Whatever Happened To Ruben Studdard From American Idol?

When "American Idol" burst onto the scene in June 2002, it was hailed as a triumph of the American dream. Here, talented but unknown singers from anywhere and any walk of life could have a real chance of becoming musical superstars. Indeed, the show's very first winner, Kelly Clarkson, became a household name not long after her Idol run — she told Billboard the show "changed my life!"

But while a handful of other Idol winners and runners-up enjoyed similar success — Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, Clay Aiken, Chris Daughtry and Phillip Phillips among them — most others have seen their post-Idol careers fizzle. It seems there's only so much room in fans' hearts for musical Cinderella stories.

Back in AI's second season, all the buzz was about the friendly rivalry between finalists Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard, the larger-than-life R&B singer with the rich pipes that earned him the nickname "Velvet Teddy Bear." When he won the close competition, his future seemed limitless. Now, years later, fans wonder — whatever happened to Ruben Studdard?

He's still tight with Clay Aiken

Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken may have been competitive finalists on "American Idol," but there are definitely no hard feelings. In fact, the two did press appearances for months immediately following the show. "We didn't really get a chance to be apart," Studdard told Playbill. They also hung out together as pals and even appeared in a Broadway play for the holiday season in 2018, aptly titled "Ruben & Clay's Christmas Show." As they described it, the variety show combined holiday songs with "some skits, some comedy, some bantering."

For Christmas 2019, the two buds reunited once again to sing the classic song "O Holy Night" on "The View." Reposting the show's video of their heartfelt performance, Studdard tweeted, "I miss singing with my bro @clayaiken." It may be a while before the two Idol alums get to perform again. However, in early January 2022, Aiken announced that he is running for Congress as a representative of North Carolina's Sixth District. If elected, he would be the first openly LGBTQ congressperson from the South — an accomplishment his fellow southerner, Studdard (who was raised in Alabama), would surely applaud.

The Velvet Teddy Bear is less fluffy now

Ruben Studdard celebrated a triumph in 2014 when he competed on NBC's "The Biggest Loser," the long-running reality show in which contestants competed to see who could lose the most weight with the help of tough trainers and lifestyle changes. Studdard's frame and gentle personality earned him the nickname "Velvet Teddy Bear" on "American Idol," but after learning he had type 2 diabetes, he realized that his size — more than 400 pounds — was affecting his health.

On the show, Studdard dropped just 39 pounds before being asked to leave the ranch, but he was motivated to keep going at home, and eventually lost a total of 129 pounds (via BlackDoctor.org). "You know, it wasn't the working out that was the hard part," he said in an interview, "It was all the other stuff that goes along with being on the ranch — not being able to talk to your family and that stuff. It's very mentally challenging."

Studdard also appeared on the "Today Show," where he declared, "I (did) this for me; this was for my life. I'm so excited I got to take the time and do this. It was something I could do for me, and nobody else. This show has given me a second chance to live the best life I can live. I am going to be the healthiest Ruben Studdard I can be."

His fans are rooting for him to do just that.

Studdard paid tribute to an R&B legend

Ruben Studdard's rich voice and appealing personality have contributed to his enduring career. Since his "American Idol" win, he has released eight albums, including "Soulful" and "I Need an Angel" (via Discogs). His 2012 album, "Letters from Birmingham," was based on his short-lived marriage to Surata Zuri McCants. Studdard told NPR at the time, "I think the most important thing was for me to tell my story in my words, instead of allowing other people to speculate." Many of his albums have gone gold and platinum, and he earned one Grammy nomination in 2003 for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. He was also in a revival of the Broadway hit "Ain't Misbehavin'," the Tony-winning musical featuring the songs of Fats Waller (via Broadway.com). 

In 2018, Studdard released "Ruben Sings Luther: A Tribute." The album paid tribute to the R&B great Luther Vandross ("Always and Forever"), to whom Studdard has often been compared (via Discogs). Although he had to cancel his planned "Ruben Sings Luther" tour when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Studdard is ready to go back on the road. According to his website, he will begin performing again in February 2022, with stops planned in Philadelphia, Connecticut, Washington, DC, Bermuda and other locales. On April 24, his performance in Waukegan, IL, will feature a guest appearance by none other than Dionne Warwick. 

He's teaching at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga

Studdard will be pausing his tour in March 2022 to take a different kind of stage — He will be teaching two master classes in music at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga. After being invited by a friend to sing the National Anthem at a UTC football game there, Studdard met with Stuart Benkert, the head of the school's performing arts department, who thought the students could benefit from the Idol's expertise. "As head of the department, how could you not want to bring in somebody like him to work with our students?" said Benkert. "I realized that he has the heart of a teacher and it would be a shame not to let that become part of who he is."

It's a natural fit for a man who has education in his blood. Studdard's mother is a public school teacher in Alabama, while his father is a former auto body collision technology teacher. Studdard himself has a degree in vocal studies from Alabama A&M University, and he recalled that music history was one of his favorite classes. He told the school's website, "I'm sure these guys will be sponges. They'll be looking for information that will help guide them if the music industry is something that they want to do."

It's a safe bet that this class won't have any absentees.