As Fox's reality juggernaut says goodbye after 15 seasons, a host of past alums are releasing new projects hoping to get a final boost from the show that launched them.
Over 15 seasons, American Idol has turned the nation on to scores of beloved talent, from country queens (Carrie Underwood) to R&B balladeers (Jordin Sparks) to pop divas (Kelly Clarkson). It’s even introduced an Oscar winner (Jennifer Hudson). But with Fox pulling the plug this year, the future for some Idols is murky: How do you maintain success once the machine that made you a star shuts down?
As the judges prepare to crown one final winner on April 7, many past champs are back with new projects — perhaps in an effort to get maximum exposure from the very show that made them famous. Season 9 victor Lee DeWyze dropped his sixth studio album, Oil & Water, in February, while Kris Allen is prepping Letting You In for March 18; winners like Fantasia Barrino and Taylor Hicks are also readying new albums. Even nonwinners have put out new material: Season 8’s Danny Gokey and season 5’s Kellie Pickler both released Christmas music in late 2015. “It’s probably the biggest platform in the world for getting your name and music out,” season 10 champ Scotty McCreery tells EW.
These former Idols’ strategy of pushing out new material makes sense. Clarkson and Underwood aside, every Idol winner has seen a steep decline in album sales. (Ruben Studdard’s 2003 debut, Soulful, sold 417,000 copies its first week; his 2014 LP, Unconditional Love, moved 6,000.) So taking advantage of any connection they have to the show is crucial — even if they’re unaware of it. “I’m putting the music out for the people who are connecting to it — not because the show is ending,” DeWyze tells EW. “That’s just coincidence.”
While a new release itself won’t guarantee a career renaissance, some stars are returning to the show to get added visibility. Fantasia, who released a new single, “No Time for It,” in January, and Chris Daughtry, whose greatest-hits set is out now, have made returns this season, and producers are lining up more surprise drop-ins from other Idols. And as those appearances give former contestants exposure, they’ve also helped this season’s search for a new star. “It’s raised the bar,” says Scott Borchetta, a season 14-15 mentor and founder of Big Machine records, which includes Taylor Swift on its roster. “I said, ‘Do you have what it takes to sing with Nick Fradiani, Fantasia, or Daughtry?’ It really helps me to advance the process.”
So where do Idols go from here? Some are mapping out alternate career paths. Pickler, for instance, has ventured into reality TV. Clay Aiken ran for Congress in 2014. And Taylor Hicks has tried his hand at becoming a Las Vegas star and has become a partner in a SAW’s BBQ joint in Alabama. “I think you just really have to work and really kind of reinvent yourself,” says Hicks. “Just stay out there.”
Going forward, industry insiders note pure talent will trump any affiliation to the franchise. Borchetta cites Daughtry and Adam Lambert as nonwinners who’ve successfully navigated post-Idol waters. “For any artist in today’s market, I would not advise being reliant on any television show for the ongoing success of their career,” says Jan Smith, a vocal producer who has mentored Usher and Justin Bieber. “If they continue putting great music out there and maintaining their relevance, ‘famous’ will follow them.'” It’s a strategy that former Idols will abide by. “[American Idol is] not a career,” says McCreery, who’ll add author to his résumé with the release of a memoir, Go Big or Go Home, in May. “You have to get out there after the show and try to find your way — and make the best music you can.”
Additional reporting by Madison Vain.