Winners' circle

For five seasons, 'Idol' has packed the charts with pop tarts, soulful singers and even a country princess

Kelly Clarkson (Season 1)
Winning Song: "Before Your Love"
Career Thus Far: Clarkson is the first and easily the biggest star "American Idol" has spawned. Her first single, the "Idol" capper and signature tune "A Moment Like This," set a still-standing Billboard record long jump in October 2002 by vaulting from No. 52 to No. 1 on the charts. Clarkson's first studio album, 2003's "Thankful," had U.S. sales of 2.5 million after debuting in the top spot, but her second album is what established her as a runaway superstar. "Breakaway" (2004) chalked up sales of nearly 6 million units in the U.S., and some 11 million worldwide, staying on the Billboard top 20 for a full year (only the fourth album ever to accomplish that feat). It also landed Clarkson a pair of Grammy Awards and 11 Billboard Music Awards honors. Her third album, "My December," is due for release the middle of this year.

Ruben Studdard (Season 2)
Winning Song: "Flying Without Wings" (originally a hit by Irish boy band Westlife in 1999)
Career Thus Far: Immediately after winning "Idol" over finalist Clay Aiken in 2003, Studdard cut a cover of "Flying Without Wings" that debuted as a single at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. He has subsequently released three albums through J Records: 2003's "Soulful" (debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 album chart and going platinum), 2004's "I Need an Angel" (gold) and 2006's "The Return." Studdard's cover of "Superstar" was nominated for a 2003 Grammy Award. He also won the NAACP Outstanding New Artist Award in 2004.
How "Idol" Has Changed His Life: "The main thing it's done is given me an opportunity to work at a job I love every day of my life. I mean, I'm also able to live a lot more comfortably than I did before, and I can now buy a lot of the things I'd always dreamed of having. But I honestly have the same friends and otherwise the same everything as I had before. The material stuff doesn't mean as much as the freedom I've been able to have to work at my craft."
A Piece of Advice: "Stay consistent. When you're in the competition on 'Idol,' pick songs that complement your voice. I know a lot of times Simon will tell kids to try to stretch their voice, but I say that's too risky. Stay within yourself and stay cool, and you'll do really well."

Fantasia Barrino (Season 3)
Winning Song: "I Believe" (co-written by former "Idol" contestant Tamyra Gray)
Career Thus Far: The first single Fantasia released in 2004, "I Believe," entered the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 1 and stayed there for 11 weeks. Her first album, "Free Yourself," garnered her four Grammy nominations and was certified double-platinum. A second album, "Fantasia," was released in 2006. In 2005, Barrino was a featured voice on the "Simpsons" episode entitled "A Star Is Torn" and, later that same year, published the autobiography "Life Is Not a Fairy Tale." It was adapted in 2006 as a telefilm on Lifetime starring Barrino as herself that attracted some 19 million viewers, making it the network's second-most-watched program of all time.
How "Idol" Has Changed Fantasia's Life: "Her first album was just a smashing success, and the tour supporting it was superb," says Tom Corson, executive vp and general manager for Fantasia's label, J Records, "Immediately after 'Idol,' she became a big star. She just got cast as the lead in 'The Color Purple' on Broadway, following up on the book and the movie because she happens to be a dynamic live performer who delivers on all fronts: recording artist, TV star, touring act and now Broadway."
What "Idol" Meant to Fantasia: Believes Corson: "It was a perfect launching pad for her. You can't buy that kind of exposure. But if Fantasia weren't the real deal, it wouldn't have mattered."

Carrie Underwood (Season 4)
Winning Song: "Bless the Broken Road" (performed with Rascal Flatts)
Career Thus Far: The 2005 debut release "Some Hearts" sold more than 5 million copies and produced four No. 1 singles on the Billboard country charts: "Jesus, Take the Wheel," "Don't Forget to Remember Me," "Inside Your Heaven" and "Before He Cheats." She became the first country artist ever to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was voted top new female vocalist at the 2006 Academy of Country Music Awards. Underwood begins work on her second album this month.
How "Idol" Has Changed Her Life: "How hasn't(ITAL) it changed my life? I mean, when I went on 'Idol,' I was in my last year of college and working at a veterinary clinic in Oklahoma, majoring in broadcast journalism. I wasn't sure where things were headed for me. And then -- kaboom! Now, the things I get to do and see and experience are phenomenal, and I owe every bit of it to this show. I get to make a living doing what I love to do: sing. And there are people I've never even met who love me. It's all just been so unbelievable."
A Piece of Advice: "Just don't overthink it when you get in there to audition. The biggest problem is in choosing the wrong song because they thought it through too much. Go with your instincts, and stick to the stuff that you're good at."

Taylor Hicks (Season 5)
Winning Song: "Do I Make You Proud"
Career Thus Far: Hicks released the album "In Your Time" in 1997 and a second, "Under the Radar," in 2005 prior to his "Idol" triumph in May 2006. His third album, the self-titled "Taylor Hicks," debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard charts in late 2006 and has since sold some 650,000 copies (considerably less than the post-"Idol" debuts of his predecessors). The album produced a No. 1 single on Billboard, "Do I Make You Proud." Hicks also received a reported $750,000 advance from Random House to write a memoir of his life to be published this spring.
How "Idol" Has Changed His Life: "I guess I'm a lot busier now, but in a good way. I really appreciate my free time now as much as I do the time I get to perform and do what I have struggled to do my whole life. The best thing about the exposure I got on 'Idol' is, simply, opportunity. Recognition opens doors, and for that I am thankful. Fame has definitely changed my surroundings, but it hasn't changed me as a person. Working toward this goal for 12-15 years -- it really allows me to appreciate everything about being successful at this level."
A Piece of Advice: "Stay true to the artist that you are. You will gain self-respect. Don't try to be something you aren't just because you think it might better your chances of breaking through. That never works over the long haul."

Top of the Pops: And the top-selling 'Idol' albums are ...

1. Kelly Clarkson, "Breakaway" (RCA/RMB) 5,676,000
2. Carrie Underwood, "Some Hearts" (Arista/Arista Nashville/RMG) 4,957,000
3. Kelly Clarkson, "Thankful" (RCA/RMG) 2,619,000
4. Ruben Studdard, "Soulful" (J/RMG) 1,786,000
5. Fantasia, "Free Yourself" (J/RMG) 1,732,000

1. Clay Aiken, "Measure of a Man" (RCA/RMG) 2,771,000
2. Daughtry, "Daughtry" (RCA/RMG) 1,712,000

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