Back in 2002, the phrase “reality TV” meant programs like “Survivor” or MTV’s “The Real World” to the average viewer. Yet it was in that year that “American Idol” made its debut, transforming the face of American TV by achieving top ratings over the course of a decade and ushering in a new era of competition-based reality programs.
When “American Idol” first aired, few TV viewers in the U.S. had ever heard of Ryan Seacrest, Randy Jackson, or Simon Cowell, and it had been at least a decade since judge Paula Abdul was considered a hot pop star. But thanks to the unparalleled success of the show, they all became familiar faces to the American public, as did singers like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, who were destined for superstardom thanks to their performances live on TV.
All good things must come to an end, though, and starting this week on Tuesday, “American Idol” kicks off a three-day finale that not only concludes the 2016 season but brings the whole series to an end. Here’s a look back at some of characters who became famous—and famously cashed in—because of “American Idol.”
Less than two years after “American Idol” launched, the show’s brutally honest (and just plain brutal) British judge Simon Cowell was named one of TIME’s 100 most influential people. By 2009, Cowell was signing a contract that would pay him $45 million annually to serve as a magnet for viewer hate on “American Idol. He left the show after the 2010 season and made some (new) enemies by creating another reality TV show (“X Factor”). Still, there are rumors Cowell will return to make an appearance on “American Idol” during the show’s final episodes.
The choreographer and iconic late-’80s pop singer was once a cheerleader for the Los Angeles Lakers, and she largely maintained her role as a cheerleader to aspiring singers while serving as an “American Idol” judge from 2002 to 2009. Abdul was “the show’s voice of optimism, often countering the dour and overly pessimistic Cowell,” as Biography.com put it. Apparently, the pay is better if you’re a pessimist: Abdul pulled in $1 million to $3.5 million per season of “American Idol” and reportedly quit after asking for a bump up in pay to $5 million. That’s peanuts compared with Simon Cowell, who earned upwards of $45 million per season.
He may not be the most successful “American Idol” contestant, but Clay Aiken certainly has had the most unique career since becoming famous on the show. After earning second place in the show’s second year on the air, Aiken went on to have a much more successful singing career than the performer who won, Ruben Studdard. Aiken has also starred in a Broadway show (“Spamalot”) and come in second in two other high-profile contests—the 2012 season of the reality TV show “Celebrity Apprentice” and the 2014 Congressional election in North Carolina. His net worth has been estimated at $6 million.
In the beginning of “American Idol,” Ryan Seacrest was only the show’s co-host, sharing duties alongside a comedian named Brian Dunkleman. Who knew that the host with bleached, spiky hair would become the show’s mainstay? Seacrest is hardly just the host of “American Idol,” though. He is one of the busiest personalities in show business, serving as a popular syndicated radio program host, executive producer of TV shows like “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” and host of “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest.” The reported $15 million per year Seacrest earns as “American Idol” host is only part of the picture.
Country music singer-songwriter sensation Carrie Underwood is the queen of all “American Idol” contestants. After winning the title during the 2005 season, Underwood has gone on to a career with seven Grammys, 21 #1 songs, and 58 million records sold worldwide, including 38 weeks atop Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart.
If there’s one face on this list the American public won’t recognize, it’s probably Fuller, the British entrepreneur who managed the Spice Girls before creating a string of reality TV hits, including “American Idol” and the UK version that preceded it (“Pop Idol”). Fuller was named to the TIME 100 list in 2007, received a star on the Hollwyood Walk of Fame in 2011, and today has a net worth estimated at over $500 million.
If ever there was an “American Idol” contestant who got the last laugh after being voted off the show, it is Hudson. She responded to finishing in seventh place in Season 3 by winning an Oscar in 2007 for “Dreamgirls.” That breakthrough performance was followed by a string of successes including a Grammy Award in 2008 and roles in other movies (“Sex and the City”), on Broadway (“The Color Purple”), and TV (“Empire”), plus highly lucrative endorsement deals with brands like Weight Watchers. Look for Hudson to perform during the series finale of “American Idol,” when she’ll certainly be remembered as one of the program’s biggest winners.
Despite not winning “American Idol” or even being the runner-up, Chris Daughtry, the fourth-place finisher in 2006, is behind only Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson in terms of album sales among the show’s contestants. His debut album, Daughtry, sold over 4 million copies, and he is reportedly worth $8.5 million.
It’s not like Mariah Carey, one of the biggest pop stars of all time, needed “American Idol” to save her career. It’s hard to think she needed the money either—she had a net worth over $500 million even before getting engaged to a man worth $4.7 billion earlier this year. Still, Carey agreed to a short-lived stint as a judge on “American Idol,” earning $18 million, or about $450,000 per episode. Don’t expect Carey to show up during the finale, though: She has described her time on the show as the “worst experience of my life.”
It’s quite a win-win: J.Lo has been credited with rejuvenating “American Idol” when she came on as a judge in 2011, and “American Idol” has been credited with helping to revive Lopez’s career. As a bonus, Lopez has earned somewhere between $12 million and $20 million per season during the years she’s been a judge.
OK, so “American Idol” has featured many more talented singers than William Hung—like all of them. Still, it’s hard to argue that if it were not for “American Idol,” Hung would have had no prayer whatsoever of making money in music. Hung’s epically horrible rendition of Ricky Martin’s “She Bangs” during an audition for the 2004 season immediately went viral. But Hung had the last laugh, creating music that was so bad people had to buy it: His first album debuted in the top 30 and sold over 200,000 copies.