered for its crowded field of competitors who lost and went on to have great careers, including country singer Kelly Pickler, Daughtry frontman Chris Daughtry and singer-songwriter-actress Katharine McPhee, who came in second place. They were all bested by Taylor Hicks, the silver fox soul singer hailing from Birmingham, Alabama. While Hicks never found the mainstream success of his competitors, his self-titled debut album landed at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and was certified as platinum in 2006. In the years following, he released his second studio album “The Distance,” featured in “Grease” on Broadway and in a national tour, and opened a restaurant. His most recent single was 2017’s “Six Strings and Diamond Rings.”
Season 4: Carrie Underwood
Another major breakout from “Idol,” Carrie Underwood was a college student when she auditioned with Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” Immediately after sweeping the competition, her singles “Inside Your Heaven,” “Jesus, Take The Wheel” and “Before He Cheats” became crossover hits. The Oklahoma-born country artist has been lauded with numerous accolades, including eight Grammys and the title of highest-ranking female country singer on RIAA’s Top Artists (Digital Singles) list. Underwood, who has never gone more than three years without putting out a new album, most recently released the Grammy-winning gospel “My Savior.” Her ninth album “Denim & Rhinestones” debuts June 10.
Season 3: Fantasia Barrino
Following her victory in 2004, Fantasia Barrino (professionally known as Fantasia) found success as an R&B singer and Broadway actress. Her post-“Idol” single “I Believe” spent four weeks on the charts, appearing on her three-time Grammy nominated album “Free Yourself.” 2006’s “Fantasia” made an even bigger splash, earning a gold certification from RIAA along with three Grammy nods. In 2010, she finally won a golden gramophone for the single “Bittersweet,” in the Best Female R&B Vocal Performance category. Her Broadway roles include Celie in “The Color Purple,” which she’ll reprise in the 2023 film adaptation. Fantasia’s season of “Idol” also featured one of its most famous contestants, the EGOT-winning performer Jennifer Hudson, who came only in 7th place.
Season 2: Ruben Studdard
Studdard narrowly bested performer and recent congressional candidate Clay Aiken to become the second American Idol in 2003 (the two would later appear on Broadway together in 2018). His cover of “Superstar,” which he sang during the competition, went on to earn a Grammy nomination for Best Male R&B Vocal performance. Studdard’s first of seven studio albums earned platinum status, with three tracks making it into the Billboard Top 100. His most recent release was the 2018 Luther Vandross tribute album “Ruben Sings Luther.”
Season 1: Kelly Clarkson
In the two decades that “American Idol” has been on the air, no contestant has upstaged its very first winner, Kelly Clarkson. The 20-year-old Texas native became an instant star, with her very first single “A Moment Like This” breaking a 38-year record held by the Beatles for the biggest leap to the top of the charts. Three of her eight studio albums have achieved multi-platinum status and netted three Grammys, among various other awards. In 2022, Clarkson ended her eight-year run as a judge on the “The Voice,” making more time for her Daytime Emmy-winning talk show “The Kelly Clarkson Show” and “American Song Contest,” which she co-hosts with Snoop Dogg.
Bonus: Brian Dunkleman
Longtime “Idol” worshippers will remember that Ryan Seacrest wasn’t always the sole host of the show. Comedian Brian Dunkleman co-hosted Season 1 before he quit (or was fired; there are conflicting accounts). It was widely reported that he and Seacrest almost got into a physical altercation after a live taping. He’s since acted in a handful of TV shows, hosts a podcast called “DunkleVision” and even appeared on “Idol”s Season 15 finale.