We also check in with Justin Guarini, Ruben Studdard, Constantine Maroulis and more 'Idol' alumni before season 11 kicks off.
By Jim Cantiello
"American Idol" kicks off its 11th season Wednesday night with its first of eight audition episodes. But before we're inundated with a new batch of contestants (many of whom we'll forget about by June), let's play catch-up with some noteworthy alums.
Sure, our Kellys and Carries have remained household names throughout the years, but others — like Katharine McPhee and Leah LaBelle — are poised to have their biggest post-"Idol" years yet.
Let's check in with standouts from seasons one through five:
The One You Know: Kelly Clarkson's fifth studio album, Stronger, is selling just fine, even if recent "Ron Paul sales bump" rumors were proven to be a bunch of hooey. The original Idol just kicked off her latest tour last week. On the radio, you'll hear "Mr. Know It All" approximately 17 times an hour, until it's replaced by new single "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)."
The Goofy One: Justin Guarini hasn't released a full-length album since 2005's Stranger Things Have Happened, but the inaugural runner-up kept busy in 2011 appearing in Broadway's "American Idiot" as well as touring companies of "Rent" and "Chicago." On a personal note, the crooner and his wife had a baby boy last April. And yes, since "Idol," he's chopped his signature "Felicity-meets-Sideshow Bob" locks.
The One You Know: Clay Aiken can be seen in promos for the upcoming season of "Celebrity Apprentice," accusing a teammate of being patronizing — all in the name of charity. Although his last few albums haven't made a big dent in pop culture, Clay still remains the fourth-best-selling "Idol" contestant ever, right behind the holy trinity. (That's Underwood/Clarkson/Daughtry, obviously.)
The One You Shouldn't Count Out Just Yet: Most of America hasn't paid much attention to the Velvet Teddy Bear since "Sorry (2004)," and Ruben Studdard finally realized fans like him best when he sings about calendars. Studdard kicked off 2012 with a well-reviewed single called "June 28th (I'm Single)" about his recent divorce. The catchy throwback jam is currently climbing the urban charts, so don't be surprised if his upcoming album moves some serious units when it lands in March.
The One You Had No Idea Was On "Idol": Ashley Hartman had a six-episode stint on the first season of "The O.C." as Summer and Marissa's buddy Holly. Turns out Simon Cowell's "You should act, not sing" critique was correct!
The One You Know: Seventh-placer Jennifer Hudson spent 2011 promoting her sophomore album, I Remember Me, but her turn as Weight Watchers' official spokesperson kept her skinny body in the spotlight and earned her a book deal. The Oscar winner's turn as Winnie Mandela has yet to be released in the U.S., but she'll appear as a nun in the Farrelly Brothers' "Three Stooges" big-screen update this year. Might we suggest a remake of Lily Tomlin's "The Incredible Shrinking Woman" next?
The One We Can't Stop Rooting For: Fantasia, Fantasia, Fantasia. Your 2010 album Back to Me was full of retro nuggets like the Grammy-winning "Bittersweet" and shoulda-been-a-hit "Collard Greens and Cornbread," but just when your music career gets back on track, your life spins out of control. Here's hoping you can turn your personal drama into big-screen gold when you star as Mahalia Jackson in your first official feature-film role.
The One You Shouldn't Count Out Just Yet: Leah LaBelle barely made the top 12 back in 2004 — when she was a cocky 17-year-old with shaky vocals living under the shadow of a Bulgarian pop-star mother — but the 25-year-old just made headlines by getting signed to L.A. Reid's Epic Records under the guidance of heavyweights Jermaine Dupri and Pharrell Williams. Seriously!
The One You Had No Idea Was On "Idol": Soap fans might remember Duke Buchanan on "One Life to Live" before he was killed by a tornado in 2006. The Matthew Morrison look-alike got his start on "Idol" as a semifinalist.
The One You Know: In 2011, country megastar Carrie Underwood starred in a hit film, "Soul Surfer," reached her 11th #1 single on a duet with Brad Paisley and finally surpassed Kelly Clarkson as the biggest-selling "Idol" winner ever. She's got a new album on the way and hinted that she'll be participating in "something special" with Steven Tyler, fueling a rumor that she'll be taking the CMT "Crossroads" stage with the new "Idol" judge and — randomly — '90s band Sugar Ray.
The Goofy One: Constantine Maroulis finally got some respect with a Tony-nominated turn in Broadway's "Rock of Ages" in 2009. Constantine fans might be bummed that he won't be reprising the Drew role in the big-screen adaptation coming out in 2012, but keep your eyes peeled, because director Adam Shankman gave him a quick walk-on appearance as a producer.
The One You Had No Idea Was On "Idol": Prior to winning the sixth season of "Nashville Star," Melissa Lawson made it to the top 75 during Hollywood Week on "Idol."
The One You Know: Daughtry's 2011 album Break the Spell went gold in December. Chris and the band will be hitting the road for their second headlining tour this March.
The One You Shouldn't Count Out Just Yet: Katharine McPhee's career has been full of starts and stops. But now that she's on NBC's high-profile midseason replacement "Smash" (including an inescapable ad campaign that claims to be "introducing" McPhee to America's living rooms), expect to see the season five runner-up reach new heights. You saw her hobnobbing with Hollywood's elite at the Golden Globes this past Sunday. Twelve months from now, you may just see her onstage holding a Globe of her own.
The Goofy One: Taylor Hicks got some love last April when Jimmy Fallon and Stephen Colbert invited him to appear on "Late Night With Jimmy Fallon" during Colbert's cover of Rebecca Black's "Friday," a performance that instantly went viral and showed that Hicks is still as charmingly offbeat as you remember. The other goofy alum of season five, Kellie Pickler, is ready to show her mature side with a traditional country album, 100 Proof, out next week.
On Thursday, Jim will check in with standouts from seasons six through 10.
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