American Idol wraps up Season 11 tonight. If Phillip Phillips wins, we can only hope he’ll go on to be “big in Norway” and that the show will be cancelled before Jennifer Lopez has time to change her mind and stay. In honor of this rapidly diminishing franchise, The Daily Beast snagged interviews with more than 70 past top-12 contestants, and their words tell us more than we probably need to know about how hard it is to be a singer-songwriter in America, even one with the advantages (or is it disadvantages?) of post-American Idol publicity.
The “then and now” styling of this piece reminds us that quite a few of the finalists were Star Search contestants or winners “then,” which seems to suggest how full they were of promise, how destined they were to be in the spotlight. But American Idol is just Star Search for pseudo-grownups, another stepping-stone on the way to certain mediocrity; there are only so many Adeles on this earth.
But there is a lot to admire in these people. Leaving aside the obvious (and impressive) success of Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry and Jennifer Hudson, many of the other contestants continue to make a living as professional musicians, and they make it sound more rewarding than the financial struggle that comes with trying to be a star (making an expensive, producer-filled album that “isn’t them,” playing crowd-pleasers on the Idol tour, running up debts by hiring vocal coaches, waiting for a shelved album to finally come out, waiting tables until it does). Still, many are still looking for their time in the sun. Many of their websites (linked below, if they have one) feature words like “New Album Out Now!” with a link to iTunes. When things don’t work out for these people, it tends to be not the fault of the person (for not being wise beyond his 18-or-so years), but of the many handlers trying to mold and sculpt talented and confused people into efficient little hit-making dolls.
Herewith, some of the best insights from past Top 12ers:
I was young. I didn’t know anything. Some people took advantage. Some skimmed a little off the top, financially.
— Sanjaya Malakar, 7th place, Season 6. Malakar currently bartends in New York City. He has been through six managers.
I think the judges or producers know from the beginning: this is the person that’s going to win. On my season, it was Carrie Underwood.
— Jessica Sierra, 10th place, Season 4. Sierra’s mother died of a drug overdose during the filming of her season. She later sought treatment for cocaine abuse, and at one point took a job at Hooters, where customers would recognize her and ask her to sing.
There was a different producer for every track [of my debut album]. I could certainly say that album wasn’t me.
— Justin Guarini, 2nd place, Season 1. Guarini had a four-year gig as a host on the TV Guide channel. He is good-natured about everything that has happened to him, including From Justin to Kelly (which still brings in SAG royalties).
Funny enough, American Idol is in syndication in different countries at different times. So even though I’ve been off Idol in years, I’ll get fan mail to my house from Indonesia.
— Vonzell Solomon, 3rd place, Season 4. Solomon works as a singer at a hotel in China. After Idol, she took a job as a spokesperson for the U.S. Postal Service, and went on tour on its behalf (?). She does well as a professional singer, but because of her success in China, has a long-distance relationship with her fiancé, who lives in Los Angeles.
My season, particularly, I felt a little like it was more about the judges and about Simon leaving as opposed to our performances. It made it really difficult, not just for myself but for all of us, because we felt like, a little bit like, are we even here?
— Didi Benami, 10th place, Season 9.
One time I was the sickest out there and sang ‘Faithfully’ and did a really good job according to how I was feeling. But [Simon] didn’t care. Simon favored Carly [Smithson]. He didn’t give a rat’s butt about me. He had nothing nice to say even though I did a really good job. I didn’t have very much respect for him.
— Kristy Lee Cook, 7th place, Season 7. Cook currently hosts a show about hunting called Goin’ Country on the NBC Sports Network.
I don’t think this is happening at all, but worst-case scenario, I get dropped from my label. I feel like I’ve created enough of a fan base to make music on my own and have a super happy life and live comfortably.
— Kris Allen, winner, Season 8. Allen sold 331,000 copies of his first album, and his second, Thank You Camellia, comes out this week.
There are more than 100 Top 10 contestants now. There are 11 winners. It’s very important to win the show. If you don’t, it’s tough.
— Taylor Hicks, Season 5 winner, and who, until Lee Dewyze came along, was considered the least successful Idol winner in the franchise’s history. Hicks has sold 767,000 albums (that’s actually quite a few!) and is soon beginning a residency at a Vegas casino, Celine Dion style (well, sort of).
I was actually in San Francisco for a little bit. It was cold and to pass the time I would crochet.
— Ramiele Malubay, 9th place, Season 7. Malubay currently runs an online dog clothing store (putting her crocheting to good use). She finally has a manager she’s happy with, but is also thinking about going back to nursing school (a plan that was interrupted by her decision to go on Idol).
I don’t feel like you get judged on what you’ve done. You get judged on what happens in that minute and 30 seconds. That was the one thing I got very frustrated with…Your life is never, never normal after Idol. You get all these phone calls, everyone saying: you want to do this?
— Carly Smithson, 6th place, Season 7. Smithson is doing quite well as the leader of a band called We Are The Fallen, whose debut appeared at number 6 on Billboard’s Hard Rock Albums chart. Smithson is currently part of the Vegas Cirque du Soleil show Viva Elvis.
About 30 percent [of my income] comes from hosting television, 30 percent comes from a Bosley infomercial that I did, which was awesome. Another 30 percent comes from a network marketing company that I work with and the last 10 percent from my music.
— Matthew Rogers, 11th place, Season 3. Rogers, a former college football player, had to do some work he didn’t really want to do after his son was born with cystic fibrosis. But he’s done pretty well as a spokesperson for Bosley, maker of hair-loss products, and he also has regular gigs as a TV host for shows like Lifetime’s veteran reality series Coming Home. Not too shabby for a guy who barely made it into the top 12 eight years ago.
There was this middle-aged woman who just wandered onstage and she had these purple panties in her hand, and was waving them around while I was singing. It caught us all off guard — she was really inebriated. I was like, ‘How did this woman get on stage and why isn’t anyone removing her?’
— Elliott Yamin, 3rd place, Season 5. Yamin is big in Japan, where he has toured a whopping 11 times. He’s an independent artist, and has done very well financially because of his decision to go indie.
I guess as far as what happens after Idol, I feel like there could be more help as to where to go, who to trust, who to talk to. When we’re on tour, we do get approached by a lot of people.
— Haley Scarnato, 8th place, Season 6. Scarnato, like many of the former finalists, now “sings at corporate events,” apparently for a living.
I have two bands. I teach vocal lessons to children. I do teach some adults as well. On the weekends, I run a rock and roll memorabilia store out of a flea market.
— Nikki McKibbin, 3rd place, Season 1. McKibbin says she makes about $40,000 to $50,000 a year doing the above. She also appeared on a season of Celebrity Rehab.
There was this one time when I thought I was doing a Christian event, and I went in and there were 12 people who were country fans and they were wasted. It was great; they were the most appreciative audience.
— Phil Stacey, 6th place, Season 6.