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American Idol's Biggest Winners

Crystal Bowersox, 2010 finalist
Photo: Getty Images

This story was updated on May 27, 2010.

While millions of fans focused on Crystal Bowersox's high notes, Lee DeWyze's guitar playing, and Simon Cowell's last gasps of snark, MoneyWatch was, well, watching the money. By that measure, it hardly matters that DeWyze was crowned the winner of American Idol's ninth season on Wednesday night — if they manage life after Idol correctly, the two finalists stand to earn millions of dollars each. Previous Idol winners such as Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood have gone on to become mega-selling, globe-touring, award-winning stars, while even contestants that haven't won, such as Chris Daughtry and Jennifer Hudson, have gone on to become top-earning performers.

“You can rest on having been on American Idol for years,” says Joel Peresman, CEO of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation. Exactly how much cash do Crystal and Lee stand to rake in? Based on the experience of past Idols, seven figures is likely, and it’s quite possible they’ll rake in tens of millions of dollars. Not bad for a couple of crooners no one had ever heard of four months ago.

Post-competition, Idol contestants can make gobs of money from everything from album sales and downloads to concert tours, product endorsements, movies and TV shows, Broadway plays, and personal appearances. To be sure, while being a winner on Idol does guarantee a few things — a recording contract with production company19 Entertainment, for one, massive publicity for another — it doesn’t guarantee a successful long-term career. “Votes don’t always equal sales,” points out Dave Bakula, senior vice president of analytics at album sales tracker Nielsen SoundScan.

Will DeWyze end up more like Kelly Clarkson, the first season’s winner, or that year’s runner-up Justin Guarini, who’s more likely to appear at local festivals and parades these days than sold-out mega-arenas? MoneyWatch takes a closer look at some of Idol’s most successful past contestants to get some clues.

Kelly Clarkson

  • Has made more than $20 million on album sales and downloads alone

A decade after American Idol premiered, its first winner is still considered one of its best. Since her first album came out in 2003, Clarkson has sold 11 million albums and 16 million track downloads in the U.S, according to Nielsen SoundScan. And she’s probably earned at least another $20 million from tour grosses and endorsement deals from ProActiv, VitaminWater, and NASCAR among other sponsors.

Carrie Underwood

  • Earned an estimated $14 million in 2009

When farm girl Carrie Underwood first auditioned for Season 4, judge Simon Cowell said, “I’m surprised we haven’t found a good country singer yet.” But he was looking at one. Underwood went on to not only win AI, but become a future multiple country awards winner, multiple Grammy winner, and inductee into the Grand Ole Opry. Her three albums have produced several number one singles and sold 11 million albums in the U.S. and 15 million downloads. Forbes estimated that she was the highest-earning AI alum in 2009.

Clay Aiken

  • $6 million in album sales

Aiken surprised everyone. First, he lost season 2 to Ruben Studdard. Second, he outsold the winner by 100,000 copies with the release of his single, God Bless the USA. His debut album, Measure Of a Man, went on to sell 3 million copies and his second album, Merry Christmas with Love, did almost as well. He subsequently starred in Spamalot on Broadway. After disappointing sales of his 2008 record On My Way Here, Aiken split with his label, RCA. Nevertheless, Forbes estimated he earned $2.2 million in 2009. This summer he'll be on tour with none other than Ruben Studdard.

Jennifer Hudson

  • $5 million from album sales and endorsement deals in 2008

Despite not getting any further than seventh place in AI’s third season, Hudson is the only AI finalist who has gone on to a credible acting career — in fact, she won an Oscar, for Best Supporting Actress in her role in 2006’s Dreamgirls. She reportedly beat out AI winner Fantasia for the part. Her eponymous debut album won a Grammy and has sold 800,000 copies, and she’s scored lucrative endorsement deals with Gap and Avon. She also starred in the hit films Sex and the City and The Secret Life of Bees. She’s currently filming Winnie, a film about Nelson Mandela’s wife, in South Africa, and a second album is expected later this year.

Chris Daughtry

  • Earned an estimated $2 million in 2009

Judge Simon Cowell thought he had “no charisma” and didn’t vote to send him to the next round after his first audition in Season 5. But Daughtry got the best revenge: His eponymous rock band far outsold winner Taylor Hicks’ album — 5 million to 700,000. After his fourth place finish, Daughtry signed with AI producer Simon Fuller’s Entertainment 19. His two albums have sold 6 million copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Adam Lambert

  • $1 million-plus from albums, downloads, and live concerts

“Glambert” may have lost out last season to the more sedate Kris Allen, but he’s the one who snagged the cover of Rolling Stone (in which he confirmed he was gay), and still generates most of the buzz. His album, For Your Entertainment, debuted at number 3 on the Billboard 100, and has since sold over 600,000 copies and an astounding 2.6 million downloads, easily banking him $1 million. His single, “Whataya Want From Me” was co-written by Pink and hit number one on Billboard's dance charts. He is currently on the Glam Nation Tour.

David Cook

  • Estimated $2 million in 2009 from album sales, live concerts, and endorsement deals

Season 7’s winner, David Cook, has come a long way since his first album, the self-produced Analog Heart, sold a few thousand copies. After winning AI, his next album sold 1.3 million copies. He broke a Billboard 100 record (previously set by Miley Cyrus) by having eleven songs simultaneously appear on the charts.


  • $5 million from album sales, Broadway, reality series, and film

Season 3’s winner went on to have a smash debut, Free Yourself, which sold more than 1.8 million copies, with her first single debuting at number one on the Billboard 100. Fantasia was cast as the lead by Oprah Winfrey in the Broadway adaptation of The Color Purple, and is set to star in the upcoming film musical. She also has her own VH1 reality series, Fantasia For Real. Her next album is scheduled for sometime this year.

Despite losing, Crystal can take solace in the fact that even the least successful of the Idol contestants can still make bank. Ten years after finishing as a runner-up to Kelly Clarkson in the show’s first season, curly-haired Justin Guarini is still doing live events and parades that likely earn him thousands of dollars a pop. Glamorous it ain’t, but until someone pays you a thousand bucks to march down Main Street, it’s nothing to smirk at.

On American Idol, no one really loses.

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