American Idol is one of the cornerstone TV shows that launched the “talent show” entertainment genre to the next level.
While most people remember Simon Cowell’s blunt feedback and Ryan Seacrest’s dated hairstyles, everyone knows that the winners (and often the runners-up) of American Idol are set to win a truckload of money.
However, you may wonder about how the cast earns money on their way to American Idol fame.
Since many have to give up their jobs to record episodes, it only makes sense that they would be compensated for their time.
However, not every contestant receives a paycheck.
Here’s what you need to know about whether American Idol contestants get paid and how much.
Do American Idol Contestants Get Paid?
Yes, American Idol contestants get paid.
Contestants who make the top 12—now top 24—receive paychecks according to the length of time that they film.
For a two-hour episode, Idol contestants receive $1,571.
They also have their meals covered for the taping.
For a one-hour show, Idol contestants receive $1,303.
Finally, for a half-hour show, Idol contestants receive $910.
They also receive $450 a week to spend on clothes.
Since they’re buying clothes in Hollywood, however, many contestants end up having to use their own money to make up the difference.
In total, American Idol contestants can earn up to $1 million if they make it far in the show.
The winner of American Idol can make even more than that.
Which American Idol Winner Made the Most Money?
Although American Idol winners know they’re coming home with a set amount of money for winning, they often end up earning more than that.
The longer a contestant stays on the show, the more pay they receive for the episodes that they tape.
They can also find other ways to earn money while they’re on the show.
Selling merchandise and albums they make while performing on the show is one of them.
They can take part in the summer tour that the show regularly hosts which also nets them a decent amount of money.
That said, every winner of American Idol comes out with a good amount of earnings.
The top spot goes to Carrie Underwood.
She earned $13 million during her time with American Idol.
In second place goes to Kelly Clarkson, the show’s first winner.
She earned $11.7 million during her time on the show.
It’s also worth mentioning that because Clarkson’s was the first season of American Idol, they didn’t pay their contestants as much as they have for the contestants in the later seasons.
That’s simply because American Idol was debuting, and producers weren’t sure how successful it would be.
They had a limited budget compared to its current budget.
Had Kelly Clarkson received the same pay as Carrie Underwood when she filmed American Idol, then there’s a good chance that she’d be in first place instead.
Third place goes to Chris Daughtry who didn’t win the show.
Despite coming in third place, he earned $10.2 million.
Another runner-up, Kellie Pickler, earned $7.6 million despite coming in fourth place during her season.
One of the contestants to have earned some Hollywood fame is Jennifer Hudson.
Although she came in sixth place during her time on American Idol, she still ended up earning $3.5 million from the show.
Do You Have To Pay To Audition For American Idol?
One of the biggest questions that American Idol prospects have is whether they need to pay to audition for the show or not.
The good news is that auditioning for American Idol is completely free.
You only need to show up and fill out the necessary paperwork, then wait for someone to call your name.
One aspect of the audition process that many contestants don’t realize is the first audition isn’t with the celebrity judges.
They have to first sing for a different set of judges.
These judges will then decide if they’re good enough to send to the celebrity judges or are amusing or odd enough to warrant some additional footage.
After all, part of the fun of watching American Idol is watching contestants who have no business singing in the music world.
The real costs begin if they accept you as a contestant.
You don’t automatically join the top 24 if the judges deem you worthy.
Instead, you have to follow the show from state to state and keep auditioning.
For many, this can easily wrack up travel expenses higher than $1,000.
Since not everyone can afford the travel expenses, many end up dropping out.
Others are unable to take the necessary time off from work.
There are also their own financial obligations they need to consider.
If they don’t have anyone back at home to pay their mortgage or rent for them, then they’re at risk of losing their home or apartment.
One such case is Nikki McKibbin.
She came in third place during the first season of American Idol alongside Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini.
McKibbin had to sacrifice her karaoke company in order to follow the show across the country.
She also ended up losing her apartment because she wasn’t there to pay the rent.
While she earned a good amount of money while filming American Idol, only she knows if the sacrifice was worth it.
Although auditioning for American Idol is free, it has some costs associated with it that newbie contestants may not be ready to pay.
How Do American Idol Alums Earn Money?
Many people think that any American Idol contestant is set for life after appearing on the show.
That isn’t always the case.
That’s because there have been several seasons of American Idol.
This means that there are also tons of American Idol contestants all vying for work and working that American Idol angle.
Because there’s a lot of competition, it’s hard to stand out from the others.
One problem that many American Idol contestants make is trying to make it big in Hollywood.
Not only are they competing with other contestants, but they’re also competing with the Hollywood elite.
Some have tried to make it by filming shows or movies that saw some interest but nothing warranting a new film or TV career.
Those who have been more successful have stepped out of their comfort zone to try new things.
Here are a few ways American Idol alums earn income.
Those contestants, like Jordin Sparks, Clay Aiken, and Ruben Studdard, have all found success by appearing on Broadway.
Part of their success comes from the fact that they’re selected by 19 Entertainment, a studio owned by Simon Fuller who’s also a showrunner on American Idol.
The studio picks a few contestants every now and then to add to their collection of Broadway stars.
In theatre, the contestants can find fame, a great income, and some local celebrity.
The name they earn in American Idol also helps attract audiences to watch them perform live in beloved musicals.
Although these contestants may have dreamed of filming movies or playing concerts, they chose to widen their career choices instead and give Broadway a chance.
Another avenue that has led to some success for contestants is the release of albums.
If American Idol contestants can get an album out fast enough, then they can earn some money from that as well.
Most contestants end up coming out with a Christmas album.
A few others make albums of cover tunes.
Some even make their own original albums.
One of the most famous contestants didn’t even make it to the top 12 or 24 but still found great success.
William Hung, an engineering student from Berkeley, capitalized on his terrible rendition of “She Bang” by coming out with his own album.
The album even made it to the Number 34 spot on the Billboard 200 charts.
Hung ended up selling more than 240,000 copies of his album which demonstrates that if you have enough personality, then you can also find a career outside of American Idol.
Although finding a place in Hollywood is a hit or miss with American Idol contestants, some do find a home there.
Kelly Clarkson is one of the best examples.
As the first American Idol winner, she was quick to set up her fame within the industry.
It started with a poorly-reviewed movie called From Justin to Kelly, which featured both the contestants.
She bounced back from the poor film by performing at various concerts and award shows.
She even became a guest talk show host before starting her own talk show.
Now, she interviews celebrities and has built her own brand of entertainment.
Another famous Idol contestant has also done a great job navigating the tricky business of Hollywood.
Jennifer Hudson has appeared in a few films and TV shows, but it was her casting in a film version of Dreamgirls that solidified her place in Hollywood.
Hudson would go on to win an Oscar for her performance in the film.
Carrie Underwood is another contestant who has carved out a niche for herself in Hollywood.
Although she focuses primarily on her music, she’s also taken part in several award shows, talk shows, and even a few TV shows.
Like many other famous singers, Underwood has also taken up residency in Las Vegas.
She performs on a regular schedule where fans and country music lovers can watch her.
With her frequent hosting of the CMA shows, Underwood has also put her stamp on Hollywood.
Some American Idol alumni have also written books to prompt their fame and earn some money.
Many talk about their experience on the show as well as about their life as a singer.
David Archuleta wrote Chords of Strength.
Melinda Doolittle wrote Beyond Me.
Clay Aiken wrote Learning to Sing.
The famous Fantasia wrote Life is Not a Fairy Tale.
Finally, Taylor Hicks wrote Heart Full of Soul.
All of them found moderate success and it helped further their celebrity.
Do Families Have To Pay To Watch Their Loved Ones On American Idol?
One of the most frequent parts of an American Idol episode is showing off the families who came to root for their loved ones.
The camera pans to the audience where the family members cheer for their loved one.
It may make you wonder if the show invited them.
Unfortunately, if family members wish to watch their loved one perform live on American Idol, then they have to pay for it.
A lot of families take on considerable expenses to follow the show around.
They have to pay their travel expenses themselves.
They also have to pay for their own room and board.
Now and then, they can find someone friendly who can cover the cost of their room and board.
In most cases, however, the family has to spend their own money to watch their loved one perform.
That makes supporting a family member on the show a costly affair.
It’s also why some contestants don’t always have family members in the audience.
They couldn’t afford the trip or hotel stay.
Do American Idol Contestants Pay For Their Hotels?
Another expense that some viewers may wonder about is whether the American Idol contestants end up paying for their hotel rooms.
The show pays for their stay, but it’s hardly a luxury room.
There are two different places that the contestants may end up staying.
If the show wants to film them outside of the stage and in the house, then they’ll rent a mansion and house the contestants there.
This allows them to film the contestants while they’re in the house and make it appear as though they’re living in the lap of luxury.
When the show doesn’t plan on filming them outside of the stage, then they’re put up in hotels.
While the rooms aren’t on the scale of the mansion, they’re not terrible either.
However, each contestant does end up with a roommate.
Even if that roommate leaves during an elimination round, they’re moved to another room with a new roommate.
American Idol does this to save money on rooms.
Even though the contestants don’t have to pay for their own hotel rooms, some may wish they could since they’re unable to have a lot of privacy during the filming of the show.
How Can An American Idol Contestant Find Success?
American Idol contestants often make the mistake of trying to join Hollywood following the show.
The problem is that Hollywood is already full of Idol contestants and other singers and performers.
Here are a few ways American Idol contestants can find success outside of Hollywood.
1. Start Selling Merchandise
People have a short memory.
If an Idol wants to capitalize on their fame, then they need to start working on their brand and merchandise immediately.
Opening a store, being big on social media, and bringing notice to your brand are all key ways to keep your name in front of the audience.
Even if the Idol contestant ends up getting booted early, they’ll have done much of the hard work already.
2. Focus On Regional Growth
One of the reasons Phil Stacey found success was that he started touring right after American Idol ended.
He focused on the areas where he had received a lot of support and performed several concerts in those areas.
His fame blew up from there.
Instead of trying to make it big by going to Hollywood, an Idol can find just as much success by sticking to a regional area and growing their fanbase from there.
3. Branch Out
It also helps to try out different things instead of putting all your eggs in one basket.
Perhaps touring for a time is one thing you can do, and setting up a run on Broadway after that is another.
Lining up talk show appearances, performances at award ceremonies, and releasing albums are all great ways to bring in money and grow your fame.
American Idol contestants receive between $900 and $1,500 for every episode that they tape.
They also earn extra money doing commercials, releasing albums, and doing tours with the group.
While it doesn’t cost a contestant anything to audition for the show, travel expenses can deter many from finding success.NEXT: Do Hell’s Kitchen Contestants Get Paid? (Explained)