American Idol Contestants Who Are Unrecognizable Now

“American Idol” was — and is — a pretty big deal. As per IMDb, the singing competition, which began back in 2002, has had 19 seasons and counting as well as 156 award nominations and eight Emmy wins. And, according to Business Insider, the show was clocking in at around 40 million viewers for the live episodes. Honestly, it makes sense. “American Idol” combines the best of reality TV: A-list celebrities (like former judges Paula Abdul, Simon Cowell, and Randy Jackson, as well as current judges Katy Perry and Lionel Richie), average Joes and Jills with jaw-dropping talent and (oftentimes) heart-wrenching backstories, and, of course, the ultimate rags-to-riches, unknown-to-superstardom American dream.

Because, isn’t seeing real people transform into celebrities the main reason behind the show’s success? And transform, many of them did! In fact, several transformed so much, both during and after their “American Idol” journeys, that it’s hard to believe they’re even the same people. In other words, they’re unrecognizable. So, here are the “American Idol” contestants who are unrecognizable now.

Justin Guarini, the runner-up from American Idol Season 1, is now a Broadway star with a new look

“American Idol” viewers will never forget the show’s very first runner-up: Justin Guarini. Whether from his stellar vocals during his stint on the competition show or his starring alongside Season 1 winner Kelly Clarkson in the misbegotten movie “From Justin to Kelly,” most fans of the show would have probably claimed that they would recognize Guarini anywhere — but maybe not so much anymore. The singing sensation was all baby face and curls during his “American Idol” journey, but these days he’s more curly crew cut and grown-up goatee.

After coming in second place on Season 1 of “American Idol,” Guarini didn’t just change up his hair. He also made the switch from pop star to Broadway star. According to People, the actor and singer has appeared in five Broadway shows including “Wicked,” “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown,” “American Idiot,” and “Romeo and Juliet.” He was also set to star as Prince Charming in the upcoming Britney Spears jukebox musical “Once Upon a One More Time” before the COVID-19 pandemic. While he may no longer be recognizable like he once was, Guarini is still a star.

Superstar Kelly Clarkson, American Idol's very-first winner, is finally embracing her curves

There will only ever be one original “American Idol” winner — and Kelly Clarkson wears that crown with unbelievable grace. Most people remember the first time they heard the songstress belt out her winning song from the show, “A Moment Like This,” because her powerhouse voice is undeniably recognizable. But the star’s appearance is not quite as recognizable. Fans first met Clarkson as a tiny brunette with strong early 2000s style — chokers, chunky highlights, and all. These days, however, she’s all about bright blonde locks and showing off her beautiful curves.

According to an interview she did on her talk show (via People), Clarkson has had a lot of trouble with body-shamers. “What makes me mad about it [is] other women and other little girls are … bigger than me and they’re going, ‘If they think she’s this way, then what does the world think of me?'” she revealed. “The domino effect of that is so detrimental for people’s psyche … it’s just so hard.” But, instead of succumbing to their hate, she’s making a stand for body positivity by loving herself at any size.

Clay Aiken of American Idol Season 2 fame grew up big time and now hosts a political podcast

Clay Aiken may have come in second in Season 2 of “American Idol,” but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been successful. According to People, the runner-up released an album shortly after his loss that reached the top spot on the “Billboard 200,” and he went on to release six more. Maybe it was his silky-sweet singing voice that made him so popular or, perhaps, his boyish good looks. Aiken was well-known for his very full, very blond, and very spiky hair and bright green eyes. 

These days, however, he’s not as recognizable since he’s dropped that signature look. As of this writing, Aiken is rocking a much more muted hairstyle (slicked back) and a much more muted blonde. He’s also covered up his eyes with glasses — and just looks as if he’s matured a lot. And he’s not just grown up in appearance, either, as he’s also moved on to a much more “adult” career in politics. As per The News & Observer, Aiken ran for Congress in 2014 and is now the host of a political podcast titled “How the Heck Are We Gonna Get Along!”

American Idol Season 2 winner Ruben Studdard shed 119 pounds on this popular reality show

Ruben Studdard took home the trophy in Season 2 of “American Idol,” beating out Clay Aiken with his deep, rich voice. The singer didn’t just win on “American Idol” either — he also scored a Grammy nomination in 2003 for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for his album “Superstar” (via People). It’s a safe bet, however, that Studdard would say his greatest win wasn’t on “American Idol” or the Grammy nomination list — it was on “The Biggest Loser.” 

Studdard appeared on the weight loss reality show in 2014 and, according to Today, shed 119 pounds. “I [did] this for me; this was for my life,” he told Today. “I’m so excited I got to take the time and do this. It was something I could do for me, and nobody else. This show has given me a second chance to live the best life I can live. I am going to be the healthiest Ruben Studdard I can be.” While this incredible weight loss might make Ruben Studdard unrecognizable, it’s easy to assume that fans are happy for him and his new lease on life.

Jennifer Hudson from American Idol Season 3 became a bonafide star and lost 80 pounds

Jennifer Hudson might not have won Season 3 of “American Idol” (she came in seventh place, as per People), but she is certainly winning in other ways. The singer with the powerhouse voice left the competition show with her head held high and went on to not only win a Grammy for Best R&B Album in 2009 but also to win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 2006 (via People). Hudson’s serious successes should make her easily recognizable around the world, but, thanks to a big weight loss, she doesn’t even recognize herself! 

According to Oprah, Hudson lost 80 pounds and dropped from a size 16 down to a size 6. “It’s like a brand new me,” she told the publication. “Sometimes I don’t even recognize myself.” How did she achieve this amazing transformation? A lot of hard work. In addition to working with Weight Watchers, Hudson also cooks “all [her] meals at home” and exercises in ways that she enjoys (via Oprah). “It’s all about self-motivation,” she explained. “You can have all the trainers and all the money in the world, but if you don’t have that mindset, it’s not possible.”

American Idol Season 4 winner Carrie Underwood had a serious glow-up

Carrie Underwood has come a long way from the moment she first stole hearts on Season 4 of “American Idol” — both in her career and her appearance. The small-town girl from Oklahoma wasn’t quite ready for her explosion onto the music scene when she won the competition show. “[The competition show] was probably the most horrifying thing, because I had never been away from my hometown like that before,” she told Parade. “I was in L.A., of all places, by myself, putting myself out there, which is a scary thing for anybody to do.” Her look wasn’t quite ready either, as back then she was all tiny eyebrows, straight hair, and plenty of interesting early 2000s outfits. 

These days, however, Underwood is taking the world — and her look — by storm. As per her personal website, the country singer has sold over 65 million records, seen 27 singles reach No. 1, garnered seven platinum albums, and won more than 100 awards, from Grammys to American Country Music Awards. Oh, and she looks fabulous. Underwood has had probably the most glamorous glow-up of all time.

Bo Bice from American Idol Season 4 got a little salt and pepper in his beard

Bo Bice was the runner-up in Season 4 of “American Idol.” While he didn’t take home the grand prize, he did go on to release a gold-selling single (“Inside Your Heaven”) and a successful album called “The Real Thing” that topped at No. 4 on the charts, as per Cross Rhythms. Back then, the singer had trouble with his sound fitting into a specific genre. As he told Cross Rhythms, he was too pop to be country, too country to be rock, and too rock to be pop. Bice’s look was a little all over the place, too, with very long — yet glorious — hair and a super retro goatee.

These days, Bice is unrecognizable in both his career and his appearance. He chose to take a step back from singing and performing in order to focus on his wife and four kids, telling Cross Rhythms, “Sometimes it’s better to watch the game from the sidelines … Family became more of a priority. The road became less of a priority.” And his famous hair? It’s cropped to well above his shoulders now to match his very distinguished salt-and-pepper beard.

Chris Daughtry of American Idol Season 5 now rocks a big beard and his music, of course

Chris Daughtry made it to the top four in Season 5 of “American Idol” before he was eliminated. Perhaps his rocker sound was too much for the general American public, because it definitely wasn’t his clean-cut look. Back then, the singer had a shaved head and close-cropped facial hair. But these days? Daughtry is totally unrecognizable with a long, full, salt-and-pepper beard. Though he still has that smooth, shaved head.

What’s he been up to since going full mountain man? After “American Idol,” the rocker started a band, Daughtry, that ended up scoring a Grammy nomination for Best Rock Song in 2008, as per People. And he’s still rocking hard with that same band. In fact, as per a post on his band’s Instagram account, their most recent single “Heavy is the Crown” hit 1 million streams on Spotify. Daughtry feels he owes it all to “American Idol.” “It was the best thing that ever happened, as far as my career is concerned,” he told People. “Otherwise, people wouldn’t have a clue who I was.”

Ace Young from American Idol Season 5 starred in Hair before later chopping off all of his

Ace Young took home seventh place on “American Idol” Season 5. Back then, the smiley singer was known for his long curly hair and roguish stubble. These days, Young is almost completely unrecognizable as he chopped off his long curls and now opts for a cleaner shave — even though he still smiles just as wide. His hair isn’t the only reason he’s unrecognizable. He’s also pivoted careers, going from singing pop to starring in Broadway shows.

According to People, Young starred in Broadway’s revival of the musical “Hair” as Berger, a hippie living in New York City. And he wasn’t the only “American Idol” alum in the cast. Diana DeGarmo from Season 3 was also in that production of “Hair,” and, as per The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the two fell in love during the show and got married a few years later. Since then, Young has appeared in several other Broadway shows and touring musicals, including “Grease,” “First Date,” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” (via Playbill).

Today, American Idol Season 5 winner Taylor Hicks embraces his grays on his own food show

Taylor Hicks took home the top prize in “American Idol” Season 5, coming in on top of big names like Kellie Pickler and Katharine McPhee. His golden voice must have given him superpowers — blinding the judges and the American public to his questionable hair choice: droopy, floppy, salt and pepper. No matter what he looked like, Hicks did have amazing talent that carried him beyond his “Idol” win and into other wins, like appearing on Jimmy Fallon’s Grammy-winning album “Blow Your Pants Off” and taking the title of First “American Idol” Winner to get a resident show in Las Vegas, as per People.

Hicks also brought his success into a different part of the entertainment world: food and travel TV. According to INSP, the Alabama native took his show on the road to taste “America’s most iconic foods” in his show “State Plate.” Oh, and he embraced his graying hair. Hicks is now sporting incredibly distinguished white hair and oh-so-dapper stubble, making him unrecognizable but looking better than ever, in our opinion.

Sanjaya Malakar of American Idol Season 6 fame traded in his luscious locks for a full beard

Sanjaya Malakar ended up placing seventh in Season 6 of “American Idol,” even though he wasn’t known for his singing skills. According to Billboard, Malakar made it that far in the competition because of Howard Stern’s now-defunct Vote for the Worst website and because his fans loved his long, luscious locks. The sensation parlayed his viral status from “American Idol” into a Teen Choice Award in 2007 (as per Romper), an autobiography titled “Dancing to the Music in My Head: Memoirs of the People’s Idol” (via Amazon), and a stint on “I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here” (IMDb).

These days, Malakar is completely unrecognizable, as he’s traded his long hair for a long beard. He is still making music that fans can check out on his Bandcamp page, though, and is proud of how far he’s come since his “Idol” days. “I’ve come to a realization that to be an honest artist, you have to be honest with yourself, and through that, you have to be honest with your fans,” he wrote in his Facebook bio. “So I am. This is me. No over embellishment or exaggeration.”

American Idol Season 8 runner-up Adam Lambert is still a rocker but ditched the black rocker hair

Back at the beginning of his “American Idol” journey, Adam Lambert had a hard rock look to match his hard rock singing style — chains, plaid shirts, and a massive swatch of jet black hair. Though he came in second place in Season 8, the singer wasn’t worried. “Getting right down to the final three, I knew that at [that] point I had so many opportunities that were going to open up for me,” Lambert told Entertainment Weekly. And he was right. A singer with an out-of-this-world range, Lambert went on to have incredible success, from releasing several Grammy-nominated albums (per People) to becoming the new lead singer for Queen (via Entertainment Weekly). 

Lambert also took his successes as opportunities to give back. He founded the Feel Something Foundation in 2019, a non-profit that, according to its website, is “aiming to ensure support is given to the myriad of issues that continue to disproportionately affect the LGBTQ+ community.” 

Though his voice is still undeniably recognizable, his appearance is less so. Lambert ditched his black rocker hair in favor of a more grown-up look that still showcases all the wonderful ways he is one-of-a-kind.

Jason Castro from American Idol Season 7 dropped his dreads to match his new career

According to Advocate, Jason Castro’s “American Idol” audition was one of the few times he’d ever sung in front of people. Back then, he was just a college kid with dreadlocks and a big dream of a career in music. But since coming in fourth place in Season 7 of the competition show, Castro has become completely unrecognizable. 

The singer and guitar player ended up releasing three solo albums and touring around the world, as per Advocate. He also married his college sweetheart, Mandy, and had four children together. But then, after almost 10 years working in music, Castro and his wife traded it all in for a quiet life in his hometown with a job in real estate. “I’d been touring and doing music, but it had become a job,” Castro revealed in an interview with the publication. “My wife and I were both ready for a change. It was a very difficult change because my identity was wrapped up in music. It was all I had ever done.” Castro also transformed his appearance to go with his new life, chopping off his dreads in favor of a more clean-cut look.

Crystal Bowersox from American Idol Season 9 is all grown up with a look to match

Fans knew right away that Crystal Bowersox would go far on Season 9 of “American Idol.” The singer’s folk sound and her unique look — dreadlocks, piercings, and plenty of flower-child apparel — set her apart from the competition. However, as per Billboard, Bowersox ended up taking second place. Sadly, her troubles didn’t end with that loss. According to All Music, the single mom released three albums that only generated decent reviews. Then she announced she was getting divorced from her husband (via People). 

Bowersox took this hardship in stride, transforming her life and her appearance to be almost completely unrecognizable. She bravely came out as bisexual in an interview on “Good Day LA,” saying, “I have been bisexual for as long as I can remember,” she admitted. “I just remember being made fun of in junior high for that, and it was something that was shameful. And it really shouldn’t be” (via The Boot). She then told The Milford Mirror that she was writing a musical called “Trauma Queen: The True Life of Idol Underdog Crystal Bowersox.” Oh, and she got rid of her dreads in favor of a sleek, grown-up look, too. We love it.

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