NEW YORK – As a contestant on "American Idol," Kellie Pickler was a magnetic entertainer whose country charm and bubbly (if not bubble-headed) personality earned her millions of fans.
But when Pickler was voted off the show after reaching the final six, she fretted about whether her fame would last — and she had good reason to worry.
Though winning the nation's most popular TV contest has guaranteed platinum-plus sales for the champs, it's a different story for those who come in second, third or 10th. Except for Clay Aiken, each of the runners-up have had pitiful album sales. And those cast aside even earlier in the competition have faded into D-list celebrity oblivion.
"It was a little scary because it made me wonder, 'Am I going to fall into that same group because I wasn't first runner-up or the winner?"' Pickler wondered in her now-famous Southern drawl.
But what made Pickler an "Idol" standout — her voice, her hard-luck upbringing and her colorful persona — may make her most likely to succeed among "Idol" alums. Sony BMG Nashville signed her to a record deal less than two weeks after she left the show, and her debut album, "Small Town Girl," on BNA Records, made its debut at No. 1 on Billboard's country album's chart this week.
"She's a very special lady in terms of her personality ... (fans) can relate," said Joe Galante, chairman of Sony BMG Nashville. "People know her, but they also like her and they are willing to spend their hard-earned money to hear more about her."
Pickler's history is already well-known to "Idol" fans — and the tabloids. She was raised by her grandparents after her mother abandoned her as a child. Her father spent years battling substance abuse and watched her "Idol" run from a prison cell, where he was serving time for stabbing a man (he has since been released).
While her backstory may have won her sympathy, her sometimes daffy persona drew criticism in some quarters. During "Idol," Pickler was known as much for her Jessica Simpson-like gaffes as her pipes. The 20-year-old portrayed herself as a naive Southern girl with a simple background — an attitude she still maintains (after this interview, she asked wondrously about the contents of sushi, which she says she's never eaten).
But others wondered whether she was just playing a role.
"That's something that really bothered me in the beginning because I wasn't used to being criticized in that way, as far as really being picked apart by people that I didn't even know," the petite blonde says quietly as she sits in the New York offices of Sony BMG, with the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop.
"Now I've learned that there's gonna be people that love you and want to see you do well, there's going to be people who just don't care much for you, and they're waiting for you to fall."
Jack Isquith, Executive Director of Music Industry Relations at AOL Music, which has provided heavy "Idol" coverage, said all the talk about Pickler has contributed to a buzz that surrounds her.
"I think she's a little controversial because there's certainly been talk about whether she played dumb on 'American Idol.' There's lots of comments of her being pretty ... and there are a lot of comments on her being a real singer," he said. "There's a curiosity."
The lack of curiosity may have been what doomed the post-"Idol" recording careers of favorites like Tamyra Gray, LaToya London, Diana DeGarmo, Justin Guarini, Bo Bice ... we need not go on. Though Jennifer Hudson is about to make her movie debut in the hotly anticipated "Dreamgirls," and other "Idols" have had success in other genres like Broadway (DeGarmo is currently starring in "Hairspray") there have been no "Idol" contestants besides platinum-selling runner-up Aiken who have had credible pop success with their albums (however, Josh Gracin has had country hits).
The verdict is still out for members' of last year's class. Winner Taylor Hicks' debut album comes out in December; runner-up Katherine McPhee releases her album later this month, while Chris Daughtry's eponymous band is also due out later this month.
While "Idol" contestants wowed Americans with their voice, Galante said that's not enough for a successful recording career.
"Let's not forget that people buy their music based on what they hear on the radio, but in this format, they have to have a relationship with the artist. They have to feel like they can sit down and talk to them," he said. "Some of those other finalists had a great voice, but we see people every day that have a great voice. There has to be something more than that."
And Pickler knows as much.
"If we're going to be honest about the show, it's not just about talent, it's not just about how great you can sing or perform, it's about the whole package, it's about finding that idol that can sing, that can entertain, can perform, is comfortable on stage, has a personality, that has a story that's relatable."