You’re going to Hollywood! American Idol paved the way for reality competition shows to help everyday people achieve their dreams of music stardom.
The series premiered in 2002 on Fox with a star-studded judging panel consisting of Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson. American Idol‘s freshman season introduced Kelly Clarkson, who would become the show’s first breakout star.
The three judges reunited in September 2019 on The Kelly Clarkson Show where they admitted they weren’t certain the show’s premise could work — until Clarkson walked through the door.
“I actually, genuinely do not believe we would be sitting here today if you hadn’t entered the show that year,” Cowell said. “The whole premise of the show was, we had to find a star who was gonna sell records. We found some great people that whole year, but when you delivered that moment on that first live show, and you sang that winning song at the end …”
Jackson added, “We looked at each other at the end of the finale and said, ‘Wow, this thing is really gonna work.’ I think that was the moment that we knew.”
American Idol soon became a pop culture phenomenon that produced winners such as Ruben Studdard, Carrie Underwood and Jordin Sparks. The competition series also turned contestants who didn’t win — including Chris Daughtry, Adam Lambert and Jennifer Hudson — into household names.
However, the road to stardom wasn’t always an easy one for the contestants. Underwood told Parade in 2015 that American Idol was “the most horrifying thing” and that she wasn’t certain her music career could succeed.
“I always kept in my head, ‘If nothing else ever comes of this, I got to do the coolest thing ever and I won ‘American Idol,’” Underwood said. “I was like, ‘Okay, I will just have fun with this and save up as much money as I can and finish school and get a real job.’ Because I am always a practical thinker and would never allow myself to think it would turn out okay all the time.”
Underwood ended up winning season 4 and later received the most Grammy Awards of any American Idol winner.
The original series ended in 2016 but returned two years later on ABC. The revamped show included a brand new set of judges with Katy Perry, Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie helming the show. American Idol set another milestone when it crowned its first at-home winner, Just Sam, on season 18 in May 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
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Scroll through the gallery below to see where the American Idol winners are today.