'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

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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