Ranking the careers of the ‘American Idol’ winners, from worst to best
American Idol has been at the forefront of the reality TV craze for over a decade, and in that time it has launched careers, given others their 15 minutes, and caused thousands of idiots to believe they might be talented. But in that time, there have been only 12 winners, and since American Idol is currently in the middle of deciding who the 13th winner will be, we thought it would be a good time to go back and look at those 12 and rank them, because, well, that is what we do.
We won’t be ranking them on talent or on how much we like them, but rather on the cold hard facts. After all, they got into the game to be famous and successful people, and so we’ll rank them purely on that, taking into account things like record sales, hit singles and award recognition. Sure, that all might be superficial, but then again that just makes it perfect for a show like American Idol and these 12 winners.
12. Candice Glover
Resume: One album, released in February, which peaked at number 11 on the charts and has sold 40,000 copies thus far.
It’s hard to really rank Candice Glover since her career is just getting started, but right now it doesn’t look so hot. Her debut album seems to have come and gone with little fanfare, and given that the initial album tends to be the only successful one for many Idol winners, I’m guessing that doesn’t bode too well for her future. She was a feel-good winner, but while that might tug at the heartstrings of voters, it’s a whole hell of a lot harder to tug at their purse strings. Still, it’s early and given the mediocre competition ahead of her, she might be able to move up at least a couple of spots.
11. Lee DeWyze
Resume: A Teen Choice Award?
It’s not hard to imagine Candice Glover zooming past Lee DeWyze soon. His first album after winning sold around 150,000 copies, which is pretty lousy compared to the debut efforts of every other winner. It was bad enough to get him tossed off his label after only one album. He then signed with a new label and released his follow-up album in August of 2013. It’s sold 3,000 copies. Yeah, this dude is done. But hey, at least he’ll always have that Teen Choice Award for “Choice TV Male Reality/Variety Star.” I’m guessing that will go on his tombstone.
10. Kris Allen
Resume: One platinum single.
Kris Allen’s first album sold 346,000 copies, which was weak for an Idol winner. He did have that one hit single, though, “Live Like We’re Dying,” which sold 1.8 million copies, enough to keep him in his label’s good graces. Unfortunately, his follow-up sold only 35,000 copies and his label, RCA, kicked him to the curb. It’s a good thing he lived like he was dying because his career just died.
9. Taylor Hicks
Resume: One platinum album and one single that went to number one on the charts.
Taylor Hicks won because he had a goofy gimmick. Remember “Soul Patrol?” Yeah. That, along with his premature gray hair gave him the novelty factor to win and then parlay that into a debut album which sold over 700,000 copies and was registered as a platinum seller. He also had a number one single, “Do I Make You Proud,” but people quickly got tired of him and his follow-up album sold only 50,000 copies on his own label after getting dropped from his Idol contract. He’s not even the most successful performer from his own season, as both Chris Daughtry and Katherine McPhee have completely crushed him in the years since. But hey, at least he’ll always look 30 years older than he really is. Congrats?
8. David Cook
Resume: One platinum album which sold over 1 million copies, and two platinum singles.
David Cook had some success after he won, putting out an album that sold 1.5 million copies and two platinum singles, the biggest of which, “The Time of My Life,” peaked at number three on the charts. But it was all downhill after that. His follow-up sold only 130,000 copies and his label dumped him. He’s currently without a label, but hey, he did manage to land season two’s hot blonde, Kimberley Caldwell. And then she dumped him.
7. Phillip Phillips
Resume: One platinum album which sold over 1 million copies, and two platinum singles, one of which sold 5 million copies.
That’s a pretty promising start, right? Sure, he’s got a ridiculous name and as we’ve seen, most Idol success tends to fade as soon as the second album hits the shelves, but for now he’s doing alright. At the very least, that 5 million selling single, “Home,” puts him ahead of the game. At least his label is still backing him, which is more than we can say for half the people on this list.
6. Ruben Studdard
Resume: A number one platinum album which sold 1.8 million copies, a follow-up gold album which sold almost 500,000 copies, one platinum single, and a handful of awards, including three Billboard Music Awards.
It’s hard to really place Ruben Studdard. On the one hand, he’s had arguably more success than the next couple of people on this list, but a lot of that can probably be chalked up to the early Idol phenomenon, and he also has no real career to speak of anymore. Here’s his album sales progression: 1.8 million; 483,000 – 238,000 – 50,000 – 22,000 – 6,000. That’s, uh, that’s not good. I want to put him higher, I really do, but I can’t in good conscience go any higher than this for a dude whose latest career move was appearing as a contestant on The Biggest Loser. It’s hard to embarrass yourself as an American Idol alum. I mean, you’ve already scraped the bottom of the pop culture barrel, but somehow Ruben managed.
5. Jordin Sparks
Resume: One platinum album which sold over 1 million copies, two platinum singles and a handful of awards, including an American Music Award, a People’s Choice Award, and a Grammy nomination.
That’s not a bad resume, right? Sure, her follow-up album only sold 177,000 copies and her third album is still up in the air, beset by numerous delays, but her label is still backing her and she’s still in the game, which is a hell of a lot more than a lot of former winners can say. I could see her easily getting passed by Phillips Phillips and maybe even Candice Glover one day if things break right, but she’s already had a pretty respectable career, and she’s still only 24 years-old, which means she could just as easily move up. For now, this seems like a decent place to put her.
4. Scotty McCreery
Resume: A number one platinum album which sold over 1 million copies and a Christmas album which sold almost 400,000, a handful of country music awards.
Scotty McReery had the good fortune to land in the country genre, which always takes care of its own and sells better than just about anything else these days. That meant that his debut album managed to crack the magical 1 million sold mark, and his follow-up Christmas album did pretty well too, going gold. His third album, released in October of 2013, has sold over 200,000 copies already, which means he might actually have a sustainable career. He also swept the best newcomer categories of the major country music awards and picked up another for breakthrough artist in 2103, although I’m not sure how that works. The country game is a weird one, though – and lucrative -and as long as he stays tied to that, he has a chance to make it long term, or at least longer than the 10 seconds that some of his fellow winners have gotten. Or he could tumble all the way down to David Cook land. Who knows?
3. Fantasia Barrino
Resume: One platinum album which sold over 1.8 million copies, a handful of gold albums, multiple hit singles, including a number one single, a starring role on Broadway in The Color Purple, and nearly 20 awards, including a Grammy for Best Female Vocal R&B Performance.
That’s probably better than a lot of you expected. She hasn’t had a superstar career, but she hasn’t faded into Ruben Studdard land either. Her album sales figures have steadily gone down, from 1.8 million to around 500,000 for her next two albums and a little more than 300,000 for an album she released last year, but those are still decent enough numbers, enough to keep her in the game and in her label’s good graces. She’s also one of the only – maybe the only – Idol winners to find acting success. I mean, a Broadway role is a pretty big damn deal. Sure, it’s dwarfed by the acting success of her Oscar winning rival from her season, Jennifer Hudson, but hey, Jennifer Hudson didn’t win her season, Fantasia did, so tough luck.
2. Kelly Clarkson
Resume: Two multiplatinum albums, four other platinum albums, two number one albums, numerous platinum singles, 62 awards and 135 nominations including four American Music Awards and three Grammys. Oh, and she was a punchline in a hugely successful Judd Apatow movie.
Kinda blows everything else away that we’ve seen so far, doesn’t it? It just highlights the massive chasm between true superstardom, enjoyed by only the top two on this list, and the sort of novelty item stardom enjoyed by nearly everyone else. Kelly Clarkson is a legit rock star. She’s had a ridiculously successful career that has held up through six albums, and at her peak she sold over 6 million copies of one album alone. Sure, she also starred in From Justin to Kelly, but we all have skeletons in our closets. The fact that she even survived that is a testament to her staying power. But she’s not number one. That honor belongs to…
1. Carrie Underwood
Resume: Three multiplatinum albums, one other platinum album, three number one albums, 15 platinum singles, 120 awards and 176 nominations including all the country music awards (seriously, all of them), six People’s Choice Awards, six Grammys and a Golden Globe nomination. Oh, and those legs.
Yeah, that speaks for itself. Her debut album has sold over 8 million copies and every single album of hers’ except one has gone to the top of the charts. The one that didn’t topped out at number two. She’s part of that country music world I talked about earlier that looks after its own and it’s pretty much made her queen. She’s going to be famous for as long as she’s alive, just like Dolly Parton, even if it means she ends up hosting some futuristic version of Hee-Haw on CMT in the year 2050. She’s probably the only winner who’s transcended the whole American Idol winner label – even Kelly Clarkson is still “the girl who won the first season” – and it’s hard to see any winner, past or future, ever overtaking her for the top spot on this list.
Kelly Clarkson image by Featureflash/Shutterstock
Kris Allen image by Jaguar PS/Shutterstock
Phillip Phillips image by carrie-nelson/Shutterstock
Scotty McCreery image by s_bukley/Shutterstock
Carrie Underwood image by Everett Collection/Shutterstock