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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.

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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.

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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.  

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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.

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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.

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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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