Two years after the debut of American Idol, the finalists still have a song in their hearts and fame in their sights

By Jill Smolowe and Mike Lipton
Updated January 17, 2005 12:00 PM

Kelly Clarkson
AGE: 22

HOMETOWN: Burleson, Texas

She may have finished second in 2003’s World Idol competition, but American Idol‘s first grand-prize winner is still a champ. Her debut album, Thankful, sold more than 2 million copies and produced two hit singles. In November, her follow-up CD, Breakaway, which sold just under 1 million copies, proved that she was more than Idol flash-in-the-pan. Since wrapping a national tour with Clay Aiken last April–and whenever she’s not jetting to L.A. for recording sessions—the single Clarkson has spent most of her time at her new home in Dallas. These days she’s sporting a svelter physique. What’s her secret? “She isn’t dieting, she’s not working with a trainer,” says her rep. “She’s just eating healthy.” A spokeswoman for Candie’s shoes, the pop star still “gets tons of requests all the time for her to perform at bar mitzvahs and birthday parties,” says her rep. She may have long escaped working that party circuit, but fame hasn’t gone to her head. Asked during last season’s Idol finale if she was trying to break away from her Idol roots, she gushed, “What? No way! This is what put me on the map, y’all!”

Tamyra Gray

AGE: 25

HOMETOWN: Gaithersburg, Md.

Though she finished a shocking fourth—”I would have put Tamyra in the final with Kelly,” judge Simon Cowell said—the showbiz world never saw her as an also-ran. In 2003 David E. Kelley cast Gray in FOX’s Boston Public as a high school student with a gift (naturally) for singing, and last year she guested on Tru Calling. For her first CD, The Dreamer, which has sold just 112,000 copies since June, she wrote all but one of the songs. (She also cowrote the Season 3 finale song, “I Believe,” recorded by Fantasia Barrino and Diana DeGarmo.) Her latest turn, which ended Jan. 1, was starring onstage in Bombay Dreams. The Idol experience “doesn’t prepare you for Broadway,” Gray told Variety before her November opening. “The theater is one world, the music industry is another.”

Justin Guarini

AGE: 26

HOMETOWN: Doylestown, Pa.

His self-titled debut CD sold only 142,000 copies, and his and Clarkson’s post-Idol movie From Justin to Kelly got scathing reviews. Which may be why the second-place finisher described his career trajectory as a “free fall.” Apparently, he hasn’t hit bottom yet. In November, less than two weeks after being cast in the upcoming Broadway musical Good Vibrations, Guarini abruptly left the show. Neither he nor the show’s producers have explained why. As for his Idol connection, “he wants to distance himself,” says a friend–a point Guarini made plain last February by lopping off his trademark curls.

RJ Helton

AGE: 23

HOMETOWN: Cumming, Ga.

With his 2004 album Real Life, Helton found success in Christian music—sales hit 20,000, a strong showing for the genre—and inspiration in his own life. In March, Helton disclosed his childhood sexual abuse by a family friend. Now, “I sing about child abuse, my faith and my personal relationships,” he says. And he doesn’t sweat the small stuff. At one small-town tour stop, only 30 people came out in the pouring rain. Used to audiences of more than a thousand, he says with a shrug, “It was still a good concert.”

Ejay Day

AGE: 23

HOMETOWN: Lawrenceville, Ga.

“I like to sing, pure and simple,” says Day. “I will take any opportunity.” Through February, that means performing on the Voyager of the Seas, a Royal Caribbean cruise ship. “I don’t expect to be doing cruise ships for the rest of my life,” says Day, who’s working on a demo, “but it’s a good job while I’m trying to make it in the business.”

Christina Christian

AGE: 23

HOMETOWN: Gainesville, Fla.

After doing a post-Idol tour through Europe, Christian became the first in her class to get hitched when she wed Nicholas Cewe, 24, her boyfriend of six years, last January. Christian appeared on Idol twice last season and covered the prior season for the TV Guide Channel. These days, she’s writing songs, working on an album and dodging recognition. “I’m not a big fan of fame,” she says.

Ryan Starr

AGE: 22

HOMETOWN: Sunland, Calif.

Unlike many of her fellow finalists, Starr hasn’t kept in touch with her Idol colleagues. “We’re all busy trying to get our own careers going,” she says. For Starr, who lives in Hollywood, that’s meant shopping a demo record that steers clear of Idol‘s sugary pop tones. (She recently released “My Religion,” a single she cowrote, on iTunes.) “My vibe is edgier, more rock,” she says. Last fall Starr was a housemate on VH1’s The Surreal Life. “It was a good time,” she says. “But I think I’m off television for a while. I didn’t want people to see me as just a reality star.” Her Surrealexperience aside, her strangest gig was on Howard Stern’s show a week after she was cut from Idol. The shock jock asked the singer, known for her midriff-baring attire, to strip and don a bikini. “First he offered me $1,000,” she says. “Then $2,000. Then it got up to $10,000. I told him no. I was 19, and it just didn’t seem like the thing for me to do.”

Jim Verraros

AGE: 21

HOMETOWN: Crystal Lake, III.

Since coming out shortly after his Idol stint, Verraros has built a career targeted at gay audiences: He starred in the well-received indie film Eating Out and has performed at festivals and clubs around the U.S. His CD Rollercoaster is due in March on Koch Records—the same label as Idol reject William Hung’s. “Oh, let’s not go there; Verraros sighs. His oddest gig? Early last year he performed at a drag queen convention at Oberlin College. “I think every drag queen in Ohio was there—even girls, drag kings!”

AJ Gil

AGE: 20

HOMETOWN: Tacoma, Wash.

Finding a post-Idol niche has proved a challenge for Gil. His first manager, he says, tried to force-feed him a diet of pop music though Gil wanted to sing R&B. “My former manager didn’t know how to capitalize on my fame from American Idol,” Gil says. “Unfortunately, neither did I.” There have been some highs: a 15,000-strong concert crowd in Orlando and a role in the indie film Destination Fame. Newly signed with manager Charlie Morgan, Elton John’s ex-drummer, Gil is starting to record some R&B tracks. “I’m writing some songs for other artists too,” he says. “That’s where I’m making most of my money.”

Nikki McKibbin

AGE: 26

HOMETOWN: Grand Prairie, Texas

After placing third, the rock-ballad-belting McKibbin was signed by RCA—then urged to sing country music. “I was like, ‘Oh, no,’ ” she says. Instead, the single mom returned to Texas to be with her son Tristen, now 7, and to tend to her karaoke business. But the siren song of reality TV is calling again. Recently McKibbin sang several songs for a holiday CD produced by the, a site devoted to reality TV, and next month she’ll appear on a reality edition of Fear Factor, on which she scuffles with Omarosa from The Apprentice. “She’s got a mouth on her,” says McKibbin. “I kind of had to put her in her place a few times.” On the plus side, Factor‘s producers “actually had me sing some of my songs,” she says. Hoping that will lead to a record deal, McKibbin plans to move to L.A. “I don’t want Idol to be the last thing I’ve ever done,” she says. “I want a career.”

By Jill Smolowe and Mike Lipton. Steve Helling in Orlando, Monica Rizzo in Los Angeles and Darla Atlas in Dallas