Beyond ’Idol’

While the show has launched the careers of its high-profile winners, it has also catapaulted the careers of several performers with ties to Christianity. Contemporary Christian music and Gospel songs have become part and parcel of the annual audition shows, and to some degree, choices of individual contestants during competition rounds. Included below is information on 11 former contestants with Christian roots and how their careers have evolved since their appearances on the show.

Season 6 (2007)

Jordin Sparks

Arizona native and 2007 American Idol winner Jordin Sparks traces her musical roots to the church she attended as a child.  Sparks’ current self-titled album release peaked at the 10th spot on Billboard‘s album charts. More importantly for her career, the 20-year-old Sparks was nominated for a 2009 Grammy Award in Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals for her performance of “No Air” with rapper Chris Brown. The Grammys are scheduled for Feb. 8. “No Air” reached as high as No. 3 on Billboard’s charts in June, dovetailing off the Top 10 success of the first track from the album, “Tattoo.” She was also a 2008 winner at the American Music Awards for Favorite Artist in Adult Contemporary.

She performed as an opening act for Alicia Keys on her recent tour and was seen nationally performing the national anthem at Super Bowl XLII, held in her hometown of Glendale, Ariz.

Culturally speaking, Sparks sports a purity ring, indicating her intent to remain a virgin until marriage. She became part of a controversy over purity rings at the MTV Video Music Awards last summer suggesting she wore the ring because every young woman doesn’t want to be viewed as a “slut” by agreeing to have pre-marital sex.

Sparks specifically thanked God for her success in the biography posted on the American Idol website. Her father, Phillipi, is well known to football fans having played defensive back for the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys.



Phil Stacey

Phil Stacey, a Top 12 finalist in 2007, can trace his faith roots back for generations.

Stacey’s father, Gary, is the lead pastor of Hendersonville Church of God in Hendersonville, Tenn., and his brother Keith is the music pastor at the church. His father was a musician as a young man before entering the ministry.

Stacey, 30, grew up in and around musical experiences in the church. On his website he cites Southern, contemporary Gospel and country music as the primary influences to his singing style. Stacey gained notoriety on American Idol by missing the birth of his second daughter, McKayla, while auditioning for the show in Memphis. He also missed the birth of his first daughter while in Navy basic training following his enlistment in the wake of the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

Having entered singing competitions throughout his youth, Stacey performed collegiately at Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn.

In a 2007 interview with Church of God Communications, Stacey’s father said he was more concerned with his son’s maintenance of his faith than his budding celebrity status.

“Someone was congratulating me for having a son in American Idol and I told them we had no interest in raising an American Idol. Our hope was to help him to be someone who loved the Lord, is a faithful husband and a good father. This (appearance on AI) is a door of opportunity where he may glorify God with his life and his gifts. We certainly would request prayer for him and his family. This is an exhausting ordeal. The hope is that someone might be pointed to Jesus by this effort.”

Stacey’s first self-titled album peaked at the eighth spot in Billboard‘s country album charts last May.



Melinda Doolittle

Melinda Doolittle, who finished third in the 2007 season, is releasing her first album later this month, “Coming Back to You.”

Doolittle, 31, worked as a backup singer prior to her American Idol appearance to a number of artists, including Alabama, Aaron Neville and the Christian gospel duo Anointed.

She recently completed performing with well-established Christian artist Michael W. Smith on his Christmas Tour.

Doolittle studied music collegiately at Nashville’s Belmont University prior to auditioning for American Idol. Since the show ended she released a cover of the classic love song “My Funny Valentine,” which she performed on American Idol Extra, a Fox Reality Channel show that has followed the careers of former show contestants. She has also done some high-profile charity work, raising money for Malaria No More and travelling to Africa in support of the cause with First Lady Laura Bush.



Chris Sligh

Since being voted off the show as a member of the Top 12, Chris Sligh has attempted to forge a career specifically in Christian music circles.

Sligh, 30, just completed a Christmas tour along with the Christian rock band New Song. During the tour he performed traditional Christmas music and sound from the lone CD he has released, “Running Back to You.” The album peaked at sixth on Billboard’s Christian Adult Contemporary charts, while the single “Empty Me” topped out at seventh in the same category during the fall.

Sligh earned notoriety despite a 10th place finish because of his verbal tussles with acerbic lead host Simon Cowell. Moving beyond Idol, Sligh recorded his first album with the help of former Jars of Clay producer Stephen Leiweke and producer Brown Bannister, who has helped well-established Christian acts MercyMe, Third Day and Steven Curtis Chapman.

Sligh spent much of his youth in Germany where his father served as a U.S. Army chaplain. He started school at a small Christian college in Florida before transferring to conservative Bob Jones University in South Carolina in large part for a higher-level music program. Sligh was expelled from the school for attending a Christian rock concert and formed his own band, Half Past Forever, before auditioning for American Idol.

In an interview on his Website, Sligh credits the expulsion with expanding his world view and his faith walk.

“Getting kicked out of college was the best thing that could’ve happened to me. I was able to go to finish up at a different college where I saw guys with long hair and tattoos who were actually Godly! My whole life I’d been taught differently, so it was an awakening experience and where I truly started to understand God’s grace and mercy.”



Season 5 (2006)


Mandisa has made a name for herself beyond American Idol being very open about her faith and garnering success in Christian music circles.

Most recently she sang with well-known Christian pop artist tobyMac on the single “Lose My Soul,” which reached No. 2 on the Christian Adult Contemporary charts in early December. Her “It’s Christmas” album has charted since its release in October and the release “True Beauty” was a top 20 mainstay for much of 2007. The most notable release off “True Beauty” was “Only the World” which hit No. 1 on both the Billboard pop and Christian singles charts.

She also wrote a book, Idoleyes: My New Perspective on Faith, Fat and Fame. In the book she discusses how her faith was boosted by her appearance on the show and how it has helped her deal with a lifelong struggle of managing her weight.

She wrote on her Website: “My faith certainly went through some tests of fire, but it’s stronger because of that and it’s also made me want to know more about it and how to articulate it. I think I came out of that whole experience understanding Jesus better. I’d been a little sheltered in Christian circles for a while and it helped me realize the kind of impact that Christians can make when they actually step out of their boxes and get involved in the world around them. More than just a career, I really want to have a ministry that has an impact on people.”

She is due to release her next album, “Freedom,” in April.

Mandisa, 32, whose full name is Mandisa Lynn Hundley, grew up in Sacramento, Calif. She graduated from Fisk University in Nashville where she studied music and earned roles as a backup singer to country stars Trisha Yearwood and Shania Twain before trying out for American Idol.



Chris Daughtry

Chris Daughtry took a Top 5 Idol finish and parlayed it into a rapid rise to pop music prominence.

Shortly after exiting the show in May 2006, the North Carolina native formed the group Daughtry, and the self-titled album took off. It was one of the top grossing albums of 2006 and it peaked at the top of the Billboard pop charts in January 2007. The first pop single off the album, “It’s Not Over” was a Top 10 hit throughout the summer of 2006. Daughtry is fourth overall in record sales of former American Idol contestants after Kelly Clarkson, Clay Aiken and Carrie Underwood.

Daughtry, 29, also gained success on Christian music charts with his single “Home.” The song was released in April 2007 and hit the top spot on the Adult Top 40 charts. It reached the 12th spot on the Christian singles chart and received heavy airplay on Christian music stations throughout 2007 and early 2008. Daughtry also sang with Third Day on the song “Slow Down” on the band’s 2008 release “Revelation.”

A new album by the band is expected this spring.



Season 4 (2005)

Carrie Underwood

Since edging out southern rocker Bo Bice to win the 2005 season, Carrie Underwood, 25, is one of the most successful artists with Idol roots. She has reached No.1 on the Billboard charts in various categories 33 times, more than any other Idol contestant overall except for first-season champion Kelly Clarkson.

One of her most familiar songs to Christian music and pop music listeners is “Jesus, Take the Wheel,” which came off her ’06 debut album “Some Hearts.” The single received wide airplay on country and Christian radio and vaulted her to superstar status in country music circles.

“Jesus, Take the Wheel” was the No. 1 country song for six weeks in late 2005 and early 2006. It won Record of the Year at the 2006 Country Music Awards and won a Dove Award from the Gospel Music Association. The Dove Awards are widely recognized as the most prestigious honors in Christian music.

“Some Hearts” produced four other country No. 1s and netted her several additional awards in 2006 and 2007, including two Grammys. It still possesses incredible staying power. Since debuting as the fastest selling debut country album in the digital music era, it still holds down the top spot on country album sales for the first week of 2009. It has been on the charts consistently for more than two years in a row. Her current album release, “Carnival Ride,” came out in 2007 and is still enjoying broad commercial success. The album has produced four number one country hits.

Underwood references her faith through her music and has a background in church performances from her youth in Checotah, Okla. She performed frequently as a teenager and in college at Northeastern State University in Oklahoma before auditioning for American Idol.



Season 3 (2004)


Jennifer Hudson

For all her commercial success on screen, Season 3 standout Jennifer Hudson has been in the news recently due to family tragedy.

Hudson, 27, was cast into the national spotlight when her mother, brother and nephew were allegedly slain by her ex-brother-in-law in October. William Balfour was indicted for the murders on Chicago’s South Side on Dec. 30.

Hudson recently released a self-titled album. The first single off the album, “Spotlight,” hit the No. 1 spot on Billboard‘s R&B charts and the album reached second on the pop charts. The album has also generated four 2009 Grammy nominations, including Best R&B Performance by a Duo or Group for “I’m His Only Woman” done with Season 3 winner Fantasia Barrino.

Hudson is most well-known for her 2007 Best Supporting Actress Academy Award role for the role of Effie White in Dreamgirls. The movie netted Hudson dozens of other awards and expanded on the rich vocal range she displayed as an Idol contestant. She has also appeared on screen in The Secret Life of Bees and Sex in the City.

Hudson was raised in a Baptist household and performed frequently at church as a youth. She had been on stage in Chicago theatre performances and was singing on Disney Cruise Lines at the time of her American Idol audition.


George Huff

George Huff mad the top five of American Idol in 2004 and has tried to establish himself in Gospel music circles.

Huff released a Christmas EP in the winter of 2004 after his Idol performance and to date has released one full album, “Miracles,” in 2005. The album is traditional Gospel in nature, including such titles as “See What God Can Do.” Huff made the decision to steer his career in a Christian music direction shortly after his Idol appearance. He is currently a part of the Christian music label Word.

Huff most recently toured with Melinda Doolittle on Michael W. Smith’s Christmas Tour and part of his song “Brighter Day” was used in the 2007 movie “Why Did I Get Married?” starring Janet Jackson.

Huff grew up in New Orleans and performed frequently in church settings as early as five years old. He attended University of Oklahoma on a music scholarship. After his scholarship money ran out, Huff was working as a dishwasher in a university cafeteria to try and pay school expenses when he went to Houston to try out for American Idol.

On the website of the William Morris Agency which represents Huff he said: “I want to share something positive in my music with others, and that’s been the best thing about the opportunities I’ve had from my American Idol experience. My dream is to share this gift God has given me with all the people I can, and getting to sing for millions of people around the world has been the proudest moment of my life so far.”





Season 2 (2003)

Ruben Studdard

The Season 2 winner, Ruben Studdard has stayed active in the music business and is currently on a theatre tour.

Studdard, 30, is currently playing the lead role of Fats Waller in the latest Broadway production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’.” He stars in the show alongside former Idol contestants Frenchie Davis and Trenyce. The show is on tour until May, when Studdard is slated to release his fourth album. He is also featured on a cast album for “Ain’t’ Misbehavin’,” due out this month.

Studdard has enjoyed some success in both R&B and Gospel music circles. Last year, the single “Love Him Like I Do” recorded with Gospel artists Deitrick Haddon and Mary Mary reached rhe Top 10 on the Gospel singles chart in June.

“I feel like I’m on course to have a very long career and I’m glad I wasn’t a quick burner,” Studdard said in a March 2008 interview. “I’m working on my fourth album. A lot of people don’t make it to that point. I feel like I’m exactly where I should be right now.”

Studdard has, however, experienced some bumps in the road. In August 2008 he had tax liens totaling $193,000 placed against him by the IRS and the state of Alabama. The liens may delay the opening of a nightclub Studdard plans to open in Birmingham, Ala., later this year. The taxes date back to 2003, the year he won Idol. He also won a lawsuit against his godfather and former advisor for a total of $2 million after charging Ronald Edwards ran up debts on Studdard’s credit cards and checking account.

Studdard’s release this year will be released by Hickory Records after his previous label, J Records, cut him loose a year ago citing underperforming sales of his second album, “The Return.” That effort opened in the Top 10 on Billboard‘s album charts but quickly fell out of prominence.

His first album, “Soulful,” came out seven months after his Idol win and netted him his greatest commercial success. It reached 400,000 sales in its first week, the best first week for any Idol winner at the time. He also released the Gospel-themed album “I Need an Angel” in late 2004 and ended up being the top-selling Gospel album on Billboard‘s charts in 2005.

Much like many Idol contestants with Christian roots, Studdard sang as a child in church in his hometown of Birmingham. Studdard attended Alabama A&M on a football scholarship, but continued his musical career during and after graduation. He was performing with a local jazz group when he tried out for Idol.


Clay Aiken

Clay Aiken, the 2003 runner-up, has surpassed Studdard in terms of commercial success and notoriety.

Similar to Studdard, Aiken has appeared most recently on stage, wrapping up a stint on Broadway performing in Monty Python’s Spamalot. Aiken also generated a stir in September revealing in a People magazine interview that he is gay. The interview was published shortly after the birth of his son Parker, whom Aiken fathered through in vitro fertilization with music producer Jaymes Foster.

In his 2004 book Learning to Sing: Hearing the Music in Your Life, Aiken discussed his upbringing as a Southern Baptist and said he was proud of his Christian heritage. Among his recording are the 2004 LP “Merry Christmas With Love,” for which he received a 2005 American Christian Music Award.

Aiken, 30, was working toward a master’s degree in special education when he auditioned for American Idol. He had immediate commercial success after finishing as runner-up, with his first album “Measure of a Man” climbing to the top of the pop charts in its first week of release in late 2003. Aiken has subsequently released three albums since the Christmas album, including On My Way Here in 2008.

Aiken’s education background in education has made him a spokesman for UNICEF, for which he has traveled annually to various locations in Africa and Asia. He also sponsors the Bubel/Aiken Foundation which promotes greater inclusion for autistic students in public education. The foundation is named in conjunction with Diane Bubel, whose autistic son Aiken was tutoring at the time of his Idol audition. Bubel is credited as being one of the main people who encouraged Aiken to try out for the show.



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