Four days ago, Chris Daughtry was performing the national anthem for a shivering crowd of more than 65,000 football fans before the Bears-Saints play-off game. Today, he’s singing for 50. On a Wednesday in late January, the chrome-domed singer of American Idol fame is playing a lunchtime set at the Children’s Hospital of New York-Presbyterian. It’s a heartbreaking scene: Frail kids in wheelchairs and teenagers tethered to IVs eagerly await this glimmer of celebrity in a sunny two-story atrium. When Daughtry arrives, however, he doesn’t seem in a charitable mood. First he cancels the proposed Q&A session. Then, when a hospital employee asks him to sign a collage of snapshots from Idol for the hospital scrapbook, he obliges, but wonders out loud, ”How did they get all these cheesy photos?”
When a hospital administrator introduces him as ”Chris from American Idol,” the tightly wound singer snaps. He turns discreetly to a member of his entourage and whispers, ”Are they even going to mention the album? Are they even going to talk about the band? It’s just Idol,” saying the last word with special disdain. Nonetheless, Daughtry gathers himself. He takes a deep breath, bounds up on stage, and performs two songs that delight the room.
You’d never know from observing him that day, but Chris Daughtry, 27, is having a very good year. Season 5’s fourth-place finisher is the unexpected music success story of 2007. His first solo album, called simply Daughtry, debuted last November at No. 2, and the disc of polished rock anthems and bellowing power ballads has moved more than 1.4 million copies — far outpacing recent albums by fellow Idol alums. His 50-city tour is sold out, while his single ”It’s Not Over” is ruling on rock and Top 40 radio. Daughtry’s personal highlight reel is also pretty kick-ass: He’s spent time on the set of Spider-Man 3 and performed for a million revelers on New Year’s Eve in Times Square.
The working dad-turned-rock star seems to epitomize the showbiz dream that Fox’s American Idol dangles in front of 30 million viewers every week. But over the course of several meetings, Daughtry comes off as coolly professional, but flat, muted, and unenthused. ”There’s this misconception that you get famous and everything is perfect,” he says, sounding worn out. ”If anything, it’s harder.”
Just a year and a half ago, Chris Daughtry was living in McLeansville, N.C., and putting in a monotonous 9-to-5 day at a Honda dealership. The sturdy, blue-collar Virginia native began working at a sawmill in his early teens and went on to jobs at Lowe’s home improvement and Rent-A-Center before taking the car repair gig. Only 26, Daughtry behaved like a man twice as old: Marrying at 20 had forced him to become a responsible dad before he could even order a beer. (The premature hair loss didn’t help matters.) When he met his now wife, Deanna, 33, at a party in 2000, she had two kids from a previous marriage. They wed six months later.
Still, the responsible father had one selfish, frivolous escape: rock & roll. By 2005, though, his metal-tinged band, Absent Element, wasn’t bringing him much joy. ”It was a real discouraging time,” says the singer, lounging on a black leather couch at a music rehearsal complex in Burbank, Calif. ”I always felt like, Next year we’ll have a record deal. But years went by and nothing happened. It was horrible.”
His wife was the one who thought of the life-changing suggestion: Try out for American Idol. ”I was like, ‘No way, it’s too cheesy,”’ he remembers saying. Eventually Daughtry changed his mind. ”It was a risk, but I had to do it,” he says, twirling the chunky silver rings on his fingers. ”It was a little intimidating. There were 9,000 people outside. I thought to myself, ‘How am I gonna stand out?”’
From the very beginning of season 5, Daughtry distinguished himself. ”He was different than the typical Idol style,” says Ken Warwick, an executive producer of the series. ”Chris had attitude and credibility. He didn’t sell himself out during the show.” Daughtry seemed like a shoo-in to win until the night of May 10, when he was voted off. ”It was probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says. ”If I had won, I would have been considered pop. I didn’t want to make an Idol record.”