On a Saturday night in New York City, behind the red curtain of The Living Room in the East Village, a 22-year-old singer is doing what so many musicians in the city are trying to do -- make it big.
Dressed all in black, Devyn Rush performs a mix of covers and original songs to a crowd of about 30 people who had come to the bar to hear her sing. Rush should have a better claim to fame than most struggling singers in the country, though. As she charmed the audience with her vivacity, some might remember her as the "singing waitress" who was on Season 10 of American Idol.
After 12 seasons on air, American Idol has brought exposure to the hundreds of contestants who made it to television screens across the world. But as soon as the show ends, many of those who didn't make it to the top spots fade back into obscurity.
Famous rejects include Colbie Caillat, who got a "no" from the judges -- twice -- but still sold more than 6 million albums. Glee songstress Amber Riley didn't even make it past the producers to get in front of the judges, and Grammy and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson was eliminated from the top seven of Season 3.
Not all the "rejects" are as lucky, though. "It's kind of like the Benjamin Button of fame," says Casey Abrams, who finished in sixth place in Season 10. "Most celebrities climb up the ladder one step at a time to popularity. We hit popularity instantly, and then have to fight to keep it alive. And sometimes it doesn't work."
It's a tough road to fame, even with the American Idol label stamped on a résumé. Some former contestants leave their hometowns for New York or Los Angeles to play in bars and smaller venues and release albums without the backing of a major label.
Caleb Hawley, who made it only to the final 60, moved to New York six years ago from the Minneapolis area. A self-described "folk-infused rock 'n' soul" guitarist, he plays about 150 shows a year all over the country, doing his "own solo thing, grassroots style," he says.
" American Idol was an addition to whatever I was trying to do before," Hawley says. "After I got televised, the first month was crazy, but that gradually dies down. It doesn't do a ton for people's fan bases. The audience is exposed to so many contestants -- it's an oversaturation thing of too many 'Idols.'"
For Rush, American Idol was a learning experience during which she discovered her love for singing. She was cut in the second round in Hollywood, and was pretty scared at the time. "I didn't know what was going to happen after that," Rush says. "Then the show aired and things picked up again. Thankfully, the footage was all very tasteful."
While fans still remember her from Idol and follow her current work with enthusiasm, there are still challenges. She's raising funds for an album and tour through RocketHub.
Some singers say they believe that the show was their ticket to a career in music. Robbie Rosen was only 16 when he made it to the top 16 of Season 10. " Idol gets your name out there to the point where they can take you seriously," he says.
He certainly attracted fame at his school in Long Island, N.Y., where they installed a "shrine" to him. He now has fans in many countries where tthe show aired.
But for others, the pressure of fighting to keep the Idol momentum is too much. Sanjaya Malakar from Season 6 has been through six managers and is a bartender in New York. Justin Guarini, who made the movie From Justin to Kelly, took gig as a host on the TV Guide Channel. Ramiele Malubay from Season 7 runs an online dog clothing store.
Since its debut in the summer of 2002, American Idol has steadily lost viewers over the years. But there are always those determined to fight even after the show has ended.
"Sometimes you don't have to be on top of the world at all times," says Abrams. "Sometimes you just gotta do what you love."