- Justin Guarini came in second to Kelly Clarkson on season one of “American Idol” 20 years ago.
- He told Insider he never expected the show to become a “superstar machine” when he first auditioned.
- The singer is grateful for his time on “Idol,” especially because of the relationships he formed.
On June 11, 2002, “American Idol” aired its first episode.
In the wake of the 1990s reality-TV hype from “Star Search” and MTV’s “Total Request Live,” Fox was hoping for a hit of its own. Soon, families across the country would sit down to cheer and vote for their favorite singers.
“American Idol” finalists like Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, and Adam Lambert have gone on to have legendary music careers. And over two decades later, through judge changes, cancellations, a move to ABC, and a pandemic, the show goes on.
Insider spoke with the series’ first runner-up, Justin Guarini, to learn what it was like to compete 20 years ago.
No one knew what ‘Idol’ would become when season one began
After airing a season of “Pop Idol” in the UK, which was inspired by New Zealand’s “Popstars,” the British television producers Nigel Lythgoe and Simon Fuller set their sights on crossover success in the US.
With a phone-driven voting system borrowed from “Eurovision Song Contest” and the “Pop Idol” judge Simon Cowell promising to come on board, producers set out to scout talent in cities across America.
Today, it’s not uncommon for hopefuls to drive across the country, or even fly to Hawaii, just for a chance to audition for “American Idol.”
For Guarini, all it took was a short drive from Pennsylvania to New York.
“We all went into this blind, and we were making it up as we went along,” he told Insider. “All I knew is that my job was to just show up and shine.”
From the “cattle-call” auditions in large stadiums to pre-audition interviews with producers, there was a lot of waiting and off-camera singing before contestants even set foot in front of the show’s host, Ryan Seacrest, and its iconic first judging panel: Cowell, Randy Jackson, and Paula Abdul.
Guarini said there were “hours and hours of singers in lines” but that the process happened “over a matter of weeks, rather than months and months,” as it does today.
“It’s still one of the most wild and interesting processes I’ve ever been through,” he added.
After Guarini sang “Who’s Lovin’ You” by The Miracles, the famously blunt Cowell told him: “Occasionally, you’re very privileged when you do a competition like this to hear somebody who’s undiscovered with a voice like yours, and I think this is one of those moments.”
Guarini made it through to Hollywood Week with 121 other performers
Hollywood Week is notoriously difficult for contestants. It’s the start of long rehearsal days and late nights practicing in hotel rooms.
It can push people to their limits and put singers through the wringer. And, in the eyes of producers, that makes for great television.
Guarini called the show “a pressure cooker,” adding: “It’s a proving ground for everything that you’re going to have to deal with when it comes to being successful in the entertainment business and the music business.”
Like with most reality-TV shows, Guarini said the producers “definitely knew what they were doing” when it came to packaging the reality competition. But the contestants still had some say.
“When it came to the outfits we wore, when it came to the songs we sang, when it came to certain elements of the performances we wanted to create and see, they were very open to our suggestions and very open to helping us put on the best presentation that we could,” he said.
In the final round of Hollywood Week, Guarini performed “Get Here” by Brenda Russell and made it through to the top 30. Those singers were cut down to the top 10, and the 23-year-old Guarini was officially a finalist.
As the show picked up steam, the previously unknown singers were thrust into the limelight
Guarini already understood life around cameras. When he was growing up in Georgia, his father was a politician, and his mother was an anchor for CNN.
But “American Idol” was an entirely different beast.
The intense shooting schedule already kept the contestants out of the leering eyes of the public, but Guarini said that the showrunners “sheltered us and shielded us from a lot of people who were trying to just get to us.”
“They put us in a lovely mansion up in the Hills where no one knew where we were,” he said. “And when we did go out, we were always carefully guarded.”
While they were surrounded by luxury, the singers were often too busy performing, recording, rehearsing, and promoting the show to fully relax.
“I think a lot of people don’t realize that being on any successful show, especially one as detailed and a production that’s as big as ‘American Idol,’ is virtually a 24-hour job,” he told Insider.
In September, millions of viewers tuned in and voted for the first ‘American Idol’ finale
At the time, Guarini said, it was hard to compute “the scope of everything.”
“You can imagine maybe like a hundred thousand people in a sports arena,” he added. “To get beyond that — millions of people?”
Guarini and Clarkson went head-to-head singing the “American Idol” originals “Before Your Love” and “A Moment Like This,” respectively.
Guarini recalled turning to Lythgoe backstage while Clarkson was performing her number and saying, “‘If I win this thing, there’s going to be a riot.’ Because it was so apparent to any objective observer that Kelly was the one to win.”
And win she did.
“I remember the moment Ryan called her name out being genuinely joyful and grateful for Kelly because it was so right,” he said.
With 20 years in the rearview, Guarini is still grateful for his time on ‘Idol’
For both Guarini and Clarkson, life after “American Idol” came with a paid trip to Turks and Caicos, record deals, a movie offer for 2003’s “From Justin to Kelly,” and a leg up in the entertainment industry.
Now, 20 years later, Guarini looks back on his “interesting and wonderful and wild career” that spans from Broadway roles and hosting gigs to cartoon voice-overs and soda commercials.
He’s still grateful for “American Idol,” which he said defined his career and gave him access to many of his professional opportunities.
“We didn’t know that it was going to be the biggest show on television for many years running,” he told Insider. “We didn’t know that it would spawn all kinds of shows like it. We didn’t know that it would change the landscape of pop culture.
“We didn’t know that it would be a superstar machine.”