"I'm so happy for the two of you," she told them Tuesday night on Fox's hit reality show. "You have a lifelong career ahead of you."
She was almost certainly wrong.
For every Kelly Clarkson - the original Idol winner who has two songs near the top of the Billboard charts this week - there are a dozen has-been finalists who find their dreams of pop stardom dashed as soon as they walk off the Idol stage. Many of them return to their hometowns, to finish school or go to work, slipping quietly into lives of anonymity.
Those who try to break into the music business find it unforgiving. Season 2's Jasmine Trias put out a single that was sold only at Pizza Hut and Taco Bell locations - in Hawaii. Justin Guarini was dropped by his label. Kimberley Locke, after her album tanked, became a jeans model for Lane Bryant. The Web sites of ex-contestants are permanently "under construction."
After four seasons of mounting viewership, the true success story spawned by American Idol is the show itself, an unscripted talent/popularity contest that is the American dream in microcosm. Now with versions on the air in 21 countries, the show has become a $1 billion industry, including record sales, concert tickets and other merchandising. The would-be idols come and go; Idol remains.
"The bulk of them are just flavors of the moment," said Steve Leeds, a former top executive at Universal, Virgin and Atlantic Records. "It's a great reality check. It's a great equalizer. You could make the argument that it prevents a lot of people from wasting their time and chasing their dreams."
Gone and forgotten
Winners from the past three seasons - Fantasia Barrino, Ruben Studdard and Clarkson - have done well, selling more than a million albums each. But, with the exception of the milquetoast Clay Aiken, who has built a following among adoring middle-age women, those who don't win tend to be forgotten.
Clarkson, for instance, has sold more than 4 million records, according to Nielsen Soundscan. But the guy who came in second to her, Guarini, has sold just 141,000. The news is even worse for R.J. Helton, a gospel singer from Season 1, whose album sold only 21,000 copies. His prayers, it appears, were not answered.
But even contestants who have had a hard time adjusting to life after Idol are grateful for the chance the show gave them. Idol allows viewers to help make a "star" out of a waitress from Texas, a football player from Alabama and a single mother from North Carolina.
"It gives these normal kids who are really into singing a chance to change everything," said Jim Verraros, who was in the Top 10 of Idol's first season. He finally got his own record deal in August 2004 - two years after he appeared on the show.
"Literally, three months after the show ended I was working at a tanning salon just to stay in L.A.," he said. "You go through a post-reality [show] depression type of thing. You go from performing to over 200,000 people" - on the concert tour that follows each season of Idol - "to hearing, 'Hey, are you that dude from American Idol?' And it's like, 'Yeah, just let me wash the sweat off that tanning bed.'"
Verraros, 22, also worked in a theater box office before things turned around. His debut record, Rollercoaster, came out last month, and his first single is up to No. 21 on the Billboard dance chart.
"I'm nowhere near where I'd like to be," he said, "but I'll get there."
American Idol, of course, never guarantees success. But it can just about guarantee a huge audience. The show scores about 25 million viewers a week, and millions more hear about who's up or down from friends and colleagues. It has become a certified mass-market hit in an age when few things are.
Being on the show doesn't guarantee a record deal, either. The 12 finalists sign contracts with 19 Entertainment, the British production company that created the show, to sing on a compilation CD and then go on an Idol tour together. The company has the first option on signing contestants to record deals. It passes on most of them, however.
Those who aren't picked up are free to sign with other labels - if any will have them. Some have chosen to sign with smaller labels in niche markets, in the hope of building a base of fans. Josh Gracin, for instance, the Marine who finished fourth in Season 2, signed with Nashville's Lyric Street Records and targeted a country audience.
The move paid off: Gracin's self-titled debut album has sold about 500,000 copies. Lyric Street Vice President Greg McCarn said Gracin benefited from being a Marine in the patriotic-friendly realm of country music but his vocal talent carried the day.
"Other people have finished the show more successfully than Josh has, but they haven't had the commercial and radio success he has," McCarn said. "It's the talent and also the fact that he wanted to be in a different format - that he wasn't competing in the pop realm, where all those people get pushed together."
Doing odd jobs
Once Idol-ized, 26-year-old Charlie Grigsby now lives in Elyria, Ohio, with his sister, who's also his manager. Two years after his Idol run ended (he was the second finalist eliminated from the second season), he's still looking for a major label to pick up the debut album he's working on when not doing odd jobs.
After making the top 12, "I figured ... that all of us would at least get some kind of deal," he said. "Well, that wasn't the case.
"Of course I was bummed," he said - all the non-winners were. "It was after our tour, when we found out who-all was getting signed. When they said nobody was, we were, like, shocked. We were like, did we do something wrong?"
Musical talent shows have long exploited starry-eyed young singers, according to Jake Austen, author of TV-a-Go-Go: Rock on TV from American Bandstand to American Idol, a book due out this summer. In one sense, he said, American Idol actually helps the average contestant more than its predecessors did.
Because of Idol's unparalleled reach, "I really believe the kids can be put in a good position," Austen said. "Anyone who makes the top 12 can make a humble living in the entertainment industry."
But the program systematically sets up the fledgling performers for failure, he said, by pitching superstardom as the only option.
"One of the problems is that the show constantly belittles being a lounge singer or a cruise ship singer," he said. Far from banishment, "that's a respectable way to live. It's not glory but it's respectable. And Simon [Cowell, an Idol judge] puts it down because the show comes from a music industry perspective."
Austen said that attitude is "not respectful to working musicians, which is what a lot of these people are going to become. By telling people they can only be megastars or failures, that's setting them up for a crash."
All or nothing
That, in a nutshell, is the Justin Guarini scenario. One of the brightest stars of Idol's first season, Guarini - who came in second to Kelly Clarkson - is often cited as a handsome has-been because he failed to produce platinum-selling records. This week, in fact, Guarini is holed up in Lake Tahoe, Calif., trying to avoid Idol publicity, according to his publicist.
"He looks like a chump and a failure," Austen said, "but only by American Idol standards." Millions of Americans have heard the sound of his voice, he points out, an unimaginable privilege for most musicians.
For Jasmine Trias, this pattern continued after her stay on Idol ended: She found herself with endorsement deals before she ever recorded an album.
Trias, 18, a Hawaii native who was voted off midway through the third season, has promoted McDonald's and other product lines in the Philippines and Taco Bell and Pizza Hut in Hawaii. She has been so busy that she had to delay launching her CD - produced by an independent record label - although she expects it to come out this summer.
She didn't mind putting her musical ambitions on the back burner.
"I honestly think it helped everyone," she said of the show.
Help or hurt, the Idol label is hard to shake.
"It's like a mark," said Grigsby. "It's like we're branded. It's like it will come to the grave with us."