Singers return to obscurity in wake of 'Idol' rejection
On a Saturday night in New York City, behind the red curtain of The Living Room in the East Village, a 22-year-old singer is doing what so many musicians in the city are trying -- to make it big.
Dressed all in black, Devyn Rush performs a mix of covers and original songs to a crowd of about 30 people who had come to the bar to hear her sing.
Rush should have a better claim to fame than most struggling singers in the country, though. As she charmed the audience with her vivacity, some might remember her as the "singing waitress" from Ellen's Stardust Diner in New York, who was on season 10 of "American Idol."
After 12 seasons on air, "American Idol" has brought exposure to the hundreds of contestants who made it to television screens across the world. But as soon as the show ends, many of those who didn't make it to the top spots fade back into obscurity, struggling to make it, out of the spotlight of the show.
Famous rejects of the show include Colbie Caillat, who got a "no" from the judges -- twice -- but still sold more than six million albums.
"Glee" songstress Amber Riley didn't even make it past the producers to get in front of the judges, and Grammy and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson was eliminated from the top seven of Season 3.
Not all the "rejects" are as lucky, though.
"It's kind of like the Benjamin Button of fame," says Casey Abrams, a Californian from the town of Idyllwild who finished in sixth place in Season 10. "Most celebrities climb up the ladder one step at a time to popularity. We hit popularity instantly, and then have to fight to keep it alive. And sometimes it doesn't work."
It's a tough road to fame, even with the "American Idol" label stamped on a résumé. Some former contestants leave their hometowns for New York or Los Angeles to play in bars and smaller venues and release albums without the backing of a major label behind them.
Caleb Hawley, who made itonly to the final 60, moved to New York six years ago from the Minneapolis area. A self-described "folk-infused rock ‘n' soul" guitarist, he now plays about 150 shows a year all over the country, doing his "own solo thing, grassroots style," he says.
"American Idol was an addition to whatever I was trying to do before," Hawley says. "After I got televised, the first month was crazy, but that gradually dies down. It doesn't do a ton for people's fan bases. The audience is exposed to so many contestants --it's an oversaturation thing of too many ‘idols.' So not much has changed from what I was already doing."
For Rush, "American Idol" was a learning experience where she discovered her love for singing. She was cut in the second round in Hollywood, and was pretty scared at the time.
"I didn't know what was going to happen after that," Rush says. "Then the show aired and things picked up again. You don't know how they're going to show you. They could not have shown me at all or shown me in a negative light. Thankfully the footage was all very tasteful."
While fans still remember her from "Idol" and follow her current work with enthusiasm, there are still challenges. She's currently raising funds for her album and tour through RocketHub.
Some believe that the show was their ticket to a career in music. Robbie Rosen was only 16 when he auditioned, and made it to the top 16 of Season 10.
"'Idol' gets your name out there to the point where they can take you seriously," he says. "It gets you past the ‘listen to my demo' phase."
The then-high schooler certainly attracted fame at his school in Long Island, N.Y., where they installed a "shrine" to him in the hallway. He now has fans in Malaysia and Japan and many other countries where they aired the show.
But for others, the pressure of fighting to keep the ‘Idol' momentum is too much, and they flop.
Sanjaya Malakar from the top 10 of Season 6 has been through six managers, and is now a bartender in New York.
Justin Guarini, of fame from the show "From Justin to Kelly," had to take a gig as a host on the TV Guide Channel. Ramiele Malubay from Season 7 runs an online dog clothing store.
Jessica Sierra did the post-show tour as a Top 10 finalist in Season 7. She released an album and performed across the world, including a show in Kazakhstan, but says she caved to drug and alcohol addictions after her mother died during the filming of her season.
"It's so easy to get caught up in that life," Sierra says. "And then with the death of my mother, the combination was overwhelming and I just couldn't deal with it."
Charged and arrested of possession of cocaine in 2007, Sierra was admitted to the Pasadena Recovery Center where "Celebrity Rehab" was filmed, and has since been sober. She also had to deal with a stalker in 2006, a fan from the show who followed her from California to Florida where she returned after the show.
Sierra is now a mother of two and says she is focusing more on her family than her music career.
"I love music, but I don't know if I'm willing to sacrifice missing out on those childhood years to be on the road again," she says.
Sometimes, being one of the "worst" auditions on the show can be more of a ticket to fame. William Hung's comical and somewhat off-key performance of Ricky Martin's "She Bangs" for the judges gained him a cult following in 2004. He made several television appearances after that, and released three albums, the first of which sold 200,000 copies. Time magazine described him in 2012 as one of the show's "favorite accidental stars."
Since its debut in the summer of 2002, "American Idol" has steadily lost viewers over the years, though the number of hopeful performers continues to increase. But there are always those determined to fight even after the show has ended and their fans move on to the next season.
"Sometimes you don't have to be on top of the world at all times," says Abrams. "Sometimes you just gotta do what you love."
TALK TO US
If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.