20 years after his 'lowest point,' Justin Guarini has no regrets: 'As long as you stay in the game… it'll always come back around'

Justin Guarini appears on ABC's 'The Great Idol Reunion' special in celebration of the milestone 20th season of 'American Idol.'  (Photo: Christopher Willard/ABC via Getty Images)
Justin Guarini appears on ABC's 'The Great Idol Reunion' special in celebration of the milestone 20th season of 'American Idol.' (Photo: Christopher Willard/ABC via Getty Images)

Twenty years ago, Justin Guarini, the runner-up from the historic inaugural season of a new surprise hit show called American Idol, thought all his showbiz dreams had come true. He’d just released his debut album, which featured contributions from industry heavy-hitters like Babyface, Justin Timberlake, Gregg Alexander, Carole Bayer Sager, and executive producer Clive Davis. He’d just starred in a major motion picture that bore his name, From Justin to Kelly. But by the end of 2003, it was all over — or so it seemed.

“Oh, just say it: My album was a flop. The movie that I did after that was an absolute flop,” Guarini blurts out. He chuckles now, but confesses that at the time, “It was really painful. Like, I remember it being something that just crushed me, because I had always wanted to have a record deal. I had always wanted to be a recording artist. … But I have benefit of 20 years of hindsight to be able to see that oh my goodness, this business is truly cyclical.”

As it turned out, Guarini’s career wasn’t ending — it was just beginning, albeit in a different way from how he’d once envisioned. He’s since become “arguably the most versatile person, career-wise, to come off of American Idol,” branching out to theater, TV hosting, and even commercial acting: For instance, he has played Dr. Pepper’s hair-metal spokesrocker Lil’ Sweet for going on seven years now. And in his latest career twist, Guarini is taking on the even campier role of Disney villain Cat Burglar, an opportunity that he describes as a “dream come true,” in the new animated series SuperKitties, premiering Jan. 11 on the Disney Channel, Disney Junior, and Disney+.

Speaking to Yahoo Entertainment, however, Guarini admits that “there were definitely times when I felt like, ‘Ugh, I don't want to get out of bed; I don't want to go do the Hollywood thing’” and “I could've given up and it could have shrunk,” as he remembers his “lowest point” back in 2003. Thankfully, that humiliating moment ended up being a “catalyst” that changed the direction of his life.

“One night I was watching Saturday Night Live. I was living in Beverly Hills in this huge home, and I didn't want to go out into L.A. and the Hollywood scene and everything. I just wanted to just chill, so I turned on SNL,” Guarini recalls. “It was back when Tina Fey was reading the news, and I will never forget sitting in my beautiful room, in my 1 billion-count Egyptian-thread-sheet bed. … And all of a sudden, right next to her head, my face pops up. And so, I sit up. Now, having been through the wringer, having been made fun of for my hair, having been the brunt of many late-night jokes at that time, I knewit wasn't going to be something positive. But I had no idea exactly what it would be and how profound it would be.

“And so what [Fey] said was something to the effect of: ‘This week, former American Idol Justin was dropped from his record label, RCA.’ And then they flipped the picture and said, ‘And now he looks like this,’ and it was a picture of Art Garfunkel, another person who has big hair, but significantly older and grayer. And that was the joke,” Guarini continues. “And it would've been really funny — had I not found out, with however many other million people that were also watching SNL, that I had been dropped! That was the moment that I found out that I had been dropped from my record label.”

Guarini says that when he found out that RCA had dropped him — just six months after the release of his self-titled debut album (which sold 143,000 copies and peaked at No. 20 on the Billboard 200) — in such a public and impersonal way, he “stayed in bed for quite some time. I didn't want to get up, didn't want to go out, because I felt ashamed. And I questioned why I had done all this. … I had the fame, the fortune, the cars, the clothes. I was living in a house where I could take off my clothes in my walk-in closet, put them on the floor, and they would be washed and folded back in the drawers — all the things that I thought I wanted, all the things that we think we want. And yet, I was miserable. I was 3,000 miles away from anyone who I believed really, truly cared about me and loved me.

“And so, that was a huge catalyst for me … to then say, ‘What am I going to do?’” Guarini explains. “Eventually I just got over myself and I said, ‘OK, either I'm going to allow myself to be defined by this experience, or I'm going to define this experience.’ And that set me on a journey of just doing what was required: putting myself out there, failing, trying again, failing again, trying again. Continuing to audition, continuing to work — and work and work and work.”

Justin Guarini on Season 1 of 'American Idol.' (Photo: SGranitz/WireImage)
Justin Guarini on Season 1 of 'American Idol.' (Photo: SGranitz/WireImage)

Guarini has been working practically nonstop ever since, and he has a “good attitude now,” but he freely admits that his positive outlook has been “hard-won. … I mean, when you have that level of success — like, that first season of American Idol had 30 million people [watching] live every single week — and then all of a sudden on the back end of that, you have an album that flops, a movie that flops, and all those expectations that in my own mind weren't met… well, that's a big, big letdown.”

Of course, Guarini didn’t have any expectations when he signed up for Idol in 2002, and people thought that the future SuperKitties star was “crazy” when he chose to appear on the little unproven reality show over playing the role of another Disney feline. But he took the chance, and as is the case with most of his career choices now, he has no regrets.

“So, the story goes that I had for years been auditioning for The Lion King [on Broadway]. For years and years and years, I auditioned,” Guarini begins. “I did master classes, which is like the step that you take before you get onto the actual stage. And everyone in the company management was like, ‘Look, we want you, but we just don't have the place for you right now. Just hold on, hold on.’ I held on for years… and then all of a sudden, a show that nobody's ever heard of called American Idol comes along. I get this yellow piece of paper that says, ‘You're going to Hollywood!’ They called it the ‘Golden Ticket’ back then, but it was just a yellow piece of paper; it was goldenrod ticket, maybe! And I remember sitting in my car, and it was about a week before I had to go to L.A. — a place I'd never been before. And I get this call and they're like, ‘Hey, we finally have the role for you. We want you. How soon can you start?’”

Guarini told the Lion King producers that he was about to head to California for “this show I'm supposed to be in,” but “might get cut,” and he asked if he could touch base in a week. By that time, he had advanced American Idol Season 1’s top 30, and he had to make a tough decision. “I looked up at the stage. I saw the American Idol logo, the smoke, the lights, the dais where the judges sit, and I just started crying,” he recalls. “I'm tearing up and I'm trying not to let anybody see that I'm weeping in the middle of the aisle. And this little voice said to me, ‘Go with this.’ I looked up at the stage and I'm not kidding, it sounds fantastic, but it's so true; I remember it so vividly. I just thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this stage that I'm performing on at the Pasadena Civic Center is the same stage that Michael Jackson first did the Moonwalk on at the anniversary of Motown [TV special]. So many of my heroes have been on this stage. I don't know why, but I just have to go with this.’”

But since so many aspects of Guarini’s career have come full-circle, he ended up becoming a Broadway star anyway, despite making the seemingly risky and potentially bridge-burning decision to turn down The Lion King. “The bow on this story is that 10 years later, after my season of American Idolended, I would open my very first Broadway show in New York City, and we would have our opening night party in the hotel in the conference room where I first auditioned for American Idol,” he says with a smile. “I feel so lucky to be a part of the Broadway community, because there has been no community that I've been a part of that's been more accepting, more loving. They don't care where you come from — as long as you show up, you do your job, you're kind, and you tell the story, they love you. And I love them for that as well.”

Guarini also doesn’t regret starring in “cult classic” From Justin to Kelly — unlike his co-star, Kelly Clarkson, who once told Yahoo Entertainment that she “cried so hard” over the movie musical, fearing that it would “ruin” her career, that she even hoped that she would lose American Idol so she wouldn’t be contractually obligated to appear in the film. “She has some pretty strong opinions about it,” Guarini chuckles. But he says he was “100% into it.”

“I mean, where did I come from? I came from musicals. I came from that theater world. Kelly did not. And so, at the end of the day, she had a very strong opinion about wanting to really focus on her recording career, and you can see how that's paid off; her instincts were correct there. And I also had a really strong opinion about wanting to do more theater, more theatrical and musical things. And now, almost seven Broadway shows later, you can see how that's paid off for me. But at the end of the day, I wanted to do it. And I loved the idea of it,” says Guarini. “There were things to be desired from the script, yes. … But no matter what the box office numbers were [the film debuted at No. 11 in its opening week, and only domestically grossed about $5 million of its a $12 million budget], I'm proud to have made it.”

Clarkson’s fears that From Justin to Kelly would hurt her professionally obviously proved unfounded, but Guarini — who actually still has the unreleased From Justin to Kelly soundtrack on “an original iPod somewhere” — dismisses any speculation that it hurt him. He sensibly theorizes that both his album and From Justin to Kelly simply got “lost in the shuffle,” because 19 Entertainment and RCA were understandably focused on promoting Clarkson’s debut album and the second season of American Idol (which premiered on Fox only four months after Season 1 wrapped and was even more of a ratings hit). “It's just what my place was in the system at the time,” Guarini says with a shrug. And his time on the From Justin to Kelly set ultimately proved to be an invaluable experience.

“I was there for the experience. When I could have been in my trailer, I was sitting in Video Village [Studios], and watching and learning, because I'd never been on a film set like that before,” Guarini explains. “I learned what I needed to learn. I got what I got out of it. Yeah, it was a box office flop, but ultimately, it served me, 20-plus years later. … And so, it was this sort of bittersweet experience where I didn't have what I wanted, but I got what I needed — which was all the experience in the industry. And I'm so glad that the record flopped, that the movie flopped, because I still got to work with amazing people like Babyface. I still got to stand in Video Village in From Justin to Kelly and listen to the producers talk, listen to the directors talk. I was a sponge throughout that whole experience.”

And so, Guarini, much like actress and entrepreneur Katharine McPhee or Queen frontman Adam Lambert, has redefined post-Idol success on his own terms— he points out, “Many of us from that show have had success in so many different facets of the entertainment business, and no other show of its kind can say that.” And he still describes competing on Idol as one of the greatest experiences of my life” that opened so many doors.

“I just feel lucky that after 20 years I'm still able to be a part of wonderful projects like SuperKitties and play really fun characters like Cat Burglar,” Guarini, now age 44, asserts. “I’ve kept my eyes open, and I'm willing to just have fun and see what happens … As long as you stay in the game — which is one of the hardest things to do — you're kind to people, and you do good work, it'll always come back around.”

Watch Justin Guarini’s full, extended Yahoo Entertainment interview above, in which he talks about SuperKitties, his time on American Idol, playing Lil’ Sweet, his friendship with Kelly Clarkson, and what’s next for him.

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