See the Top 10 Contestants From Season 1 of ‘American Idol’ Then and Now
Can you believe it’s been over a decade since ‘American Idol‘ first premiered on FOX? A lot of changes have happened over time, with the now having one less host and an entirely new panel of judges (that has changed a number of times), but the talent still keeps coming after all these years.
In celebration of ‘American Idol,’ the powerhouse of 21st century singing competitions, we’re taking a look back at the Top 10 contestants from Season 1 who first created the musical buzz on reality TV. Check out pictures and catch up with singers like Jim Verraros, Ryan Starr, Tamyra Gray, Justin Guarini, plus many more, like this girl Kelly Clarkson who you’ve probably never heard of.
Then: Georgia native EJay Day wasn’t supposed to make the Top 10 for Season 1 at first, but judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson allowed him back into the competition following contestant Delano Cagnolati’s exit due to fraudulent age claims. During his short run on the show (he was eliminated in the first Top 10 round), Day showed off his sweet, smooth voice with songs like ‘My Girl‘ and ‘I’ll Be‘ by Edwin McCain.
Now: Day went on to entertain after his ‘Idol’ stint, showing off his vocals on the 2002 ‘American Idol’ tour and as an entertainer on Royal Caribbean cruise lines. He was also recruited by boxer Muhammed Ali to sing at several events, and performed at the Tournament of Roses in 2003. Nowadays, you can keep up with him on Facebook, where he’s seen living it up with Playboy model friends and showing off some modeling shots of his own. He looks like he hasn’t aged a bit!
Then: If you can actually recall Season 1 of ‘American Idol,’ you’ll probably remember a moving audition from Illinois boy Jim Verraros. In front of the judges, he spoke fondly of his deaf parents and how one of his biggest wishes was for them to hear him sing, despite the fact that they already attended every single one of his shows. Although his time on ‘Idol’ came and went quickly, he left behind a series of memorable performances, like his rendition of the Motown classic ‘Easy.’
Now: Almost immediately after leaving ‘Idol’ and its subsequent tour, Verraros became a huge symbol in the LGBT community and openly embraced his homosexuality, even though some speculated this was the reason he exited ‘Idol’ so early. Since the show, Verraros has released a solo album, several singles, has been honored by OUT, appeared in numerous film projects like the first and second ‘Eating Out‘ flicks, and married his longtime boyfriend, Bill Brennan.
Then: There are several reasons you may remember AJ Gil, and not just because of his voice. At only 17 years old, the San Diego native had one of the sickest chin traps this side of the Mississippi, and he also auditioned with an unlikely (but pretty unforgettable) song choice — ‘The Star Spangled Banner.’ Gil was able to make it to the Top 9 after his near-perfect crooning of ‘My Cherie Amour,’ but unfortunately, his performance of ‘How Sweet It Is to Be Loved (By You)’ just didn’t cut it.
Now: Gil is a married family man now, but is still hard at work with his recording career and currently on the brink of releasing a new album. According to his Facebook bio, after the show, A.J. became “a certified sound engineer, starred in an independent film (‘Destination Fame’), and made the decision to focus on singing and songwriting… With the guitar becoming his primary instrument and piano his secondary, A.J. has transformed into a fully developed artist.” Keep up with him on Twitter and his official website.
Then: Ah, Ryan Starr, one of the O.G. hotties of ‘American Idol,’ with her ripped abs and skin-baring costumes. Even her (made-up stage) name sounds hot (real name Tiffany Montgomery). The self-proclaimed “dork” and quintessential Cali girl made it all the way to the Top 7 from thousands of hopefuls, but even her gorgeous looks and great vocal range during performances like ‘If You Really Love Me‘ couldn’t save her from the American public’s burn.
Now: Following ‘Idol,’ Starr went on to have a successful career in the media, landing correspondent gigs for red carpet events, guest starring on ‘That ’70s Show’ in 2002, acting on an epsiode of ‘CSI,’ and partaking in VH1’s celebrity ‘Big Brother’-esque show, ‘The Surreal Life,’ where she was constantly embroiled in drama with castmate Flavor Flav. Starr also kept cranking out music, releasing a successful single to iTunes in 2004, entitled ‘My Religion,’ and actively performing with her band Aces, at least as of 2007. More recently, Starr lent her vocals to Dutch DJ Sander Kleinenberg’s track ‘Chemically.’
Then: She had a reputation for being the “shy girl” on the first season of ‘American Idol,’ but even though Christina Christian’s spoken voice wasn’t as heard on set, she left a lasting impression with her delicate yet soulful singing voice. Christian (who is originally from Trinidad) auditioned in Miami and went on to compete in the Top 10, slaying songs like Bill Withers’ ‘Ain’t No Sunshine‘ before getting eliminated during Big Band week.
Now: Christian was residing in Dallas, Texas, for a while (where she was voted one of the 10 most beautiful women in the city), but she, her husband and children have since moved back to their homestate of Florida. The former ‘Idol’ contestant now works full-time as an IT Consultant and a mother, and still performs here and there at local events.
Then: R.J. Helton was only 21 when he auditioned for ‘American Idol’ in Atlanta, singing ‘Never Say Goodbye’ by the Jackson 5 for the original panel of judges. The fresh-faced young’n was able to secure a spot in the Top 5 as the ‘Idol’ episodes rolled out, but he was voted off during the Burt Bacharach’s homage week, unable to strike a chord in the hearts of Americans with his version of ‘Arthur’s Theme.’
Now: Helton released solo material after exiting ‘Idol,’ like the slower, sultry jams ‘Hot‘ and ‘Even If,’ and remains active on the Internet as an avid Tweeter. He is usually seen giving daily updates about his family life, from posting pictures with his nieces and nephews to some more risque shots of his smokin’ hot wife, who seems to be quite the exercise junky.
Then: From the moment of her audition, it was clear Tamyra Gray had something special, as she nailed Mariah Carey‘s ‘Vision of Love.’ The former Miss Atlanta beauty queen even wowed sourpuss Simon Cowell, who called her “amazing” from the get-go. Even though she was a favorite, Gray unfortunately got cut after excelling to the Top 4, despite the fact that the vocal diva’s performance of ‘Feel the Fire‘ was spot on.
Now: Post ‘American Idol,’ Gray was signed to 19 Records and released her self-written debut album ‘The Dreamer,’ featuring her biggest hit to date ‘Raindrops Will Fall.’ She also landed a feature on Kelly Clarkson’s debut album and wrote the No. 1 track ‘I Believe’ for Fantasia Barrino, but she also blossomed in the world of acting. She had a recurring role on ‘Boston Public,’ and nestled in nicely on Broadway, acting in shows like ‘Rent.’ Gray also had a role in ‘Rachel Getting Married’ back in 2008, and has scored modeling gigs for brands like H&M.
Then: If you tuned in for the audition process during the inauguaral season of ‘Idol,’ it immediately became clear that flame-haired country gal Nikki McKibbin would be some serious competition. From her spunky personality and bold, edgy look to her outstanding vocals, the Texas native wowed throughout the first season of ‘Idol’ with female-empowered rock standards like ‘Heartbreaker‘ and ‘I’m the Only One.’ Despite her strong showing, she finished in third place behind Justin Guarini and Kelly Clarkson.
Now: After her ‘Idol’ success, the road grew much more rocky for McKibbin. Although she signed a record contract pretty much the moment she stepped off the ‘Idol’ stage, she clashed with her label, as they wanted to transform the rocker into a country star. In 2007, she was finally able to release her debut album ‘Unleashed,’ following some in between music gigs and a venture into the karaoke business, but she is probably most known for her stint on VH1’s ‘Celebrity Rehab,’ as she fought to overcome her addiction to alcohol and cocaine, problems that stemmed from abuse as a child. She got clean and as of July 2011, was sober for three years strong. We wish you all the best, Nikki!
Then: When Justin Guarini auditioned for ‘Idol,’ we couldn’t help but think two things: Who is this guy with the amazing voice, and how could one man’s hair look so flipping majestic? At first, the fro nearly overshadowed Guarini’s star power, but lucky for us, this guy turned it out and then some during his run on ‘Idol.’ From his unreal falsetto during his audition (‘Who’s Lovin’ You‘) to his last performance as the Season 1 runner-up (the original song ‘Before Your Love‘), Guarini’s charming demeanor and pitch-perfect vocals never wavered.
Now: Who could forget the classic flick ‘From Justin to Kelly’? Probably one of our top 10 favorite movies of all time. Kidding! But in all seriousness, Guarini didn’t end up winning the big prize, but he still managed to score a deal with RCA Records, subsequently releasing his self-titled studio album in 2003, which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200. He went on to release another album in 2005, ‘Stranger Things Have Happened,’ to less success, and an EP in 2008 entitled ‘Revolve.’ Guarini also landed roles in small theater productions for plays like ‘Rent’ and ‘Chicago.’ He’s since married, had his first son, and has become quite the philanthropist, supporting music educations causes as well as non-prof organizations like Habitat for Humanity. What a guy!
Then: Who knew that this little country bumpkin would turn into such a global phenomenon? You certainly didn’t see it coming at first glance, but Kelly Clarkson’s audition blew all of America away. We first got a taste of her unbelievable and powerful voice when she sang Etta James’ ‘At Last’ mixed up with some of Madge‘s ‘Express Yourself’ during the preliminary rounds. Her bubbly personality and insane vocal skills kept her at the top through the live performances, where she sang classics like ‘(You Make Me Feel) A Natural Woman,’ and she eventually won highest honors, becoming America’s first official “idol.”
Now: Well, in case you’ve been living under a rock for the past 10 years, Kelly Clarkson is one of the biggest recording artists in pop music today. Since she left ‘Idol,’ she’s been busting out the hits left and right, from breakup anthems like 2004’s ‘Since U Been Gone’ to her self-empowerming tune from 2011 ‘Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You).’ From her five studio albums, she’s had three No. 1 singles and several other high-charting tracks on the Billboard Hot 100, and she even performed for the President of the United States (pictured pre-performance above) in 2013. The country community has also embraced Clarkson for her extraordinary talent, which over the years, has garnered her three Grammy awards, one CMA, 13 Billboard Music Awards, three VMAs, plus many, many more accolades. Oh yeah, and she’s getting married soon!