Since 2002, American Idol has produced 19 winners who’ve gone on to varying degrees of success. But what about the second-best contestants? In an unexpected twist, it turns out some have had more success than the singers who defeated them. As the hit reality competition enters its 20th season, we’re looking at all of American Idol’s runner-ups. Take a look back at every contender who fell short and find out what they’re doing today.
Guarini was just 23 when he conceded to AI’s first winner (and future superstar) Kelly Clarkson. He seized on the momentum with a self-titled studio album and the regrettable musical rom-com From Justin to Kelly. But he eventually found a more fitting place for his powerful singing voice on stage. Throughout the 2010s, Guarini performed in Broadway productions of American Idiot, Romeo and Juliet, Wicked, and more. And in 2015, he made a rather unexpected move as playing Lil’ Sweet, a fictional pitchman for Dr. Pepper.
Aiken had no trouble finding fame after losing to the Velvet Teddy Bear Ruben Studdard. His debut album, Measure of a Man, was certified Double-Platinum, and his autobiography Learning to Sing was a New York Times best seller.
Aiken also appeared on Broadway (Spamalot) and reality TV (Celebrity Apprentice) before he made a 2014 run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Although he lost to the Republican incumbent Renee Elmers, he continues to use his celebrity status to inspire change in the world. Aiken is an outspoken advocate for children’s causes and worked as a national ambassador for UNICEF.
Like her predecessors, Diana DeGarmo wasn’t hurt by her loss (to Fantasia) on AI. After releasing her debut album Blue Skies, the Alabama native embarked on four USO tours before moving on to a busy career in musical theatre. DeGarmo performed on Broadway in Hairspray and Hair, as well as a number of productions across the country. She then spent six months as a cast member of The Young and the Restless.
DeGarmo’s most recent album, Gemini, was released in 2019, but the stage seems to be where she’s most comfortable. In August 2021, she starred in a one-month run of Always… Patsy Cline in St. Louis.
Bo Bice once told Rolling Stone that his last thought on the AI stage was, “Please, God, don’t let me win this thing.” He got his wish, coming in second place to country star Carrie Underwood.
Bice’s 2005 album The Real Thing was certified Gold and his single, “Inside Your Heaven,” peaked at number 2 on the US Billboard 200. However, he was ultimately dropped by his label RCA and established his own Sugar Money Records. Bice has since dropped out of the spotlight—his last post on Instagram was in May 2020.
Katharine McPhee is a true runner-up success story. After losing the final vote to Taylor Hicks, she enjoyed a successful career as a singer and actress in film, television, and stage. McPhee has a total of five studio albums, starting with her self-titled release in 2007. In 2012, she starred in the Golden Globe-nominated NBC series Smash. McPhee also received rave reviews for her performance in the West End and Broadway productions of the musical Waitress.
There’s no word on whether another album is in the works, but when the time comes, there’ll be high hopes, as McPhee married legendary hitmaker David Foster in 2018.
Season 6 runner-up Blake Lewis lost the title of AI to Jordin Sparks, but the Washington native will always be remembered for his unique sound. Unlike contestants known for their soulful style or country twang, Lewis utilized beatboxing skills and scatting to draw fans.
His debut album A.D.D. (Audio Day Dream) received mostly favorable reviews and landed at number 10 on the US Billboard 200 during its first week. Lewis has since released three more albums, the most recent being 2020’s Wanderlust Unknown. He is also one-half of the EDM duo The Private Language.
Baby-faced David Archuleta enjoyed just as much success, if not more, than winner David Cook on Season 7 of AI. Skewing to a younger audience, he released a self-titled pop album in 2008 and made TV appearances on shows like Hannah Montana and iCarly. Archuleta, who was raised Mormon, took a two-year hiatus between 2012 and 2014 to serve a mission on behalf of his church. He’s released a total of eight albums, the most recent being 2020’s Therapy Sessions.
In June 2021, Archuleta released a statement about his sexual orientation on social media. “I’ve been open to myself and my close family for some years now that I am not sure about my own sexuality,” he wrote.
“Again I don’t feel comfortable sharing it, but felt I needed to to bring more awareness to people in my same situation and let you know you’re not alone,” he continued. “You can be part of the LGBTQIA+ community and still believe in God and His gospel plan…”
How fitting that Season 8 runner-up Adam Lambert auditioned for AI by singing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Following his loss to Kris Allen, he became the lead vocalist for the legendary British rock group. In addition to Queen + Adam Lambert, the Indiana native has had an amazing solo career. His debut album, For Your Entertainment, earned a Grammy nomination for the single “Whataya Want from Me,” and was certified Gold.
Although Covid lockdowns out a pause on Lambert’s touring schedule with Queen, he used the downtime to record a remake of one of the band’s most famous tracks. “You are the Champions” was released with proceeds benefiting the World Health Organization’s Covid-19 Solidarity Response Fund for frontline healthcare workers. And in January 2020, Lambert launched the non-profit advocacy group Feel Something Foundation, which raises funds for the LGBTQ community in areas of education and the arts, homelessness, suicide prevention and mental health.
Ohio native Crystal Bowersox was the first female to make the AI finale since Jordin Sparks, but she ultimately lost the competition to Lee DeWyze. She has since released three studio albums: Farmer’s Daughter (2010), All That for This (2013), and Alive (2017). Fans might also recognize her voice from a guest appearance on the 2012 Blues Traveler album Suzie Cracks the Whip.
Following her loss to Scotty McCreery on Season 10, Lauren Alaina signed to Interscope Records, Mercury Nashville and 19 Recordings. To date, she has two albums with the labels—Wildflower (2011) and Road Less Traveled (2017)—and a third (Sitting Pretty on Top of the World) due in September 2021.
Alaina has made a mark on the country music scene, touring with Blake Shelton and winning two CMT Awards. However, she also knows how to cut a rug—in 2019, she finished in fourth place on Season 28 of Dancing with the Stars.
Jessica Sanchez appeared on Showtime at the Apollo and America’s Got Talent before making the cut on Season 11 of AI, but her prior experience wasn’t enough to take her to the finish line. After losing to Phillip Phillips, she released the single “Tonight,” featuring Ne-Yo from her self-titled debut studio album. She also capitalized on her impressive voice by appearing on Season 4 of Glee.
Unfortunately, Sanchez has yet to follow up with a sophomore album. Her most recent release was the May 2021 single “Us,” which addresses anti-Asian racism that spiked during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Season 12 saw Kree Harrison lose to R&B singer Candice Glover. However, unlike other contestants who were quick to record new music, Harrison didn’t release her debut album until three years after the show. This Old Thing was released in July 2016 by Plaid Flag Records and peaked at 28 on the US Country chart. Her second album, Chosen Family Tree, came out in August 2020. Harrison continues to perform in smaller venues, but she’s one of those AI alum who generally keeps a lower profile than her peers.
Following her loss to Caleb Johnson on Season 13, Jena Irene found modest success as a musician. She signed with Original 1265, a small Detroit-based label, and released two albums: Innocence (2016) and Cold Fame (2017). Her personal Instagram page makes little mention of new projects, suggesting the former contestant is taking it easy for now. Her most recent effort was an entry into a Budweiser music concert in October 2020 that placed in the top 16.
Season 14 runner-up Clark Beckham is an undeniable talent, but the Tennessee native used his time after AI in unexpected ways. He currently has over 63,000 subscribers on his YouTube channel, where he spills the tea on other AI contestants and critiques their performances.
In 2021, he produced and arranged an album for Season 19 contestant Hannah Everhart. Beckham also leads online master classes for aspiring singers. Not that he’s given up on music himself—in 2020, he released the album Light Year.
During AI’s farewell season on Fox, La’Porsha Renae was defeated by country singer Trent Harmon. She released her debut album, Already All Ready, via Motown Records the following year. Other than that, the public hasn’t seen or heard much from Renae. In 2020, she appeared to have re-emerged under the new name A.S.E. She self-published a seven-part memoir called Trained on the Battlefield, but reviews are scarce and her Twitter account hasn’t been updated since July 2020.
Caleb Lee Hutchinson
In 2018, country singer Caleb Lee Hutchinson emerged as the first runner-up of AI’s ABC era. (The bittersweet loss was to his own girlfriend at the time, Maddie Poppe.) However, little has transpired since his time on the show. Hutchinson released a self-titled EP in 2019, and another EP, Slot Machine Syndrome, in 2021. His biggest success to date is the 2018 single “Johnny Cash Heart,” which sold 9,000 copies.
Alejandro Aranda, otherwise known as Scarypoolparty, was an AI standout. Despite his loss to Laine Hardy, the Californian will always be remembered for being the rare contestant who performed more original songs than covers.
After performing at Lollapalooza, Life is Beautiful, and Austin City Limits Music Festival throughout 2019, he released his debut album Exit Form, which peaked at number 6 on the US Heat chart. Scarypoolparty continues to play live shows and released the new single “Poison” in August 2021.
Arthur Gunn graced us with his talent not once but twice in the history of AI. The Nepali-born, Kansas-raised singer earned a second-place spot during Season 18, coming in behind Samantha Diaz, aka Just Sam.
Then he returned the next year for Season 19’s comeback competition. Gunn made it as far as the top seven. He was scheduled to perform a duet with Sheryl Crow at the finale, but in an unexpected twist, he dropped out last minute. Gunn cited “personal morals and values due to unpleasant environmental experiences” as the reason behind his decision.
Nevertheless, Gunn has released three albums since 2018 and has over 449,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel. His latest single, “Save Me Now”, was released in May 2021.
Season 19 contestant Willie Spence only lost to Chayce Beckham in May 2021, so he’s still plotting his next moves.
“To go through that for three months living in a hotel and having to learn new songs, it’s definitely been hard,” he said in a June 14 interview with the Palm Beach Post. “But it’s been amazing the whole ride through, so I’m definitely glad that I chose to do the show.”
Spence told the outlet that his future plans include working on new music and playing live shows, but details are still taking shape. Fans will have to stay tuned for word on a record label deal or album release date.