(Washington Post illustration)

It might be hard to remember now, but “American Idol” had quite an impact.

Though the Fox show has dropped off the grid in recent years, it created music stars and made Paula Abdul a household name again, while sparking an endless era of reality competition singing shows.

As the series ends for good on Thursday, April 7, we look back on 15 years of “Idol” to see the significance it had in several sectors of showbiz.


There are hundreds of former “Idol” contestants, but here are the 12 we think are the most important to the music industry. (Note: Album sales don’t always equal importance, especially since all figures below — which are from the artist’s representatives or recent Wall Street Journal data — are approximate.)

1. Kelly Clarkson

Winner, Season 1

Clarkson, 33, recently returned to “Idol” in its final season and had the audience in tears with an emotional performance of her latest single, “Piece by Piece.” It’s a fitting bookend, as Clarkson had the same effect when she belted out her coronation song and first single, “A Moment Like This,” on the finale in 2002. Clarkson’s powerhouse voice and dynamic presence signaled that the music industry should take these reality show contestants seriously: Her first two albums, “Thankful” and “Breakway,” sold about 10 million copies combined, and her pop tunes became empowerment anthems across the globe.

Album sales: 21.5 million

Popular songs: “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You),” “Since U Been Gone,” “My Life Would Suck Without You”

2. Carrie Underwood

Winner, Season 4

The country music landscape for women is bleak right now, save for two female superstars: Miranda Lambert and Underwood, now 33. The Oklahoma native arrived for her “Idol” audition in 2004 as a 21-year-old college student with every intention of going on to a “practical” job. Then she blew the judges away with her rendition of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” and sailed through to the finals. Her first album, “Some Hearts,” went seven-times platinum, and she has co-written about half of her 23 No. 1 hits since.

Album sales: 18 million

Popular songs: “Before He Cheats,” “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” “Blown Away”

3. Adam Lambert

Second place, Season 8

Lambert’s soaring falsetto made him an instant front-runner, especially when his performance of “Mad World” drew a rare standing ovation from the always-prickly judge Simon Cowell. The Freddie Mercury comparisons started early, and by 2011, he was performing with Queen, eventually standing in for Mercury as the band’s lead singer. Lambert, 34, raked in enough cash last year to land the No. 1 spot on Forbes list of 5 Highest-Paid American Idols In 2015, earning about $10 million.

Album sales: 7 million

Popular songs: “Whataya Want from Me,” “Ghost Town,” “If I Had You”

As "American Idol" nears the end of its 15th and final season, here's a look back at how the show became a cultural touchstone and changed parts of the music industry. (Nicki DeMarco/The Washington Post)

4. Chris Daughtry

Fourth place, Season 5

Cowell was initially dismissive of Daughtry when he sang a gruff version of Joe Cocker’s “The Letter” at his audition in 2005. Cowell said no, but Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul’s votes put Daughtry through to Hollywood. Daughtry went on to prove that rock artists could thrive commercially after the competition (sorry, Bo Bice). After he was voted off, Daughtry, 36, started an eponymous band whose music became a mainstay on Top 40 radio. Though they slowed in later years, the Daughtry self-titled debut album was a smash, spawning five hit songs.

Album sales: 8 million

Popular songs: “It’s Not Over,” “Home,” “Over You”

5. Fantasia Barrino

Winner, Season 3

Barrino’s haunting, powerful rendition of “Summertime” in 2004 is often cited as the best performance in “Idol” history. Her coronation song, “I Believe,” flew to the top of the charts after the finale. Later, Barrino, 31, released four albums, appeared on Broadway in “The Color Purple” and “After Midnight” and won a Grammy Award in 2011 for her single “Bittersweet.”

Album sales: 3.1 million

Popular songs: “I Believe,” “When I See U,” “Free Yourself”

6. Mandisa

Ninth place, Season 5

Several “Idol” artists went the Christian music route (Danny Gokey, Chris Sligh, Phil Stacey), but Mandisa has flouished the most with five albums. Cowell was originally quite nasty to her, making a crack about her weight and asked if there was a “bigger stage” for that season. Mandisa, who has lost more than 100 pounds since 2006, made headlines when she forgave him: “I figured that if Jesus could die so that all of my wrongs could be forgiven, I can certainly extend that same grace to you.” Still touring regularly, she has been nominated for four Grammys and won Best Contemporary Christian Music Album in 2014 for her record “Overcomer.”

Album sales: 1.5 million

Popular songs: “Stronger,” “Overcomer,” “My Deliverer”

7. Phillip Phillips

Winner, Season 11

Would you believe the top-selling song from any contestant in “Idol” history is “Home,” the innocuous pop song that was everywhere after Phillips debuted it in 2012? Really! Apparently, “Ahh-ahh-ahhs” and “Ohh-ohh-oohs” and gentle guitar-strums were just what people craved, as it sold 5 million copies and was featured in more commericals and inspirational TV spots than anyone can remember. Phillips, 25, reminded the world that after years of falling ratings, (a) “Idol” still existed and (b) it could still lead to success.

Album sales: 2.5 million

Popular songs: “Home,” “Gone, Gone, Gone,” “Raging Fire”

8. Josh Gracin

Fourth place, Season 2

“Idol” made strides in pop with Clarkson’s win, but was the insular, traditional Nashville going to accept a country singer from (gasp!) a reality show? That was the question in 2003, and Gracin’s breakthrough was a resounding “yes.” His first single, the inspirational “I Want to Live,” was a Top 5 hit and helped propel his self-titled debut record up the charts. Gracin, 35, continued the trend with his sophomore album in 2008, and though his follow-ups weren’t as successful, he paved the way for others, such as Scotty McCreery, Lauren Alaina and Bucky Covington.

Album sales: About 1 million

Popular songs: “Nothin’ to Lose,” “Stay With Me (Brass Bed),” “We Weren’t Crazy”

Barry Manilow, left, performs a duet with Jennifer Hudson at a performance on April 22, 2004, shortly after she was eliminated from “American Idol.” (Fred Prouser/Reuters)

9. Jennifer Hudson

Seventh place, Season 3

Oscar-winner Hudson is known as “Idol’s” most triumphant story, as she went from seventh-place finisher to Oscar winner in an astonishingly short amount of time. Though her “Dreamgirls” song “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going” made the biggest impact, she also had several R&B hits, and kept the momentum going with her third record, “JHUD,” in 2014. Her first album, “Jennifer Hudson,” resulted in three Grammy nominations — including Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals for “I’m His Only Woman,” which she sang with Barrino.

Album sales: 1.8 million

Popular songs: “Spotlight,” “If This Isn’t Love,” “Where You At”

10. Kellie Pickler

Sixth place, Season 5

Back in 2006, the quirky North Carolina native charmed everyone with her naiveity and cluelessness about calamari. After she was sent packing, Pickler landed a record deal that resulted in a gold-certified record, “Small Town Girl.” Though she’s not as dominant as her “Idol” country counterparts, Pickler, 29, has remained a critical favorite — and a boost to the genre’s credibility — as she favors more traditional country sound as opposed to commercial pop.

Album sales: 2 million

Popular songs: “Red High Heels,” “I Wonder,” “Best Days of Your Life”

Jordin Sparks, left, learns that she is the winner of Season 6 of “American Idol” on May 23, 2007, as finalist Blake Lewis looks on. (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)

11. Jordin Sparks

Winner, Season 6

At age 17, Sparks’s singing chops were well beyond her years. She had a slew of pop hits right out of the gate with her self-titled debut album (including a duet with Chris Brown, “No Air,” which sold 3.6 million copies) and follow-up “Battlefield.” Sparks was also the last female contestant to win for five seasons, until Candice Glover won the crown in Season 12.

Album sales: 2.6 million

Popular songs: “No Air,” “Tattoo,” “Battlefield”

12. Clay Aiken

Second place, Season 2

“You don't look like a pop star,” Cowell said the first time he saw the bespectacled Aiken sing. Didn’t matter — Aiken’s stunning voice won him a legion of loyal followers (“Claymates”) that fueled his second-place finish. Aiken’s first album, “Measure of a Man,” was a monster hit, selling 3 million copies. His follow-ups weren’t as successful, and these days he’s more known for his failed run for Congress, but he was an important lesson that even the unlikeliest stars can develop an intense fanbase.

Album sales: 6 million

Popular songs: “Invisible,” “This is the Night,” “The Way”



We’re not talking Fantasia Barrino’s Lifetime movie “Life is Not a Fairytale” or Katharine McPhee’s star turn on “Smash” or Carrie Underwood’s unfortunate viral peformance on NBC’s “The Sound of Music Live!” Based on the hit U.K. series “Pop Idol,” “American Idol” debuted in June 2002 — and its surprise success kicked off an era of reality singing competition shows. These are the ones you might recognize:

“Nashville Star” (USA) March 2003-August 2008

Basically “Idol” except country singers were the judges.

“American Juniors” (Fox) June-August 2003

Spin-0ff for kids who didn’t meet the 16-year-old age requirement.

“The Road to Stardom With Missy Elliott” (UPN) January-March 2005

The hip-hop star tried to find a new sensation for her label.

“R U the Girl” (UPN) July-September 2005

T-Boz and Chili of TLC searched for a temporary back-up singer.

“Rock Star: INXS” (CBS) July-September 2005

The rock band INXS set out to find a new lead singer.

“The One: Making a Music Star” (ABC) July 2006

Singing star hopefuls competed for a recording contract.

“Pussycat Dolls Present” (CW) March 2007–April 2008

The Pussycat Dolls decided they needed another member.

“Can You Duet?” (CMT) April 2008-August 2009

Country duos battled for a record deal.

“Sunday Best” (BET) October 2007-present

Gospels singers try to win money and a recording contract.

“Gone Country” (CMT) January 2008-March 2009

John Rich (of duo Big & Rich) tried to find the next country star.

“The Sing-Off” (NBC) December 2009-December 2014

A capella group competition.

“CMT’s Next Superstar” (CMT) April-June 2011

Exactly what it sounds like, with an emphasis on songwriting.

“The Voice” (NBC) April 2011-present

Singers are split into four groups, each with a different coach; coaches can’t see what singers look like when they first audition.

“The X Factor” (Fox) September 2011 - December 2013

Another U.K. spin-off and Simon Cowell project, performers of any age could audition.

“Duets” (ABC) May-July 2012

Wannabe artists duet with celebrities to compete for a record deal.

“Sing Your Face Off” (ABC) May-June 2014

Contestants had to perform in the style of a different already-famous singer each week.

“Rising Star” (ABC) June-August 2014

Viewers judge singers’ performance in real time.


“Idol” caught a lot of flack for its ratings slide later in its run, but in the beginning, it was at times the most-watched show in the country. And honestly? Some networks would kill for its numbers even in the more recent years.

According to Nielsen, here are the average viewer totals from all 15 seasons. (These are same-day ratings, which don’t account for DVR or on-demand.)

Season 1 (2002): 12.7 million

Winner: Kelly Clarkson

Runner-up: Justin Guarini

Season 2 (2003): 21.7 million

Winner: Ruben Studdard

Runner-up: Clay Aiken

Season 3 (2004): 25.1 million

Winner: Fantasia Barrino

Runner-up: Diana DeGarmo

Season 4 (2005): 26.8 million

Winner: Carrie Underwood

Runner-up: Bo Bice

Season 5 (2006): 30.6 million

Winner: Taylor Hicks

Runner-up: Katharine McPhee

Season 6 (2007): 30 million

Winner: Jordin Sparks

Runner-up: Blake Lewis

Season 7 (2008): 27.2 million

Winner: David Cook

Runner-up: David Archuleta

Season 8 (2009): 25.1 million

Winner: Kris Allen

Runner-up: Adam Lambert

Season 9 (2010): 22.5 million

Winner: Lee DeWyze

Runner-up: Crystal Bowersox

Season 10 (2011) 23.2 million

Winner: Scotty McCreery

Runner-up: Lauren Alaina

Season 11 (2012): 17.4 million

Winner: Phillip Phillips

Runner-up: Jessica Sanchez

Season 12 (2013): 13.3 million

Winner: Candice Glover

Runner-up: Kree Harrison

Season 13 (2014): 10.3 million

Winner: Caleb Johnson

Runner-up: Jena Irene

Season 14 (2015): 8.9 million

Winner: Nick Fradiani

Runner-up: Clark Beckham

Season 15 (2016): 9 million, so far



“Idol” had its share of controversies over the years, to the delight of TMZ — and to the morbid curiosity of viewers. Here are just a few.

The battle of Nicki Minaj and Mariah Carey.

Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson, Kara DioGuardi, Ellen DeGeneres, Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban, Harry Connick Jr. “Idol” has gone through quite a few judges, but none were quite as memorable as those in Season 12. That's when Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj joined Jackson and Urban at the judges’ table — which displeased Carey, as she thought she would be the only pop star working alongside Jackson, her former producer.

Carey and Minaj bickered throughout the season, though the ultimate blow-up happened during auditions in Charlotte. Someone leaked footage to TMZ of the two fighting about one audition, and someone else told the site that Minaj had threatened to shoot Carey. Producers denied the death threat, as did Minaj: “Hey yAll. Lets just say nicki said smthn about a gun. ppl will believe it cuz she’s a black rapper,” she tweeted. Afterward, Carey said she would hire extra security.

Disqualified contestants.

“Idol” had fairly stringent policies about who was allowed to compete. In Season 8, Joanna Pacitti was disqualified after rumors emerged that she had a cozy relationship with “Idol”-connected record executives prior to trying out for the show. In Season 11, Jermaine Jones was asked to leave after producers said he didn’t tell them about previous arrests.

In Season 2, Frenchie Davis had to leave the show after it was revealed she had posed on a porn site. The incident was back in the news several years later when producers didn’t kick off contestant Antonella Barba when racy photos of her were posted online — and some thought it was a racially biased double standard.

Then there was Corey Clark, another Season 2 contestant, who was disqualified after producers found out about an alleged assault charge. Afterward, Clark said he had actually been having an affair with Paula Abdul, which Fox strongly denied.

Horrible auditions.

Part of the reason “Idol” took off was the famous “bad auditions” at the beginning of every season, when the judging panel (particularly Cowell) would mock awful singers. It was a hilarious tradition — until it took a few unfortunate turns. For example, in Season 6, Cowell made fun of one auditioner who had participated in the Special Olympics — and called his friend auditioning with him a “bush baby,” thanks to his big eyes. Cowell was forced to apologize.

In 2008, a 30-year-old woman — a major Paula Abdul fan who (badly) auditioned for the show and was rejected — was found dead of an apparent overdose outside Abdul’s home.

The bad auditions continued, but the show took a lighter tone after Cowell’s departure in 2010.


From left, Fantasia Barrino, Clay Aiken, Jordin Sparks and Jennifer Hudson have all taken the Broadway stage. (Washington Post illustration)

While you knew a contestant was doomed on “Idol” when one of the judges mentioned they were “too Broadway,” some “Idols” found a surprising amount of success . . . on Broadway. Here are the 10 most famous productions that have starred former contestants:

“American Idiot”: Justin Guarini

“The Book of Mormon”: Syesha Mercado

“The Color Purple”: Fantasia Barrino, Jennifer Hudson, LaKisha Jones

“Grease”: Taylor Hicks, Ace Young

“Hair”: Diana DeGarmo, Ace Young

“Hairspray”: Diana DeGarmo

“In the Heights”: Jordin Sparks

“Rent”: Frenchie Davis, Tamyra Gray

“Rock of Ages”: Constantine Mouralis

“Spamalot”: Clay Aiken