Post-''American Idol'' Careers -- Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Chris Daughtry, and others prove there?s no formula for ''Idol'' success

By Shirley Halperin and Chris Willman
Updated July 20, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT

A year ago, at the close of the fifth and most popular season of American Idol, it was easy to envision how the following 12 months might unfold. Winner Taylor Hicks, trading on his appeal among older women, would enjoy something akin to Clay Aiken’s early multiplatinum career. Runner-up Katharine McPhee would blossom into 2007’s reigning sexpot-next-door. As for the contestants who’d been eliminated earlier, third-place Elliott Yamin’s best hope was to pick up Hicks’ leftover white-soul crumbs. Kellie Pickler, who came in sixth, would go back to slinging burgers at Sonic — perhaps joined by new fry cook Bucky Covington, the No. 8 finisher. And poor Chris Daughtry, who ended up fourth? He’d spend years hustling the bar circuit, desperate to establish some rock cred.

You know how this story really turned out. Hicks’ debut disc stalled — it ranks 184th on the list of best-sellers for 2007’s first half. Topping that same ranking is newly minted superstar Daughtry, whose first album has sold 2.9 million copies. Country freshmen Pickler and Covington both have sizable radio hits…unlike McPhee, who’s MIA in any format. Yamin, passed over by the usual Idol label and manager, went indie and proved to be a late bloomer: His ”Wait for You” is an unexpected pop hit. ”I tell people third place is the new first,” Yamin quips.

In other words: Keep hope alive, season 6 also-rans Melinda Doolittle and Phil Stacey. And be afraid, very afraid, Jordin and B-B-Blake. There’s little obvious method to which contestants become music-biz finalists and which turn out to be false Idols. What’s certain is that Daughtry, Carrie Underwood, and some other alums are helping keep a beleaguered CD industry afloat. But why them? And what went wrong with Hicks, Fantasia, and other high-profile Idols who have failed so far to establish major music careers? Here, EW makes sense of the often bafflingly uneven fortunes of American Idol‘s ex-contestants.

TV star doesn’t equal pop star. What is the musical equivalent of ”telegenic”? Stumped? Therein lies the rub. Just because they love you on TV doesn’t mean Idol fans will shell out cash for your album — or that radio programmers will jump up and down to spin your new single. ”A&R types are supposed to pick the artists, not Joe Q. Public,” says Chris Booker, a morning jock at Philadelphia pop station Q102. ”That is like having the people vote on what I should wear tomorrow. I’d look silly.”

Maybe that’s why Taylor Hicks’ faux-soul singles never got much traction (”Just to Feel That Way” peaked at No. 20). What worked on TV — the nice-guy looks, the familiar voice — seemed a little corny in the music universe, and his album will likely be the first from an Idol winner not to sell a million copies. ”Voting for the dork to win was fun,” says Booker. ”Buying his album with my money, not so fun.”

Idol favorites Clay Aiken, Ruben Studdard, and Fantasia all rode postshow momentum to big sales, but as TV fans moved on to new seasons, each singer stumbled with sophomore efforts. Once again, their TV appeal (Clay the boyish innocent, Ruben the teddy bear, Fantasia the hard-luck story) just didn’t translate to a pop-music context, where a catchy tune is more important than a big voice or personality. ”There are a ton of chicks in church on Sunday that sing awesome, but just because you can sing doesn’t mean you have good songs,” says Booker. Idol‘s Randy Jackson agrees: ”The songs are way bigger than the artists — trust me. If records don’t sell, it means the songs are bad.” RCA Music Group exec VP Tom Corson, a key member of the Idol team, defends the artists, insisting that Fantasia — whose latest has moved 431,000 copies — has ”done just fine” and that Hicks’ 690,000 albums sold are ”nothing to shake a stick at.” But when you consider that an average 33.9 million viewers watched Hicks’ and Fantasia’s victory episodes, those numbers look pretty unimpressive.

The Idol music factory may be taking a more cautious approach with the latest season’s power couple, Jordin Sparks and Blake Lewis. There’s no plan yet for either to enter the studio (in past years, top finishers were already recording their debuts by now) — maybe because neither one seems like a sure thing. ”If they push Jordin to be an edgier pop act I think it’ll do well, but if they go with the nice girl next door, I don’t think it will do that well,” says Niko, a DJ at New York’s influential pop station Z100. And Blake? ”Everybody from Idol is going to have a chance. But if we want somebody to come on the station and beat-box, we’ll get Justin Timberlake.”

Winning really isn’t everything. Remember ABBA’s old ”Waterloo” refrain about ”I feel like I win when I lose”? Maybe they were onto something. While the race to crown an Idol might make for great TV, music careers are made through mass exposure, and any top 10 finish guarantees that millions of people will know who you are. Not a bad launchpad for your first album. That’s why we aren’t hearing any losers’ laments out of Kellie Pickler, who has a gold album despite her sixth-place finish, or the seventh-place Jennifer Hudson, who went on to garner Oscar gold — a nice teaser campaign for her forthcoming debut album.

For Daughtry, whose rock career depends in some part on being taken seriously as a musician, not winning might have actually improved his cred. The singer admits that ”we thought it would be a huge obstacle” getting airplay on rock stations after Idol. ”It’s a first for rock radio, for anyone to come off that show and be played and taken seriously.” In a way, the singer really got to have it all: that enviable exposure to millions of weekly viewers, but without having to grin and glad-hand his way through a coronation that might turn off anyone who still considers Idol a teenybop phenomenon.

Go ahead, pigeonhole yourself. Early in Idol‘s run, it was assumed that any finalist would be chasing a Kelly Clarkson-type mainstream pop career. No longer. Underwood and Daughtry have proved that defining your identity more narrowly can actually broaden your appeal, counterintuitive as that might seem. Underwood has sold close to 6 million albums, making her the biggest music success story of the last two years — even with most of her hits getting airplay only in the country format. The single that brought her back to Top 40 radio and MTV in a major way was, unexpectedly enough, the most blatantly country-sounding track on Underwood’s album: ”Before He Cheats.” ”That song is so country it’s almost comical,” says Z100’s Niko, ”but our audience loves it — and they love her for saying ‘This is the kind of music I’m gonna make regardless of what show I was on.”’

Country has formed the most mutually beneficial partnership with Idol; Pickler, Covington, and Josh Gracin have also enjoyed significant hits in the genre. ”I think the Southern states are more intrigued by the show,” says Pickler, ”because if you’re in North Carolina, you’re not gonna see Salma Hayek at the gym — but you do feel invested in helping make those [Southern winners’] careers, and maybe that’s as close as you’re gonna get to that kind of celebrity.” Meanwhile, season 6’s Phil Stacey, who heretofore never seemed very twangy, just announced he’ll be putting out a country CD. Bandwagon, anybody?

If major labels don’t come a-knockin’, go indie-rockin’. For every contestant who scores a major-label offer, many more are left without a deal at season’s end. But the independent route has turned into a surprisingly viable option. It’s certainly worked for Elliott Yamin. When the singer realized the majors weren’t biting, he signed with brand-new indie Hickory Records. ”[It was] a very modest deal,” says Alan Becker, senior VP at RED, the company that distributes and promotes Yamin’s album. ”Not big money or big hype.” Yamin has sold 306,000 CDs without a major-label promo push. ”I didn’t know what to expect,” says Yamin. ”I don’t have any gimmicks. I wanted to be genuine, [but] I wanted to cross over. I wanted to make a singer’s type of record, and it is selling. People are responding to it.” Amazingly, Yamin’s disc could soon overtake McPhee’s heavily hyped big-label CD, which has sold just 344,000 copies.

Hoping to follow Yamin’s lead is season 4’s Constantine Maroulis, who recently started his own label and dubbed it…Sixth Place Records. Unlike Yamin, Maroulis did have a post-Idol major-label experience, albeit a brief one; his Atlantic deal fell apart when the exec who signed him left the company. ”So I said, ‘F–it,”’ says Maroulis, ‘I’m going to do my own record.”’ Due out Aug. 7, Constantine cost a relatively modest $35,000 to make, and Maroulis says that if he sells all of the 150,000 copies he’s releasing, ”I will be a very wealthy man. I own this record. I’ll be laughing all the way to the bank.”

Cross Clive at your own peril. On Idol, everyone wants to impress the three judges. After Idol, the ones lucky enough to score a record deal are all trying to wow someone else: BMG Label Group chairman and CEO Clive Davis. The 75-year-old music-biz stalwart is a legendary career Maker — and few artists would want to test whether he can also be a career breaker. Yet Hicks took Davis on by insisting that his finale song, ”Do I Make You Proud,” be left off his debut. A subsequent contretemps with another ex-Idol has been far more serious…and public. Kelly Clarkson irritated Davis by insisting on writing her new album without help from pro songwriters — a beef she eventually took public in interviews. Then Davis gave a speech on the May 23 Idol finale in which he praised the role of outside writers in Clarkson’s past success and ignored her new release. Many observers interpreted his words as a direct slap to Clarkson.

Was this any way to launch an album? The bad buzz led some fans to wonder if the CD contained substandard songwriting, and My December debuted at No. 2 with a solid but not spectacular 291,000 copies. The lead single, ”Never Again,” was ”moderately successful — not as big as some of her others have been, but not every record is,” says John Ivey, program director for L.A. pop station KIIS-FM. ”She’s big here — we love her.” Even so, the station still hasn’t decided whether to add the just-released follow-up, ”Sober.” Clarkson hasn’t been talking much lately, but beforehand, she claimed not to worry about the numbers. ”I don’t care about selling 11 million records,” she told EW in May. ”Which makes people at my label want to just cry.” Randy Jackson’s not too concerned either: ”Look, Kelly’s fine. The record’s selling good. It probably wasn’t the right record for the right public, but I’m sure she’ll rebound. You can never base anything on one record. Kelly’s got a career, and those are hard to come by.”

Ironically, the best model for how to play nice with Clive might be the guy who’s made the most of his rebel persona. When Daughtry approached Davis about writing his own material, they worked out a compromise. ”Clive had a totally different vision at first,” Daughtry recently told EW. ”But I played him songs on my acoustic, and he said, ‘Wow, it looks like you are more than capable to write this album.’ So he set some things up with some collaborators. He was very supportive of everything I wanted; he never tried to fight me on it. [The co-writers] were awesome. I learned so much.” Daughtry’s success as a public badass and private compromiser may provide a template for future Idols: Save the glowering for the stage, not the conference room. Additional reporting by Michael Endelman, Dave Karger, Sara Randazzo, and Tanner Stransky