Unforgettable Performances: 5 ‘American Idol’ Contestants Who Stole the Show

Since the first season premiered in 2002, American Idol has become a staple reality TV show, and the gold standard for American singing competitions along with The Voice. Known for comedic highs during the audition period, soul-crushing renditions of familiar songs, and everything in between, the show gives a platform to aspiring performers nationwide, offering them a chance at stardom. The judges have seen plenty of standout performances over American Idol’s 21-season run, but here are five to remember. 

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1. Kelly Clarkson, “A Moment Like This” (2002)

Now known for her songs “Since U Been Gone” and “Because of You,” Kelly Clarkson was the first person to win American Idol. Stealing the hearts of Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell with her performance of “Express Yourself” by Madonna, the extroverted 20-year-old moved on in the competition without a second thought. She breezed through the semifinals, climbing her way to the top alongside runners-up Justin Guarini and Nikki McKibbin. 

After her win, she took to the American Idol stage one last time to perform her debut single, “A Moment Like This.” She found it hard to conceal her ecstasy, as she’s seen smiling and laughing while singing. She finally breaks down in tears on the final chorus. 

Clarkson would go on to have 30 songs chart on the Billboard Hot 100 and host her own talk show, The Kelly Clarkson Show.  

2. Jennifer Hudson, “I Have Nothing” (2004)

Up there with the likes of Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Hudson soon became one of the most famous artists to come from the show. And surprisingly, she didn’t even make it to the Top 5. She was awarded seventh place, with Fantasia Barrino winning the season. 

Hudson proved her prowess during her time on the show, though, taking on songs by Whitney Houston, Elton John, and more. One of her most show-stopping was her rendition of Houston’s “I Have Nothing,” chosen for “movie soundtrack” week due to its feature in The Bodyguard. A bold move, but she nails it, matching the power Houston put into the original. As guest judge Quentin Tarantino states, “Hudson takes on Houston and wins.” 

Jennifer Hudson would go on to achieve EGOT status for her music (Grammy), screen (Oscar and Emmy), and theatre (Tony) work, even receiving her Grammy for Best R&B Album from Whitney Houston herself. 

[RELATED: Jennifer Hudson Becomes an EGOT Winner, Takes Home Tony Award for Best Musical]

3. Katharine McPhee, “God Bless the Child” (2006) 

American Idol is all about the average American’s journey to stardom, but Katharine McPhee possessed star power from the moment she set foot in the audition room. The 21-year-old actress was struggling to break into the business, and decided to explore another route through American Idol. With a vocal teacher for a mother, McPhee had been honing her voice since she was little, all culminating in her version of “God Bless the Child” by Billie Holiday. With her impeccable voice and on-screen charisma, she embodied an “American idol,” with Randy Jackson saying, “Best voice I’ve heard so far this auditioning season … You are what this competition is about.”

McPhee was the first runner-up to Season 5 winner Taylor Hicks. She would continue to pursue acting, starring in shows like Scorpion and Smash. She often took advantage of on-screen opportunities to showcase her stellar voice with roles as singers. 

4. Jessica Sanchez, “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing” (2012) 

With the new decade, American Idol saw a few changes, introducing new judges and up-sizing the performance stage. However, the core of the show stayed the same—highlighting raw talent nationwide. 

Jessica Sanchez competed on American Idol‘s Season 11. At just 16, she was the first runner-up to winner Phillip Phillips, soaring through the competition with her renditions of songs by Queen, Beyoncé, and Whitney Houston. After reaching the Top 3, she would perform one of her boldest song choices yet, “I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing” by Aerosmith—in front of Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler, himself. 

Accompanied by an orchestra, her version of the song is downright breathtaking, putting an elegant twist on the guitar-tinged ballad. The performance received an enthusiastic “Beautiful!” from Steven Tyler, with Jennifer Lopez adding, “You do not know what a big deal that is … When people come up here and sing his songs, I don’t think he’s ever said one good thing.” 

5. Iam Tongi, “Monsters” (2023) 

American Idol has played host to plenty of emotional moments over the years, but Iam Tongi and his performance of “Monsters” by James Blunt immediately moved the judges to tears. 

Tongi performed the song during Season 21’s audition period. He shared his story with the judges first, telling them about his move from Hawaii to Seattle, and his father passing away just a couple months earlier. He dedicated the song to his father, who fostered his love for music. Tongi’s story, and the song, resonated with judge Luke Bryan in particular, as his nephew lost his father as well. 

Iam Tongi won the season, beating out finalists Megan Danielle and Colin Stough. He’s made several live appearances since, and has released two singles. He’s also released a studio recording of his “Monsters” cover with James Blunt. 

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

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