NEW YORK -- Acidic tongue-lashings from "American Idol" judge Simon Cowell could deflate anyone's musical aspirations, but many "Idol" losers are finding that second-chance success isn't a bad consolation prize.
As the third season of Fox's hugely successful reality contest gears up for the May 26 finale, numerous former contestants - some dishonorably discharged - are signing major record deals, appearing on television and singing on Broadway.
The show "has gotten the public captivated," said Geoff Mayfield, director of charts for the Billboard music-industry magazine. "I think that the viewers feel an investment in 'American Idol.' Now, I kind of take it as a matter of course that this is an event that sells music."
And jump-starts careers:
William Hung, the laughingstock of the third season, already has an album out. The 31-year-old engineering student performs comical covers of popular tunes by R. Kelly, Elton John, The Beach Boys, Enrique Iglesias and, of course, the Ricky Martin numbers that made him infamous.
In its first week, the CD cracked Billboard's Top 40, selling more than 38,000 copies. The self-proclaimed "Real American Idol" has appeared on everything from "The Today Show" to "The Tonight Show," and even sang at a nationally televised NBA game. On May 15 he's scheduled to share the same stage as Jessica Simpson, Lenny Kravitz, Outkast and Janet Jackson at the Wango Tango Music Festival at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.
Although Hung's popularity is based on his awfulness, "you can't blame a person for taking an opportunity," said season two finalist Kimberley Locke. "That's why we all do it."
Locke just released her debut album, "One Love," on Curb Records, home of country superstars Tim McGraw, Winona Judd and Leann Rimes.
She admits that "Idol" has accelerated her career. "For the rest of my life I'll have to talk about 'American Idol,' which is a good thing because I'm proud to have been a part of the show," she said.
RJ Helton, the top-five finalist from season one, released his debut album, the Christian-oriented "Real Life," on B Rite/Zomba last month. The Latin crooner is managed by Beyonce's father, Matthew Knowles.
"Just because we didn't win the show doesn't mean that we didn't think we were going to continue, by any means," Helton said.
Former child star Marque Lynche, who got the boot on February 10, recently joined the off-Broadway musical "Fame On 42nd Street," based on the popular 1980s film and television show.
"The reason that I got 'Fame' was because (the producers) saw me on the show and they said (I) was perfect for this role," said Lynch, 23, who was seen as a child on the "All New Mickey Mouse Club" alongside Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. "It did give me a platform to kind of be a quasi-celebrity and go in with a little bit of a name. So it makes it a little bit easier to do what I do."
Other contestants taking on theatrical gigs include Vanessa Olivarez from season one, currently playing the lead in the Toronto version of the hit Broadway musical "Hairspray," and season two semifinalist Trenyce, who recently wrapped a national tour with "Not A Day Goes By," based on the best-selling E. Lynn Harris novel.
And then there's Frenchie Davis - clearly Ruben and Clay's biggest competition from season two. The voluptuous vocal powerhouse, bounced after her pictures surfaced on an adult web site, is on board for another run in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway musical "Rent" this summer. She recently performed a leading role in the touring company of the legendary musical "Dreamgirls," and she's negotiating a record deal.
Despite all the hype, "Idol" does have plenty of detractors who decry the way it churns out ready-made pop confections.
"I think that it's an interesting little way of creating, I don't want to say stars, but creating people who can be within the record business at this time when nobody is buying records," laments Rolling Stone critic and contributing editor Toure. "But this is not the way of creating lasting stars."
But it's a foot in the door, which is all today's hopefuls are asking for.
"We were all after one common goal and that was to do what we loved to do,' Helton said. "'American Idol' helped us out and gave us the extra boost."
"American Idol" has been good to more than just the winners. Some notable former contestants:
RJ Helton: The son of a former Popeye's Fried Chicken vice president recently released his Christian/pop album, "Real Life," on B Rite/Zomba Records. Managed by Beyonce's father, Matthew Knowles.
Tamyra Gray: The beloved first-season holdover has appeared on TV shows such as "Half & Half" and "Boston Public." Recently dropped from Clive Davis' J Records roster, the Atlanta native is trying to release her solo debut, "The Dreamer," this summer.
Jim Verraros: The bane of Simon Cowell's existence for winning over the American public by singing to his deaf parents, he's become a gay icon of sorts, playing festivals and releasing music independently via his web site.
Christina Christian: Releasing an album in Europe this summer; plans to take on the States soon after.
Justin Guarini: The first season runnerup's self-titled debut tanked on the charts, and his starring role in the film flop "From Justin, To Kelly" may have been the kiss of death. Since then, he's cut his mop-top and is considering a career overhaul, via former Jennifer Lopez manager Benny Medina.
Clay Aiken: The second season's second winner instantly became America's sweetheart, selling millions of records within weeks of his album's release. His rabid fans consider themselves Claymates.
Kimberley Locke: The charming girl next door from Hartsville, Tenn., put her stamp on the classic Judy Garland ballad "Somewhere Over The Rainbow," on her debut album, "One Love," (Curb). Her first single, "8th World Wonder," has become a radio hit.
Frenchie Davis: The Howard University student's past (modeling for an adult web site) was exposed and she was unceremoniously dumped from the show. Since then, she's rebounded as a Broadway darling, performing in "Rent" and hitting the road with "Dreamgirls." She also was negotiating a record deal.
Joshua Gracin: The Westland, Mich., native warmed viewers' hearts and souls with his country-flavored crooning. A U.S. Marine, his single "I Want To Live" is doing well on the radio, and his self-titled album is to be released June 15.
Trenyce: An old shoplifting charge may have cost her chance at being America's idol. But since then, the Memphis, Tenn., native auditioned for the lead in Broadway's "Aida" before joining Emmy Award-winning sitcom actress Jackee Harry in the national tour of "Not A Day Goes By," based on the novel by E. Lynn Harris.
Vanessa Olivarez: The chanteuse with the multi-colored coif is playing the lead in the Toronto run of the Broadway musical "Hairspray," based on the John Waters cult classic film.
William Hung: The Hong Kong-born Karaoke King recently released his buzz-heavy debut album, "Inspiration," which is nearing 100,000 copies sold in just a month.
Marque Lynch: Currently playing a lead in "Fame On 42nd Street." The St. Petersburg, Fla., native plans to release his pop CD in the near future.
Kira Scott: The brazen Inglewood, N.J., beauty, who publicly questioned Simon Cowell's sexuality, is fielding label offers and recently shared the stage with Broadway stars Sheryl Lee Ralph, BJ Crosby and Ebony Jo Ann for "Black 2: Broadway."