‘American Idol’ Throwback: Where Are Nikki McKibbin, Ryan Starr, Jim Verraros Now?

For some, the star fell as fast as it rose.

Every year, it seems, in addition to a winner, “American Idol” spins off more and more stars who manage to keep their names and faces in bold print long after their 15 minutes should have expired. We decided to find out what some of the “Idol” finalists from the show’s first two seasons are up to.

Who: Ryan Starr

Top “Idol” Moment: Her bizarre take on “Frim Fram Sauce”

Why You Remember Her: The sultry, belly-baring Starr wore her unique homemade fashions on the show, which often included colorful, shredded, skin-tight outfits that accentuated her lean rocker physique.

Post “Idol” Achievements: Though judge Randy Jackson expressed surprise that Starr was voted off (in 7th place), promising the California native that a great career lay ahead, Starr’s momentum stalled following the show. She said that after her elimination, “every label out there” was interested in signing her, but she wasn’t interested in being the “next Britney Spears pop girl” or an “Avril Lavigne rock chick,” so she held her ground, telling the labels she would get back to them when she had the right music to offer. The self-proclaimed “Chrissie Hynde/ Janis Joplin rock girl” then made a classic rookie music-biz mistake that derailed her career for three years: Locked into what she said was a “horrible” production deal with a producer she declined to name, Starr, then 19, made a demo, but when the producer refused to record more songs for interested labels, she was forced to hire a high-powered attorney to get her out of the production deal, which took almost two years.

Making History — But Not An Album: Ironically, just as the lawyers were extricating her, a song she recorded with the producer, the rocking “My Religion,” was released to iTunes only to capitalize on her appearance on VH1′s “The Surreal Life.” The tune ended up making the “Guinness Book of World Records” for the most exclusive single downloads in iTunes history with 360,000 units. But Starr, now 24, said she didn’t see a penny from it because she just wanted out of the contract. “It cost me a lot of money and I learned a really valuable lesson, because the first two years after ‘Idol’ are the two most important years of a finalist’s career,” said Starr. In the meantime, she’s kept busy modeling and doing runway shows for Von Dutch and Ed Hardy, filmed a guest spot on “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation” and starred in the 2004 direct-to-DVD reality-themed horror flick “Ring of Darkness.”

Free And Happy: Adamant about not signing any contracts or label deals until she’s got the right songs together, Starr has put together a band called Aces who she’s been working with for the past nine months. “We have a great, amazing sound that’s definitely rock and roll,” she said. They’ve recorded two songs so far and plan to release several of their tunes on a soon-to-be-launched Web site, and begin limited U.S. touring this summer. “I don’t want to show anybody anything until it’s 110 percent perfect,” she said, adding that she’s just started shopping a reality show about her struggles in the music business. “Most people won’t agree with this because they’re hungry for money or fame, but I’m really all about the music. The fans will be there because it’s great music that’s enticing and exciting, not because I did a bunch of reality shows or because I look good in a bikini.”

Moment Of Clarity: Though she’s been mostly out of the public eye for several years now, Starr distinctly remembers the moment on “Idol” when she knew her life had changed. “After I made it into the top 10 and as soon as the cameras were off, we did a photo shoot for TV Guide, which was crazy,” she said. “I used to buy TV Guide in the supermarket in the small town I grew up in, in the mountains where nothing happens. My mom didn’t know I was on TV until she saw me on the cover of TV Guide.”

Who: Nikki McKibbin

Top “Idol” Moment: Melissa Etheridge’s “I’m the Only One”

Why You Remember Her: The plucky, flame-haired punk rocker and one-time, single-mom stripper with a heart of gold won fans over with her cocktail waitress background and spunky attitude.

Post “Idol” Achievement: Despite finishing third in the inaugural season, McKibbin has struggled to get her musical career off the ground and only recently released her debut indie-label album, appropriately titled Unleashed. Signed by RCA Records after the show, McKibbin said she spent three years extracting herself from that recording contract after the label insisted she record a country album. Instead, McKibbin, 28, went back to cocktail-waitressing at places like Hot Rods and Hogs, a biker bar in Arlington, Texas, in between touring and appearing on a string of seven reality shows including “Fear Factor,” “Battle of the Network Reality Stars,” and “Kill Reality.”

Just Like Starting Over: “[Unleashed] is a whole new sound, probably something no one’s ever heard before,” McKibbin said of the nine hard-rock tunes she recorded with Dallas industrial/metal act Rivethead. “I think people would expect a rock album from me because of what I did, but they wouldn’t expect this kind of heavy metal stuff.” How heavy metal? A promo video for “The Lie” on her Web site is set in the Middle Ages and features a battle between highland warriors, and a knife-fight to the death starring McKibbin. She also briefly played with a group called the Mother Truckin’ Skull Diggers and another called Downside. The petite singer said she’s waited this long to release her debut because she’d rather be “broke and happy” than rich and miserable singing songs she hates. “It was extremely difficult to go back to cocktailing after being on the show, with people asking me, ‘Why do you work here?’ ” she said. “But it pays the bills and I can’t sit still.”

From Crowd Crush To Silence: While the “Idol” adulation wore off after about six months, McKibbin said the initial rush of fame was disorienting. She recalled being in a mall in Arlington, Texas, with season-one winner and still pal Kelly Clarkson and being immediately swarmed by hundreds of kids waving napkins begging for autographs. “We lived in such a bubble the first season we didn’t know what to expect,” she said. “We didn’t know how big it was, so the first time Kelly and I ended up in the same mall there was this rush of kids. We had no idea we were even famous.” Though her dream from childhood was — no joke — to be a forensic pathologist, the soon-to-be-newlywed hopes she can do this for the rest of her life, thanks to her “Idol” fanbase.

Who: Jim Verraros

Top “Idol” Moment: The Commodores’ “Easy”

Why You Remember Him: First openly gay “Idol” contestant; raised by deaf parents.

Post “Idol” Achievements: Verraros, now 23, came out of the closet during his “Idol” run with some comments he made on an “Idol”-sponsored site and followed his early expulsion from the top 10 with a clubby dance album three years later, Rollercoaster. He also fed his acting jones by appearing in the gay-themed 2004 indie flick “Eating Out,” reprising his role of Kyle in last year’s sequel, “Eating Out 2: Sloppy Seconds.”

“The first season of ‘Idol’ was kind of thrown together and the producers were figuring things out, so we had no idea it would become what it is now,” said Verraros, who is currently winnowing down 25 songs for his second album, due out later this year. “Going in, I never wanted to be a pop star. I never thought that was possible. I went on to have the experience and got to be the #9 contestant and got introduced to the industry in a crash-course way.”

Keeping Busy: In addition to the new album, most of which he wrote or co-wrote, Verraros has signed on to film a musical in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in March called “Of Love and Shadows,” to be followed by an indie drama filming in Los Angeles later this year. He said he realized the show would be a “life changing experience” when he appeared on a TV Guide cover with fellow season one contestants Tamyra Gray and Ryan Starr. “Then we did the tour and it went on for months — really a whole year dedicated to ‘Idol’ — and when we were done I thought, ‘OK, maybe someone will take me seriously,’ ” he recalled. “And then you get out there and realize, ‘Wow, I don’t have a lot of credibility even though I became a household name in nine weeks.’ You are forgotten just as fast.”

“Who Am I?”: Verraros said he began to question himself once the “Idol” high wore off, which is why he waited until 2005 to sign his first record deal. The good news was that the “Idol” tour showed him he had some seriously rabid fans. “You have people singing along and screaming and holding up signs, learning sign language because they heard about my parents on the show. I even had deaf people coming to my shows, which is kind of ironic,” he said. Coming out as a gay man was a tough decision, but Verraros said he thought it could send a good message to fans that you can be any race, creed or orientation and find a way to reach your dream. “The hardest lesson I learned is that you can’t make everyone love you,” he said. “No matter how many records you sell, there will always be people who don’t like your hair, nose, skin, body. You have to accept that — because there’s always five more who do love you.”

Who: Josh Gracin

Top “Idol” Moment: Garth Brooks’ “Ain’t Goin’ Down Till the Sun Comes Up”

Why You Remember Him: The humble Marine was one of the first breakout country stars the show produced.

Post “Idol” Achievements: Season two’s fourth-place finisher proved that “Idol” was good for more than pop and R&B belters. After completing his military obligation (and missing out on the “Idol” tour), Gracin’s self-titled 2004 debut album for Lyric Street Records (home to Rascal Flatts) was a smash hit out of the box, spawning three hit singles, including the #1 country song “Nothing to Lose.” In fact, the album was such a success — selling some 800,000 copies — that Gracin said he was in the enviable position of being prevented from releasing a follow-up. “It lasted longer than we ever thought it would,” said the 26-year-old father of three, who is currently picking among a batch of songs he recorded more than two years ago for a sophomore album due later this year. “I’m from a TV show and I have to do the best I can to prove to the fans that it wasn’t just a TV thing or an act.” The album is slated to include his first songwriting credit for the tune “Let Me Fall.”

Opportunity Knocks: Though already established as a solo star, Gracin said after performing with country superstar group Lonestar at a charity event in December in place of ailing singer Richie McDonald, he was later asked to join the group when McDonald quit. “It was an honor to sing with them because I grew up with their songs, and I appreciated the offer,” he said. “But I hadn’t released my second album yet and I wanted to pursue a solo career, so I asked them to take me out of the running.”

Lifelong Dream: “This is what I always planned to do,” said Gracin, who started his quest to be a country star at age 14, when he began working on a demo that he pitched around Nashville a few years later. “I realized after that first results show, when they said we had 12 or 18 million votes, that this was going to be a huge thing and I did worry for a second that it might go away.” But now, as he picks the single for his crucial sophomore album, Gracin said he feels like he’s finally achieved his dream — and that even if it all goes away tomorrow, he’s got some great stories to tell.

Who: Kimberley Caldwell

Top “Idol” Moment: Bryan Adams’ “Everything I Do (I Do for You)”

Why You Remember Her: The #7 finisher in season two came to “Idol” as a five-time junior vocal winner on “Star Search” and a contestant on “Popstars: USA,” and has since become a frequent TV personality commenting on all things “Idol.” She was also the first “Idol” to pose for a men’s magazine.

Post “Idol” Achievement: Caldwell set the stage for this year’s leggy #8 finisher Haley Scarnato, by following her “Idol” run with a spread in lad mag Maxim‘s 2003 “Reality Girls” issue and modeling for Michael Antonio shoe company. And though she’s never released an album, Caldwell has amassed an impressive TV résumé, appearing on the TV Guide channel’s “Idol Chat,” “Idol Tonight” and “Reality Chat,” as well as doing “Idol” commentary for Glenn Beck’s CNN show, “Fox News Live,” “Ryan on Air” with “Idol” host Ryan Seacrest, and others. She also appeared in an episode of the short-lived 2005 Fox sitcom “Life on a Stick” and has a bit part playing herself in the straight-to-DVD reality TV-themed horror movie “Wrong Turn 2: Dead End,” due this Halloween.

What About The Music?: Caldwell began working on her debut album in 2004, which was supposed to be produced by “Idol” judge Randy Jackson and feature tunes written by songwriter-to-the-stars Diane Warren. According to her mother and manager, Carla Smith, Jackson and Warren are still big supporters, but Caldwell is now laying down tracks with Big & Rich’s John Rich, who is producing her “edgy country rock” debut.

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