Despite the fact that American Idol is the hottest thing on television every season, there certainly is some question about just how ‘big’ a winner will become. The first year after your win is crucial… and can sometimes end up being the most lucrative.

Not long ago The NY Times  did an interesting article that gives the skinny on American Idol, and just how lucrative (or not) it can be. It begins with a swipe at former winner Taylor Hicks, saying that the current contestants are probably not dreaming of playing Teen Angel on a touring production of ‘Grease’ in Milwaukee three years from now. (That’s what Taylor Hicks was doing at the time, which isn’t exactly shameful, but probably not the summit a music hopeful aspires to.) personal note: I met Taylor Hicks once while working on an interview with him, and he referred to himself as ‘The Soul Patrol’ more than once, which I understand they called him on the series, but I kept thinking how weird that he was still clinging to that expression years later. It’s like saying you used to play football, but that was in high school, and now you’re forty years old.

But I digress… here’s some of the fun numbers:

Kris Allen, last year’s winner, has earned at least $650,000 from “American Idol,” according to contracts that last season’s contestants signed with the show’s producers during the competition.

That amount reflects the minimum a winner would earn. Including performance fees and merchandising royalties from the “American Idol” tour, as well as other opportunities, winners have never failed to earn less than $1 million in the year or so after the contest, people close to the show say.

It goes on later to say:

Mr. Allen, last year’s winner, earned an advance of $350,000 for his first album, exclusive of recording costs, half of it paid soon after the competition ended and half when he finished recording. His self-titled first album sold 80,000 copies in its first week of release last fall — disappointing for an “Idol” winner — and 260,000 in its first three months, according to Mr. Allen’s Web site, krisallenofficial.com.

An Idol winner’s riches extend beyond the recording contract. Last year the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida opened “The American Idol Experience,” an interactive attraction.

To promote it, Disney paid Mr. Allen $100,000 to turn to a camera and shout, “I’m going to Disney World” after winning the competition and to visit the park, according to the contracts. He stood to earn another $100,000 for spending a day filming scripted dialogue segments for use in the attraction and for taping a vocal performance for the Walt Disney World Christmas Parade television show.

It remains to be seen what will become of Kris Allen after a few years. For every huge success (Carrie Underwood, and Kelly Clarkson to some extent) there is a Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks. Still, it seems you don’t have to ‘win’ to win. Case in point: Chris Daughtry who are doing just fine without the crown, thank you very much. (And Jennifer Hudson, the most obvious winner in this saga.)

Update: Recently there has been increased interest in how much money the 10 contestants who qualify  for the summer American Idol tour will make.

A USA TODAY article from 2007 did not mention specifics, but provided some insight:

That accomplishment, which gets far less attention than making the top 24 or final 12, carries greater benefits: the chance to perform before arena audiences, develop fan bases and earn a six-figure payday.

Recently, TMZ obtained a copy of the contestants’ contract… and here’s how it breaks down:

The winner gets $175,000 when he/she starts recording and another $175,000 when that person produces the first album.

Second album: Between $275,000 and $550,000.
Third album: $325,000 and 650,000.
Fourth album: $375,000 – $750,000.
Fifth album: $450,000 – $900,000.
Sixth album: $500,000 – $1 million.

The second place finisher gets $150,000 when he/she starts recording their first album and another $150,000 upon delivery. The second album gets the runner-up between $225,000 and $450,000.

If the label signs the  third through 12th place contestants, they each get $100,000 when they start recording  their first album and another $100,000 upon delivery.

Additional information obtained via TMZ and POPEATER.

So there you have it… six figures. Not too shabby for people who until the show were complete unknowns. (And some still in high school!)

Going back to Jennifer Hudson – the truest reminder that  NOT winning isn’t a death sentence! The season three contestsant  was prematurely ousted –  but perservered,  beating out   more than 700 actresses for the role of Effie in Dreamgirls, winning an Oscar, and eventually  launched herself into a full fledged film star – and multimillionaire.  Now, as the new, skinny celeb spokesperson for Jenny Craig, she is even more  gorgeous… and even more rich.