New York — When Samantha "Just Sam" Diaz completed her performance of "A Dream Is A Wish Your Heart Makes", American Idol judge Katy Perry reminded her that Jennifer Hudson, one of the iconic performers in the singing competition's history finished seventh and went on the win an Oscar.
After her life-changing triumph Sunday night on the highly-rate ABC singing competition, the sky is no doubt the limit for the 21-year-old, whose powerful rendition of Kelly Clarkson's Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You) and Andra Day's "Rise Up" cemented her into the history books as the winner of Season 18.
If past winners and top finishers are anything to go by, Just Sam, the subway singer from Harlem, New York with a Liberian heritage, thanks to her Grand Mother, Elizabeth, is on her merry way.
Mixed Results for Past Winners
The opportunities are endless.
Just ask Season One winner Kelly Clarkson, who remains a successful commercial artist, 15 years after the show debut. Carrie Underwood, the fourth season's champ who shared that season with Jennifer Hudson, went on to win Entertainer of the Year twice at the Academy of Country Music Awards 2009 - 2010 while Hudson won Best Supporting Actress in 2007 for Dreamgirls. Both have become best-selling artists.
Season 3 winner Fantasia Barrino, has had three hit albums and starred as Celie in The Color Purple in 2007.
Christopher Ruben Studdard who won the show's second season in 2003 went on to become a hugely successful recording artists, including the top-selling gospel music debut for Soulful and the follow-up I Need an Angel. His 2004 hit, Flying Without Wings, Change Me and Sorry(2014) are among his best accomplishments.
Clay Aiken, who finished second to Studdard has also had a massive run, with several top-selling hits. His first four albums debuted on Billboard's Top 5. In 2010 he lost another hard-fought competition, his Congressional bid in North Carolina.
Season 5 finalist Chris Daughtry went on to sell more than seven million albums and more than 15 million song downloads.
Season 6 champ Jordin Sparks became a platinum-selling artist and expanded into acting with films like Left Behind and a stint on Broadway.
Season 6 runner-up Katharine McPhee is now known as much for her acting as her singing; television is a natural fit for the charismatic and likable McPhee. She is currently co-starring as Paige Dineen on TV's Scorpion.
Season 6 contender Kellie Pickler enjoyed success, recording several hit country albums. Pickler, despite finishing six, won rival competition Dancing with the Stars with partner Derek Hough in 2013.
Season 7 runner-up David Archuleta has been a successful recording artist and eventhough he took a two-year career break in 2012 to serve as a missionary in Chile for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, he did manage to release his sixth album in 2013.
Season Eight winner Kris Allen has not had much success despite beating Adam Lambert who went on to sell more than three million albums and 5 million singles worldwide.
Season Nine winner Lee DeWyze has released seven post-Idol albums which have not been as solid as other past season winners.
Season Ten winner, country artist, Scott McCreary's first post-Idol album went platinum. Season Twelve winner Phillip LaDon Phillips Jr.'s winning song, "Home," became the all-time best-selling song from AI. He has released three albums since winning Idol.
Season Thirteen winner, the Rocker, Caleb Johnson first post-Idol solo album Testify only sold 11,000 copies. Season Fourteen winner, the Pop singer Nick Fradiani post-idol album Hurricane debuted at 121 on Billboard selling only 5,000 copies, the lowest from an idol winner to date.
Season 15 winner, the country-pop singer, Trent Harmon released the not-so-successful Got Them All. Maddie Poppe, who won Season Sixteen released her first post-idol album, Whirlwind. Laine Hardy, the country-rock Season 17 winner is still working on his first post-Idol album.
Well-Grounded Sam Signs Recording Deal
For Just Sam, her future will no doubt be guided by glimpses from a field of past winners.
Her journey into professional music kicked off on Monday when the new AI champ signed an exclusive record deal with Hollywood Records/Industrial Media's 19 Recordings, and she is expected to commence work on her first post-Idol album which will most likely define the rest of her career.
Just Sam, who was adopted by her Grandmother at the age of six is well grounded and rooted in a strong upbringing despite growing up with her mom in prison.
Long before her Idol journey, she posted on Instagram that her grandmother is the key to whatever cards life deals her the rest of the way. "My grandmother is the only woman on this earth that really truly knows me. I thank her so much for that and never giving up on me. There isn't enough money in the world to repay her for all that she's done for me. I'm going to be big someday and that's all thanks to her. Right now all the moves I'm making is for my grandmother. She's going to see me on TV someday. She's never ever going to have to work again."
Just Sam's struggle was evident in her performances which captivated the judges and voters, including her surprise rendition of Selena Quintanilla's "Como La Flor" which showcased her range as a singer, capping it all up with the finale rendition of Andra Day's "Rise Up".
For the immediate future, Just Sam has no intentions of slacking. What is certain is that her days on the subway are all but over.
Even as she reminiscent about her past during an appearance on Ryan & Kelly Monday, her story which has captured the world is due to her hard work. "There so many people who have similar stories to me, and they probably felt the same way that I did when I came into the competition, and that was, you know, people like me, I want to make it; I wanted to really bad, but I didn't expect to. And to have this happened to me, it's more than a dream come true because I didn't expect it. So, it makes feel like 10 times greater. You know, when you start from the very bottom and make it to the top, it's like that's a whole testimony. So, I'm grateful for that."
Since its beginning, American Idol has produced more than 42 Idol finalists. Fewer than fourteen have been on tour in the last three years while 19 have produced new music since 2013.
The coming months could prove pivotal for Just Sam as she looks to emulate the successful alums of AI and cement herself into the record books.
Looking back on a memorable season during which she says her focus helped her keep it all together. "I always just tried not to focus on it, and then we came to top 10, and then I had to see the other contestants celebrate with their families, and then I said, oh my gosh. And now I missed my family; and then I made the top 7 and it was the same for that; and then we came to the top 5 and then the finale. But then, I got to be a Facetime with my grandmother. So, I was really grateful for that in the end."