On Wednesday, May 25, Carrie Underwood defeated runner-up Bo Bice and took American Idol's version of a victory lap. With almost 30 million people watching, she stood on the stage of the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles in a theatrical shower of sparks singing "Inside Your Heaven," the song that would become her first single less than a month later.
"That was incredible," she told USA Today. "I have no words to describe what I feel right now."
Ruben Studdard remembers his moment a little differently. "I was ready to go home," he says.
Studdard, who won the second American Idol in 2003, says he was relieved it was all over when he was named the winner over Clay Aiken. "We had been in L.A. so long I wanted to see my family," he says, talking by phone from his home in Birmingham, Ala. "People don't know that we never get a chance to see our loved ones. You see them on TV, but we don't. They're only there in the audience. Other than that, I was exhausted, man. It had been a long ride."
Studdard spent almost a year in the American Idol system, but he didn't set out to be an Idol. He was singing with an R&B group in Birmingham and accompanied one of the backing singers to the tryouts in Nashville, Tenn., because she didn't want to travel alone. "After sleeping outside on the floor, I thought maybe I should audition. It paid off," he says, laughing.
This year, two American Idol winners are performing at the Essence Music Festival this weekend at the Louisiana Superdome. On Friday, Studdard opens the three-night concert series; the next night, 2004 winner Fantasia Barrino takes the main stage to perform songs from her debut album, Free Yourself, including "I Believe," the song she sang to conclude her season of American Idol.
Barrino says she thought about many things when host Ryan Seacrest announced that she had won --Êbut more than anything, she thought about what it meant for her daughter and family. "I felt like the struggle's over," she says by phone from a tour stop in Chicago, where she is in the middle of watching the TV show Dora the Explorer with her daughter.
That final moment of the show isn't only intense for the performers and fans. Judge and co-producer Simon Cowell has said the stakes were high for the show when Kelly Clarkson released her single "A Moment Like This." In his autobiography, I Don't Mean to Be Rude, But ..., he wrote: "If the single had stiffed after six months of hard work on the television series, we would have lost a tremendous amount of credibility for future seasons. We had to prove to the people who were watching that American Idol wasn't just a talent show but the gateway to a real career."
But the producers weren't just looking to have the show's premise validated. Performers who audition to be on Idol agree to sign a three-year management contract with executive producer Simon Fuller and his company 19 Entertainment should they make it on the show. As a result, Fuller has a financial stake in the post-Idol careers of the contestants, and rumors have it that it's a substantial one, possibly between 25 and 50 percent of all earnings. (Nobody associated with Idol has gone on record with the exact amounts.) Participants allow 19 Entertainment to use their likenesses and recordings in advertising, promotion, marketing and merchandising "including slot machines," the show's personal release form reads, "forever and throughout the universe." (The form is posted on www.fox.com.)
Fuller's company even trademarked the names "Ruben Studdard" and "Fantasia Barrino" for commercial use, according to published reports. Fuller's cut is so extreme that Clay Aiken sued successfully to get out of the contract, and rumor has it that one of this year's contestants, Mario Vasquez, quit this season's competition for the same reason.
When dealing with American Idol and reality TV in general, facts can be hard to come by. The shows' mechanisms, if revealed, make reality TV seem a little less real. That's why producers require confidentiality agreements. According to the show's personal release form, contestants revealing anything about the show, its workings, the contracts or Fuller's management are liable for damages in the ballpark of $5 million. Other reality programs adopt similar rules and threaten similar penalties.
Fuller's guidance has not worked equally well for all contestants. Justin Guarini, runner-up to Clarkson in 2001, saw his debut album come out in 2003 -- two years after his season ended and months after he appeared in the disastrous movie From Justin to Kelly. Whatever buzz had once accompanied his name was silent by then and the CD quietly disappeared. Clarkson's career fared better. She had moderate success with "A Moment Like This" and "Miss Independent," and she's currently enjoying her biggest hit, "Since You've Been Gone," from her second CD, Breakaway. She feared that From Justin to Kelly -- written by Fuller's brother Kim -- would be a bomb from the moment she read the script and didn't want to make the movie, but Fuller ignored her objections. Earlier this year, she too left Fuller to find new management.
Just as Fuller's financial stake in the winners' careers is kept quiet on the show, so is that of longtime record executive Clive Davis. The last two seasons, Davis has made a guest appearance near the end of each competition, suggesting songs for remaining contestants. He was treated like an honored guest, with host Seacrest lauding his long career in the record industry, first at Columbia Records, then during the '70s and '80s at Arista Records. Left out of his introduction each time was his position as head of J Records, the division of Sony BMG that has a deal with 19 Entertainment to release CDs by Idol winners.
Barrino is excited by the connection to Davis, who helped guide the careers of Janis Joplin, Whitney Houston and Alicia Keys, among others. "I never thought I'd be working with such a great man," she says.
Still, the coziness of his relationship to 19 Entertainment is unsettling. Fuller has defended 19's role in the winners' careers. "Most artists are working with an old-fashioned model, how do you keep track of your publisher, your record company, your merchandise, your sponsoring agent, your touring agent?" he told an Associated Press reporter last year. "There could be 10 different people dealing with different areas of your life. ... This is one-stop shopping."
Besides, the American Idols are successes to a great degree because of the show. Perhaps they would have eventually made it on their own, but as Studdard says, "American Idol put me in front of 27 million people a week for 12 weeks in a row. There isn't any greater advertisement for one person other than a show like that."
Last year, Studdard released I Need an Angel, a gospel album with the title track written and produced by R. Kelly. "I'm pretty sure I couldn't have called R. Kelly on the telephone three years ago, but I can now," Studdard says.
For Barrino, the show did more than introduce her to America; it showed some of R&B's songwriters what she could do. Missy Elliott, for example, wrote six songs for her, three of which appear on Free Yourself. "She had heard me on the show," Barrino says. "It was so crazy because a lot of the artists watched me on the show and recognized my talent." In addition to songs by Elliott, she also has a track by Jermaine Dupri and one by Rodney Jerkins.
But Free Yourself also illustrates the downside of Fuller's synergistic tendencies. The album's weakest moments are the ones most directly tied to Idol. Barrino's cover of "Summertime" was magnificent on the show, but on CD, it's just one more version of the song, no more necessary than the last hundred. That track, along with the karaoke-like "You Were Always On My Mind" and the broad, empowered "I Believe," are at odds with the CD's contemporary hip-hop/R&B vibe.
"When you go on American Idol, you've sold your soul to a point," Simon Cowell told Rolling Stone recently. He was referring to speculation about whether rock audiences would accept 2005 runner-up Bo Bice, but participants do make a complicated bargain when they choose to be on the show.
"Television shows can make you famous really quick, but a lot of artists don't take us seriously," Barrino says. Studdard admits that he has run into similar issues, but "I never felt like I had to disassociate myself with the television show to be an artist," he says.
More than that, though, 19 Entertainment's management style makes everything the contestants say and do slightly suspect. Is Studdard saying what he thinks, or what he knows he should say? Is Fantasia -- whose "Baby Mama" has been one of the more controversial singles this year -- working on her image when she interrupts the interview to tend to her child, or is she being genuine?
Those questions always exist around celebrities, but they seem to be particularly relevant when dealing with the winners of programs like Idol. When performers sign the show's release form, they allow producers to "reveal information about me that is of a personal, private, embarrassing or unfavorable nature, which information may be factual and/or fictional."
As a result, it's not as reassuring as Barrino might like when she says, "I was 'Tasia when I went in and I was 'Tasia when I left." For her year on the show and the year after, she -- along with Studdard, Clarkson and the other contestants -- may well have been keeping it real, but it's less clear than ever what that means.