'American Idol': 16 of the Best Losers Ranked - Rolling Stone
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‘American Idol’: 16 of the Best Losers Ranked

Over 15 seasons, many of show’s might-have-beens went on to even more successful solo careers than the winners

American Idol; 16 non-winners; lambert; tori kelly; Jennifer hudson

Jennifer Hudson, Tori Kelly and Adam Lambert were among the 'American Idol' losers who went on to successful solo careers

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Winning American Idol might guarantee you a recording contract, but it doesn’t mean you’ll be the biggest star that comes out of the television series. Each year that contestants competed for the ultimate crown, the non-winners have translated their TV fame into stunning careers. As we prepare for the series finale on April 7th that will crown the 15th and final American Idol winner, we return to all those might-have-beens who were turned into stars.

Not every season produced a ton; some were more rife with star power than others, with seasons 3 and 5 having the biggest glut of Idol almost-champs. Across the board, however, was the sense that weeks of singing cover tunes and sharing 15-second video packages about your life could build a fanbase that would carry stars on in the world of music as well as to television, film, Broadway and beyond. In honor of the finale season, we celebrate the best and brightest losers from 15 years of American Idol.

American Idol; 16 non-winners; lambert; tori kelly; Jennifer hudson

Alan Ritchson, Season 3

How Far Did He Go: Cut in the Hollywood rounds

Most Memorable Performance: His striptease audition number sung to Paula

Biggest Hit: Not for singing, but 2013's Hunger Games: Catching Fire grossed $865 million worldwide.

Career: Ritchson is a bit of an anomaly for this list, and he didn’t make it very far in a televised capacity, but has gone on to major mainstream acting success. He may not get by on his singing voice now, but Ritchson starred as Aquaman on CW’s Smallville and Thad Castle on Spike TV's Blue Mountain State. On the big screen, he’s appeared in Hunger Games: Catching Fire as tribute Gloss, helped reboot Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as Raphael, and, most recently, in YouTube Red’s first film, Lazer Team.

American Idol; 16 non-winners; lambert; tori kelly; Jennifer hudson

Jessica Sanchez, Season 11

How Far Did She Go: Runner-up

Most Memorable Performance: Her take on Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You" in the top 13 episode.

Biggest Hit: Her debut album, Me, You, and the Music peaked at Number 26 on the Billboard 200, and sold 17,000 copies.

Career: The California-born Filipina singer was just 15 when she auditioned for Idol with Aretha Franklin's "(You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman," although she didn't make the televised portion until her group number in Hollywood. Sanchez previously appeared on Showtime at the Apollo and America's Got Talent. After leaving the show, she signed on to appear on Glee, singing as a competing glee club leader in the fourth finale. She’s sung at the White House, for The Trevor Project and in the Philippines. She also turned to YouTube, posting popular cover songs since 2014.

American Idol; 16 non-winners; lambert; tori kelly; Jennifer hudson

Haley Reinhart, Season 10

How Far Did She Go: Third place

Most Memorable Performance: Her a cappella intro to "The House of the Rising Sun" on the top 5 night.

Biggest Hit: She was the first Idol alum to perform at Lollapalooza in support of her first album, "Listen Up!" It debuted at Number 17 on the Billboard 200, with 20,000 copies sold.

Career: One of Idol's "rocker chic" unique voices that went far, just not far enough. She wowed covering artists as diverse as Lady Gaga and Led Zeppelin during her time on the show. Her debut album, Listen Up!, garnered critical acclaim in 2012, but her follow-up has been held until 2016. Since 2015, Reinhart  has been a touring member of Postmodern Jukebox, an Internet sensation that covers pop songs in various styles. Reinhart’s cover of Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love" for the group landed in an Extra Gum commercial. Interscope dropped Reinhart in 2012 under new management and is currently working on a new LP and a summer 2016 tour.

American Idol; 16 non-winners; lambert; tori kelly; Jennifer hudson

Ace Young, Season 5

How Far Did He Go: Seventh place

Most Memorable Performance: His standout came early with George Michael's "Father Figure" during the Top 24 round.

Biggest Hit: While his own music faltered, Young has a Grammy nomination as a songwriter for Daughtry's first single, "It's Not Over."

Career: His hair was his triumph and his downfall. His shaggy mane and good looks caught everyone's attention as he advanced in the competition. Once he tamed it for a suited-up version of Nat King Cole's "That's All" he was gone from Idol, but on to a varied stage career. Young was named one of People's Sexiest Men Alive in 2006, and he started a Broadway career in 2008 as part of the cast of Grease, followed by Hair in 2010 and eventually the touring cast of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 2015. He's also one-half of an Idol power-couple, married to season 3 contestant Diana DeGarmo. In all that Idol could have ever hoped for in 15 years on TV, Young proposed to DeGarmo live on TV in 2012.

American Idol; 16 non-winners; lambert; tori kelly; Jennifer hudson

Diana DeGarmo, Season 3

How Far Did She Go: Runner-up

Most Memorable Performance: The Moment's "Don't Cry Out Loud," during Top 3, which Simon Cowell said booked her a place in the final.

Biggest Hit: Her non-album single "Dreams" peaked at Number14 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100

Career: DeGarmo auditioned at age 16, previously winning the title of Miss Georgia Teen and a finalist on America’s Most Talented Kid. Simon critiqued her for her "smiling" while Paula and Randy loved that she was a 16-year-old that acted like a teen. She matured during the competition to bigger songs, and matured even further after the series. She met fellow contestant Young while doing Hair on Broadway in 2010 and married him in 2013. DeGarmo transitioned quickly to Broadway after her pop music career, making her debut in Hairspray in 2006. She returned for Hair in 2010, and then joined the touring cast of 9 to 5 and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

American Idol; 16 non-winners; lambert; tori kelly; Jennifer hudson

Lauren Alaina, Season 10

How Far Did She Go: Runner-up

Most Memorable Performance: Elvis Presley's "Trouble"

Biggest Hit: Debut album Wildflower, peaked at Number Two on the U.S. Country Billboard chart, and Number Five on the Billboard 200. It sold 303,000 copies.

Career: Idol sold her to us as the country follow-up to Kelly Clarkson for season 10, but she was more Carrie Underwood. Even with the shine of two former Idols on her, she couldn’t best Scotty McCreery for the title. Alaina made her Grand Ole Opry debut in 2011 following the show, and after releasing Wildflower, she opened for country star Jason Aldean's My Kinda Party Tour in 2012. The first single, "Next Boyfriend" from her forthcoming album hit radio in September 2015.

American Idol; 16 non-winners; lambert; tori kelly; Jennifer hudson

Todrick Hall, Season 9

How Far Did He Go: Top 16

Most Memorable Performance: Queen's "Somebody to Love," which unfortunately sent him home despite positive critiques

Biggest Hit: On YouTube, his "Disney Dudez" boyband parody tops the charts with 16 million views. (As a great Idol Easter egg, it features current season Idol contestant Dalton Rapattoni during his time as part of boy band IM5)

Career: While he fell short of the live shows, Hall is one of the Idol alums who's transitioned to the new outlet for budding celebrities: YouTube. Hall's channel boasts two million subscribers who follow his musical parodies and dance numbers. He’s taken things offline with sold-out tours, promotional videos for Virgin Airlines and Todrick, his own MTV show.

American Idol; 16 non-winners; lambert; tori kelly; Jennifer hudson

Constantine Maroulis, Season 4

How Far Did He Go: Sixth place

Most Memorable Performance: "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen

Biggest Hit: His debut album, Constantine, peaked at 65 on the Hot 100 chart.

Career: Known for his intense eye-contact with the camera, Maroulis was the swaggering rock charmer of season 4. Although he only made it halfway to the crown, he's the only Idol contestant with a Tony nomination to his name. After a quiet music career, he turned to the stage, originating the role of Drew in Broadway’s Rock of Ages in 2009 as well as performing the title role in Jekyll and Hyde in 2012.

American Idol; 16 non-winners; lambert; tori kelly; Jennifer hudson

Tori Kelly, Season 9

How Far Did She Go: Cut in the Hollywood rounds

Most Memorable Performance: "Gravity" by John Mayer

Biggest Hit: "Should've Been Us" off Unbreakable Smile

Career: Kelly is one of Idol’s biggest modern misses. She auditioned for the show but was cut before Top 24. Kelly turned to self-producing, releasing an EP in 2012 out of her bedroom. She caught the attention of Scooter Braun, who manages her, and signed with Capitol Records. After another EP, her first full length, Unbreakable Smile, hit in 2015, with a Number Two debut on the Billboard Hot 200 and a nomination for the Best New Artist Grammy. Simon Cowell, who found her voice "annoying," is probably kicking himself.

American Idol; 16 non-winners; lambert; tori kelly; Jennifer hudson

Kellie Pickler, Season 5

How Far Did She Go: Fifth place

Most Memorable Performance: Patsy Cline's "Walkin' After Midnight"

Biggest Hit: "Best Day of Your Life" from her self-titled second album, as certified platinum and peaked at Number 46 on the Hot 100 charts. Taylor Swift co-wrote the track.

Career: The daffy country sweetheart who made you smile, she was part of the wacky season 5 that produced Taylor Hicks as the champion, one of Idol's best — and weirdest — seasons. Post-show, Pickler released four albums, including her debut Small Town Girl which has sold over 900,000 copies to date. She toured with Swift in 2009 and also won Season 16 of Dancing With the Stars in 2016.

American Idol; 16 non-winners; lambert; tori kelly; Jennifer hudson

David Archuleta, Season 7

How Far Did He Go: Runner-up

Most Memorable Performance: John Lennon's "Imagine," which he reprised in the finale (and left out the line about "no religion").

Biggest Hit: "Crush," his debut single, sold two million copies worldwide.

Career: Idol's clean-cut, Mormon teen dream, he started his run at 17, as a budding pop star in the age of purity rings. Plus, he was part of the epic David vs. David showdown finale. Archuleta was the lesser of the Davids, according to voters, but has had a fine career nonetheless. Even a two-year hiatus in 2012 to serve as a Mormon missionary didn't slow down his fanbase, and he  returned to release two more albums in the U.S., and an additional album of Filipino covers, Forevermore.

American Idol; 16 non-winners; lambert; tori kelly; Jennifer hudson

Katharine McPhee, Season 5

How Far Did They Go: Runner-up

Most Memorable Performance: "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" from The Wizard of Oz

Biggest Hit: Debut single "Over It" peaked at Number 29 on the Billboard Hot 100 and sold over 645,000 downloads.

Career: On crowded season 5, McPhee seemed like a pop heir apparent. She was just 21 when she auditioned and singing tunes by Whitney Houston and Christina Aguilera. Despite introducing the world to the cajón with "Black Horse and the Cherry Tree" and her breakout reinvention with "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in the Top 3 episode, she still fell short to Taylor Hicks. Her first album arrived at Number Two with 381,000 copies sold, but she transitioned quickly to focus on her acting career, most notably starring as Karen Cartwright in Smash, the musical series that lasted on NBC for only two seasons but achieved a cult status. She currently stars as Paige Dineen on NBC’s Scorpion.

American Idol; 16 non-winners; lambert; tori kelly; Jennifer hudson

Clay Aiken, Season 2

How Far Did He Go: Runner-up

Most Memorable Performance: Simon & Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water"

Biggest Hit: While his Idol single, "This is the Night," went Number One after the finale, his first non-Idol wins were on 2003's Measure of a Man. The album went double platinum, debuted at Number One on Billboard and was the highest solo artist debut since Snoop Dogg's Doggystyle. It included "Invisible" and "The Way."

Career: Aiken almost auditioned for The Amazing Race instead of American Idol, but at the urging of a friend, he decided to go the singing route. He was cut in the Top 32 of season 2, let back in as a wild card, and then brought to the Top 12 as an audience favorite. He made it all the way to the final, coming in second to Ruben Studdard by a divide of only 134,000 votes out of 24 million cast, thanks to his Claymates, one of the earlier forms of fan armies that helped spur along his career. Post-show, he had Billboard hits in 2003, eventually releasing seven albums total throughout his career. In 2008, Aiken was certainly busy: He made his Broadway debut in Spamalot in January, welcomed his son in August and came out as gay that September. In 2012, he starred on The Celebrity Apprentice with now-presidential candidate Donald Trump, again placing second, this time losing to Arsenio Hall.  He even went political, running as the Democratic nominee for North Carolina's Second Congressional District in 2014, but lost to the Republican incumbent Renee Ellmers in the midterm election.  

American Idol; 16 non-winners; lambert; tori kelly; Jennifer hudson

Chris Daughtry, Season 5

How Far Did He Go: Fourth place

Most Memorable Performance: Johnny Cash’s “I Walk The Line”

Biggest Hit: His 2005’s album Daughtry went 4-times platinum in the U.S. with 5,040,000 in sales and ended the year at Number One on the Billboard 200. It featured “It’s Not Over,” which peaked at Number Four and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Song.

Career: Daughtry’s greatest impact on Idol was the eventual shift to allow contestants to use instruments two seasons later, after he ruled with rock until his shocking fourth-place elimination during Season 5. Instead of branding himself solo, he formed the band Daughtry, and their self-titled debut reigns as the fastest-selling rock album in soundscan history. In terms of pure album sales, he’s the third most successful over his five studio albums, behind only winners Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood. Most recently, he played Judas Iscariot in Fox’s Biblical live version of The Passion.

American Idol; 16 non-winners; lambert; tori kelly; Jennifer hudson

Adam Lambert, Season 8

How Far Did He Go: Runner-up

Most Memorable Performance: Lambert's cover of Tears for Fears' "Mad World" earned Simon Cowell's only standing ovation during his tenure.

Biggest Hit: "Whataya Want From Me," peaked at Number 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. His debut album, For Your Entertainment, went gold in the U.S., selling 863,000 copies, peaking at Number Three on the Billboard 200. He snagged his first Number One hit with "Trespassing" in 2012.

Career: Lambert was a musical theater performer and Burning Man attendee who didn't curb any of his weirdness when he hit the Idol stage. He shook the foundation of the show with his fashion and song reinvention, from adding sitar to Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire," to an acoustic take on The Miracles' "The Tracks of My Tears." His bromance with winner Kris Allen made the show must-watch TV, and his second-place finish lit the fire of a thousand think pieces about Idol and America's reluctance to champion an openly gay contestant. While the show never addressed his sexuality, despite playing up straight co-stars' love lives (and deceased wives, in the case of third-place finisher Danny Gokey), Lambert also never addressed it head on, not even when pictures of him kissing his ex leaked during the series. He came out in a Rolling Stone cover story just two weeks after his loss. His Queen performances on the show led to him joining the band as frontman to replace Freddie Mercury on tours, in-between his own solo career. A same-sex kiss in his first major performance post-Idol, on the American Music Awards, caused outrage and cheers in equal measure as the social fabric of America shifted. On January 15th, 2015, Lambert became the first former contestant to appear as a guest judge on American Idol. In 2016, he announced his The Original High World Tour, and he'll join Queen for some festival dates this summer.

American Idol; 16 non-winners; lambert; tori kelly; Jennifer hudson

Jennifer Hudson, Season 3

How Far Did She Go: Seventh Place

Most Memorable Performance: Whitney Houston's "I Have Nothing"

Biggest Hit: "Spotlight," her first single, sold more than a million copies worldwide.

Career: One of Idol's first shocking eliminations was Hudson, who left in a mere seventh place in 2004, ages before the Judges Save was instituted to help keep America from making the mistake of letting talent slip through Idol's grasp on the fault of a bad theme week (Hudson left during Barry Manilow Week). Of course, it was Hudson who had the last laugh as one of the show's most decorated alums. She held off on a studio album, instead jumping straight into films with the Dreamgirls movie, winning an Oscar in 2007 for her performance as Effie. She won a Grammy for her self-titled 2008 debut album, which spawned singles like "Spotlight" and "If This Isn't Love." That year, she also appeared in the Sex and the City film, and The Secret Life of Bees. Her personal life wasn't without tragedy, with three close family members (her mother, brother and nephew) murdered in 2008. After giving birth in 2009, Hudson eventually returned to the spotlight, focusing on music with 2011's I Remember Me and 2014's JHUD. She joined fellow Idol alum McPhee on Smash's second season, been a Weight Watchers spokeswoman, made her Broadway debut in 2015's revival of The Color Purple, and this spring she'll be part of HBO's Anita Hill film, Confirmation.

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