American Idol winners who didn’t get the success they expected

There was a time when people thought that making it to the televised rounds of American Idol would provide a hopeful singer with their big break. While that may be true for some of the people who have appeared on the singing show over the years, the vast majority of American Idol contestants don’t hit the big time. Even those who have won the title of “American Idol” often struggle to top the charts. Once the cameras are off and the voting ends, it can be hard for an American Idol to keep their fans. 

Lee DeWyze

Season 9 winner Lee DeWyze beat single mother Crystal Bowersox for the top honors, but his career quickly went downhill from there. His first album after American Idol, called Live It Up, sold just 168,000 copies (at that time a record low for an American Idol winner) leading his label, RCA records, to drop him.

While DeWyze spent time touring in a few cities in summer 2016 and then winter 2016 through summer 2017, the singer’s upcoming tour list is thin to say the least. This may be because DeWyze is now stepping behind the scenes to write future hit songs. In 2017, DeWyze was signed to the publishing company SONGS. “Songwriting is really at the core of what they do, as it is at the core of who I am,” he told Variety. “I felt like SONGS was the place I belonged.”

Candice Glover

Candice Glover tried out twice for American Idol before finally making it onto the show in Season 12. Her powerful pipes wowed audiences and were enough to beat out Kree Harrison for the title, but she has struggled to maintain her momentum.

Her debut album didn’t sell as well as expected and things have not improved much since its release. Glover is still making music, though, releasing songs on SoundCloud and YouTube, which is your best bet for hearing her these days as her performances are few and far between.

Caleb Johnson

Caleb Johnson’s American Idol career was a rocky one. He auditioned for the show in 2011 and 2012 but failed to make it into the final rounds. After working on his stage presence, the rocker finally established himself as a contender in 2014 and won the Season 13 title.

Johnson’s success was short-lived, however. Plagued by poor album sales, he parted ways with record company Interscope in 2015 telling Billboard he wants to “get a deal with a new label that’s actually going to support me. I want to find the right home and the right team of people that are going to get behind my music and really do something. What’s the point of doing it if the [label] isn’t going to do anything?”

After leaving Interscope, Johnson crowd-funded his second album, an EP that was released in 2016. While Johnson posted on Facebook in September 2017 that his next full-length studio album is nearing completion, recently he performed in his native Asheville, North Carolina’s BaconFest and seems to be struggling to recapture the glory of his American Idol days.

Nick Fradiani

Nick Fradiani’s Season 14 win came as a shock. Fradiani himself thought he was an “underdog,” telling EW, “Nobody had me pegged as the winner. I wasn’t doing anything that was really impressing people. Then something clicked the last six weeks or so. I just got hot at the right time.”

Despite his doubts, Fradiani beat Clark Beckham, who was favored to win the competition. His luck ended there, though, and Fradiani is still struggling to hit the big time. Early in 2017, the singer left Big Machine Records. “It just wasn’t the right fit,” he told Billboard. “I couldn’t be more happy. It needed to happen, and I was hoping for it.”

These days, he’s focusing on recording his own songs and recently released an EP. “I’m not obsessing over record sales anymore,” Fradiani told Digital Journal. “It’s just getting the music to as many people, and hoping that the music turns them into a fan.”

Jordin Sparks

Jordin Sparks was just 17 when she beat 25 year-old Blake Lewis in Season 6. The youngest-ever American Idol topped the charts after her Season 6 win but has been notably quiet in recent years. She has attempted to cross over from music into the film industry and has had a few starring roles

Sparks addressed the hiatus she took from music to focus on acting with Made in Hollywood: Teen, explaining that the transition from singer to actress was no huge leap. “I feel, as an actress, just from my own personal experience, it’s kind of the same — you’re becoming a character and you have to figure out how to get their emotions out,” she said.

Aside from performing, Sparks has been focusing on healthy living. “To me, health is wealth!” she told People. “We can enrich our lives in so many ways when we are fueled by the proper nutrition and feeling good from the inside out.”

David Cook

Season 7 of American Idol brought us the battle of the Davids. Fans were shocked when David Cook beat the projected winner, 17-year-old wunderkind David Archuleta. Despite this stunning upset, Cook failed to achieve the level of fame that you’d think such a victory would bring him.

The singer is currently working on an EP and has been touring in preparation for its release. It has been nearly a decade since Cook’s win, but the singer remains humble and hard-working. “I believe in keeping your head down and doing your work for as well as you can, as hard as you can, for as long as you can,” he told the Del Mar Times.

Trent Harmon

The 2016 American Idol winner, Trent Harmon, is still keeping his fans waiting for his debut album. Winning what was supposed to be the show’s last season, Harmon didn’t allow the competition and fame to turn his head. Harmon and runner-up La’Porsha Renae shared a “unique relationship” as they both come from Mississippi. “We would help each other, and it was such a healthy competitiveness that we had,” he told AOL.

With the announcement that the show is being re-booted, it looks like Harmon won’t be the final American Idol winner after all, but he told Hollywood Life that he doesn’t mind this. “The fact that it is happening means that somebody wants it to come back,” he said. “And I think that’s great!”

Phillip Phillips

Season 11 featured one of the biggest showdowns of all as rivals Phillip Phillips and Jessica Sanchez went head to head. Phillips ultimately won the title after a record-breaking number of votes. His coronation song “Home” went triple platinum and, for a time, it seemed that Phillips was unstoppable.

At the height of his success, Phillips encountered some legal troubles that put the brakes on his career — at least for a while. According to Billboard, Phillips tried to get out of an “oppressive” contract with 19 Entertainment who then counter-sued him for breach of contract.

He’s not letting his legal battles keep him from making music, though. “I’ve actually got this new record done, basically,” he said. “As soon as the legal stuff wraps up I’m going to be releasing some music and keep moving forward. I’m really excited about this new music. Every artist says it’s their best to date on every album, but this is some deep, emotional lyrics and melodies and I just really feel like I’ve grown a lot these past few years… I draw a lot of inspiration from that so I’m really excited about getting it out.”

Taylor Hicks

Taylor Hicks barely made it through the audition round of American Idol, being told by Simon Cowell that he wouldn’t advance very far in the competition. Hicks, however, proved Cowell wrong, beating Katharine McPhee for the Season 5 title.

Since then, the singer has been pretty successful — just not in the music industry. The singer-turned-restaurateur hosts a food show called State Plate on INSP. While he might not be singing much these days, he’s got some strong opinions on the upcoming reboot of American Idol. In an interview with The Domenick Nati Show (via Billboard) the singer weighed in on who should be a judge on the show after it was announced that his Season 5 rival Chris Daughtry would be on the panel.

“I’m not gonna get into who shouldn’t or who should be a judge,” he said. “If anything, I think a winner should be, personally. Because what you go through to win the show is a lot different than what you go through when you’re third or fourth or fifth or tenth. If they were going to have a judge that’s from the show… I would feel like a winner would be the best suited.”

Ruben Studdard

The 2003 rivalry between Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken was one for the books. Studdard managed to clinch the title by a narrow margin of less than one percent. His first album, “Soulful,” debuted at number one and sold more than a million copies in pre-orders alone. Despite his early success, Studdard’s fame didn’t last. After dwindling record sales, he was dropped from his label in 2007.

In 2013, the singer appeared as a contestant on The Biggest Loser. He told TODAY that it was time for a major life change. The stint on the show meant taking time away from music and forced him to cancel some concerts, something that didn’t bother him too much. “I’ve just been blessed not to have my weight be an issue that affects my musical career,” said Studdard. “Singing will be there. Being here for four months isn’t going to kill my career. If four months kills my career, then I don’t have a career.”

It turns out those were famous last words. The appearance may not have killed his career, but Studdard has been struggling to remain in the limelight. He has only released one album since he appeared on the show.

Fame is fickle

Show business is hard. If the winners of a show as popular as American Idol can’t make it in the big time is there really any hope for the rest of us? Let’s hope that things change when the re-boot of the show hits the air for the 2017-2018 season. Maybe the next crop of winners will have better success than their predecessors. If nothing else, though, they will be sure to get their 15 minutes of fame.