20 Super Successful Musicians Who Got Their Start on Reality Shows
The real stars of "Star Search" and the true idols of "American Idol."
Say what you will about reality competition series like American Idol and The X Factor, but without these shows, some of the most successful musicians of the late 20th and early 21st century may not have ever actually seen success. Take Carrie Underwood, for instance: Before Idol, this Oklahoman was on track to become a journalist. And Zayn Malik has said that before he became part of One Direction on The X Factor, he had plans to pursue a teaching career. Curious which other artists wouldn't be where they are without reality TV? From Beyoncé to Britney Spears, these are some of the most successful musicians who got their starts on reality shows. And for more Hollywood origin stories, check out the 23 Actors You Didn't Realize Have Famous Parents.
Alanis Morissette, Star Search
Long before she was winning Grammys or dating Ryan Reynolds, Alanis Morissette—AKA Alanis Nadine—was competing as an unknown 14-year-old on Star Search in 1990. She didn't win, but she did go on to sell 60 million albums worldwide, so she may very well be one of the most successful losers of all time. And for more nostalgia from the era in which Alanis reined supreme, here are 50 Things Only People Who Lived in the 1990s Will Remember.
Britney Spears, Star Search
In 1992, even before she starred on The Mickey Mouse Club, 10-year-old Britney Spears was also a contestant on Star Search. She lost in the second round of the show to a young singer named Marty Thomas, but that didn't stop her from becoming one of the best-selling artists of all time. On the Billboard Hot 100, she's had five No. 1 hits and 13 total songs reach the top 10. Yeah… Marty who? And if you remember when Spears released her first album, then here are 19 Things That Happened in 1999 That Will Make You Feel So Old.
Christina Aguilera, Star Search
It's hard not to recognize the raw and natural talent of Christina Aguilera whenever she belts out a high note. But somehow, in 1990, when she was also on Star Search, nine-year-old Aguilera lost to a 12-year-old by the name of Christopher Eason.
"I was a good sport about it. My mom made me go back out and shake his hand and tell him I was happy he won. Tears were running down my face," Aguilera told Rolling Stone in 1999. But, as the magazine put it, Aguilera "lost the battle but won the war."
Miguel, Blowin' Up Fatty Koo
The 2005 BET show Blowin' Up Fatty Koo invited up-and-coming artists to compete for a spot in the now-defunct band Fatty Koo, and one of the singers who tried out for a spot was none other than Miguel. Shockingly, the Grammy-winning R&B artist was told he couldn't sing by Fatty Koo member Valure, who later clarified, "I never said Miguel couldn't sing. … All I said was, 'He got a nice voice, but some of them notes was flat' … I stand behind what I said." Haters gonna hate! And for more on celebrities who didn't immediately find success, here are 40 World-Famous A-Listers Who Didn't Become Famous Until After 40.
Jennifer Hudson, American Idol
When Jennifer Hudson competed on the third season of American Idol in 2004, she only came in seventh place. However, that didn't stop this soulful singer from rising to the top. Two years after her stint on the show, she made her film debut in Dreamgirls—and for that performance, she received an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, a BAFTA, and a Screen Actors Guild Award. Since then, she's starred on Broadway, won Grammys, and even earned a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Miranda Lambert, Nashville Star
She might be one of the hottest country artists today, but back in 2003, Miranda Lambert was just another contestant on the very first season of Nashville Star. For her audition, she performed an original song called "Greyhound Bound for Nowhere," and her country chops eventually earned her third place in the inaugural competition.
Beyoncé, Star Search
In 1993, a 12-year-old Beyoncé appeared on Star Search as a member of Girl's Tyme, as did Kelly Rowland. And though the girl group lost to a band called Skeleton Crew, this early setback was merely a bump in the road to superstardom. By 1996, Girl's Tyme had lost some members, gained some more, and changed their name to Destiny's Child. Then, in 2000, they won their first Grammy for "Say My Name."
In 2005, the then-members of Destiny's Child—Knowles, Rowland, and Michelle Williams—went their separate ways, but that was only the beginning for Beyoncé. As a solo artist, she's sold more than 100 million records worldwide and in 2019, she was named one of the richest female musicians in the world. And for more groups who went on break and never reformed, here are The Bands That Went on a "Hiatus" But Have Yet To Come Back.
Usher, Star Search
In 1991, 13-year-old Usher Raymond IV won Best Teen Vocalist on Star Search. Though he released his debut self-titled album a few years later, his real rise to fame came with his second album, My Way, in 1997. It included the No. 1 hit—"Nice & Slow"—and two No. 2 hits—the title track and "You Make Me Wanna…" To date, the R&B singer and Voice coach has nine No. 1 singles on the Hot 100 and 18 total top 10 hits. Unfortunately, no videos exist online of Usher's performance from nearly 30 years ago, but we can only imagine how adorable the young R&B singer must've been.
Camila Cabello, The X Factor (U.S.)
Though they finished in third place on the second season of The X Factor in 2012, Fifth Harmony is arguably the reality competition's biggest success U.S. story. And out of the five fierce females that made up the group, "Señorita" singer Camila Cabello has undoubtedly seen the most success as a solo artist. To date, she's had two No. 1 hits, four songs in the top 10, and 14 charting songs total on the Billboard Hot 100. And for more on musicians who used to be in bands, check out these 13 Successful Solo Acts Who Surprisingly Started Out in a Group.
Harry Styles, The X Factor (U.K.)
In 2010, a young and unknown Harry Styles was quickly eliminated from the British version of The X Factor. The singer got a second chance at fame, however, when the show decided to bring him back as part of the boy band One Direction. The band finished in third place, subsequently signed with Simon Cowell's Syco Entertainment, and became The Beatles of the 2000s.
But when One Direction went on an indefinite hiatus in 2016, Styles embarked on a solo career that thus far has produced a top 5 single, a record-breaking sold-out world tour, and a part in an Oscar-winning movie (Dunkirk) to boot.
Zayn Malik, The X Factor (U.K.)
Another One Direction member who has seen quite a bit of solo success is Zayn Malik. This former X Factor contestant has had seven charting singles from just two albums—and his muse for several years was none other than supermodel Gigi Hadid, another reality TV alum (via her mom's run on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills).
Leona Lewis, The X Factor (U.K.)
In 2006, Leona Lewis became the third winner of the British version of The X Factor. The following year, she released her debut album, Spirit, which quickly became the fastest-selling debut album in U.K. history upon its release. Over in the U.S., she has had five songs on the Billboard Hot 100: "Better in Time," "Happy," "I Will Be," "Run," and her No.1 hit, "Bleeding Love."
Carrie Underwood, Ameridcan Idol
Many former American Idol winners have gone on to have subpar and insignificant careers. Not Carrie Underwood, though. In 2005, upon winning the fourth season of the hit show, the country crooner released "Inside Your Heaven," which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. And with the release of her sixth album, Cry Pretty, in 2018, Underwood became the first and only artist in history to have seven consecutive No. 1 releases on Billboard's Top Country Albums chart. (In addition to her six studio albums, she also released a chart-topping hits package in 2014.)
Justin Timberlake, Star Search
In 1993, 11-year-old Justin Timberlake—then known as Justin Randall—appeared on Star Search in hopes of becoming a country music star. His audition song of choice? Alan Jackson's "Love's Got a Hold On You," of course!
He didn't leave the show a winner, but no matter: Timberlake made his mark a few years later as a member of *NSYNC, one of the most popular boy bands of the era. An, as a solo artist, Timberlake has had five No. 1 songs on the Hot 100 chart and 19 total top 10 hits.
Jordin Sparks, American Idol
Jordin Sparks, the winner of American Idol's sixth season, was the youngest winner in the show's history at just 16. Now, at 29 years old, she's had three songs on the Billboard Hot 100's top 10, has done several stints on Broadway, and has even been nominated for a Grammy.
Adam Lambert, American Idol
On the eighth season of American Idol, pop-rock performer Adam Lambert came in second place after Arkansas native Kris Allen. If you're measuring by post-show success, though, Lambert is the real winner through and through. With his 2009 debut album For Your Entertainment, Lambert became a Billboard chart-topping success and he even earned a Grammy nomination. Not long after, the Idol alum found even more international success when he collaborated with the active members of Queen to create Queen + Adam Lambert.
Kelly Clarkson, American Idol
After winning the very first season of American Idol in 2002, Kelly Clarkson went on to release "A Moment Like This," which ultimately became that year's best-selling single. And that was far from this fierce Texan's only hit: To date, the singer has had 27 songs on the Billboard Hot 100, three of which have reached the No. 1 spot. In 2019, Clarkson's "Meaning of Life" tour grossed more than $17.5 million with more than 275,000 tickets sold. Now, she even has her own daytime TV show. She proves Idol's first choice was their best choice.
Nicole Scherzinger, Popstars
Before she was a judge on shows like The Sing-Off and The X Factor, Nicole Scherzinger was herself a contestant on a reality competition series. In the early aughts, she was paired with four other musicians on the American iteration of Popstars, and together, the five winners of the competition became Eden's Crush.
Though this girl group was short-lived, Scherzinger was able to stay in the spotlight by becoming the face of another group: the Pussycat Dolls. In the six years they were active, Scherzinger and the band sold 54 million records worldwide and had four songs among the Billboard Hot 100's top 10. She even went on to voice a character in Disney's Moana and currently serves as a judge on The Masked Singer, sticking to her reality TV roots.
Cher Lloyd, The X Factor (U.K.)
Ever since she finished in fourth place on The X Factor, Cher Lloyd has been a fierce force to be reckoned with in the music industry. And though she still hasn't achieved a top 10 hit on the Billboard Hot 100—her highest-charting single to date is "Want U Back" at No. 12—she's collaborated with big-name artists like Demi Lovato, Becky G, Ne-Yo, T.I., Busta Rhymes, and Juicy J.
In 1989, Aaliyah Haughton, then just 10 years old, competed on Star Search in the Junior Vocalist category. Her performance of "My Funny Valentine" didn't earn her a win on the show, but it was enough to secure her a contract with Jive Records just a few years later. Though she tragically died in a plane crash at the age of 22, Aaliyah still managed to have five top 10 hits on the Hot 100 chart during her career, which ended far too soon. And for more powerful women throughout history, here's The Biggest Female Icon Every Year Since You Were Born.
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