Let the real competition begin

Now that the show's over, American Idol's biggest winner could still be the man who came in second, says Fortune's Devin Leonard.

By Devin Leonard, Fortune senior writer

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Blake Lewis looked strangely serene when his adversary, Jordin Sparks, was declared this season's American Idol on the May 23 finale of the Fox primetime hit. Surely, Blake saw this coming. After the previous night's sing-off, American Idol's troika of judges - Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson - had all but crowned Jordin themselves.

Then again, maybe the beat-boxing 25-year-old from Bothell, Wash., was smiling for another reason: Blake may think he's the show's real winner. That's not as delusional as it sounds.

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Winning American Idol is not guarantee of future stardom. The first season's winner, Kelly Clarkson, is now one of pop music's biggest acts, selling over 8.4 million albums in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Since then, however, the winners' album sales have trended downward. Only Carrie Underwood, the fourth season's winner, has come close to Clarkson's success with sales of 5.5 million albums.

"Their hit ratio is really no better than the rest of the market," says Terry McBride, CEO of Nettwerk Music Group, which represents Avril Lavigne and Sarah McLachlan.

Meanwhile, an even more intriguing trend has surfaced: Some of American Idol's losers are upstaging the winners after the competition is over. Hard-rocking Chris Daughtry was voted off the show last season after reaching fourth place. Since then, he and his band, Daughtry, have sold 2.5 million records - more than three times as many as 2006's winner, the silver-haired Taylor Hicks. "Daughtry was the big winner there," says Katie Hasty, associate editor of Billboard.com. "He didn't get the most votes, but the people who like him aren't the ones who vote on American Idol."

Jennifer Hudson was voted off the show after making it to seventh place three seasons ago. But Hudson went on to become a bigger show business name than the winning contestant, Fantasia Barrino; Hudson won an Oscar for her role in the movie musical, Dreamgirls.

This troubles American Idol's judges. Cowell recently complained publicly that the success of losers like Hudson and Daughtry is undermining the show. "I think we suffer from Jennifer Hudson- and Chris Daughtry-itis, which is people who didn't win getting great careers and now a lot of the contestants believed it absolutely doesn't matter," Cowell carped to Entertainment Weekly. "Sometimes there's part of me thinking, 'You genuinely couldn't care less what we're got to say; everything's going your own way now.'"

Cowell may have to learn to live with this. Daughtry and Hudson probably have more credibility with real music fans because they were voted off a reality show that many perceive as a vulgar spectacle. (That's why we love Idol, isn't it?) Daughtry would surely have been forced to compromise his image as a rock and roller if he had lasted much longer on the show. Was anybody dying to hear Hicks again after listen to him warble the obligatory winner's power ballad, "Do I Make You Proud?' at the last year's finale? Most, it seems, had had enough.

As for Hudson, she received enough publicity on American Idol to get her foot in the door in Hollywood. Now she's a movie star, and her old adversary, Fantasia, is struggling to find real stardom. (Fantasia is now trying to take Hudson's path to stardom: She recently took a part in the Broadway musical, "The Color Purple," for which she received good reviews.)

The message couldn't be any clearer to losers like Blake. He is already dreaming aloud about working with such stars as Gnarls Barkley and the Black Eyed Pea's Will.I.Am. Why not? He may have gotten fewer votes than Jordin. But the competition isn't over yet. In fact, it's just begun. Top of page