Catching Up With Justin Guarini

Incredibly, it's been almost 10 years since Justin Guarini lost to Kelly Clarkson on the very first finale of "American Idol"--after actually being the frontrunner for much of that inaugural season--and his trademark Sideshow Bob curls are long gone. But the man is still forever, inextricably tied to the "Idol" phenomenon. So it's easy to imagine that "Idol"s first first runner-up at least occasionally looks back on that historical finale night and wonders how differently his life might have turned out if Ryan Seacrest (and Brian Dunkleman, of course) had announced him as the winner instead. When asked about this, Justin's answer is quite surprising.

"I totally do think about that--and when I do, I realize, oh my God, it would have been horrible for me to win!" he confesses. "Because it was so right that Kelly won. It just worked out right. That whole season, she was flawless, and they were looking for the best VOICE on there. And she was, hands-down, the best voice."

It's a humble answer from a man that some might expect to be bitter, especially since he was rumored to be romantically linked to Kelly back in Season 1. (Of that, he sheepishly and simply says, "Yeah, there was a rumor, definitely. We've just always been such good friends. Um, man, it was weird; she was like my sister on the show, and then you know, we made a movie together...I'd say, we had a good time. Yeah.")

But it's not like Justin has been hurting for work in the decade since he left "Idol." In addition to his TV correspondent duties, he's built up an impressive theater résumé, starring in Rent, Women On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, American Idiot...and now the forthcoming and much-anticipated Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, a new musical penned by Stephen King featuring the original music of John Mellencamp and musical direction by T-Bone Burnett, opening next week at Atlanta's Alliance Theater. "It is a Southern gothic musical that is out of this world," raves Justin. "I mean blood, gunplay, fights, beautiful music, romance, intrigue. It is awesome."

Justin is one of many "Idol" alums to make a name for himself in the theater world, but considering his background, it seemed an almost inevitable career path for the song-and-dance man. "I came from this world. Before I was on 'Idol,' I had the choice to either make my Broadway debut in The Lion King, or do 'American Idol,'" he reveals. "And I made the choice to go with 'Idol.' It was a crazy choice, because nobody knew what 'Idol' was. But there was just something that felt really good about that show. It ended up being just ridiculous. I don't think I even understood how big it was becoming until the second or third week of the top 10!"

Obviously, the now-33-year-old Justin had no idea what he was getting himself into, but he still doesn't regret his choice, nor does he ever get annoyed that he's still associated in the public's mind with a TV show he did way back in 2002, long before he got married, became a dad, or embarked on a theater career. And as an occasional "Idol" correspondent for the TV Guide channel, he's still proud of where he came from. "I'm happy to be associated with a blockbuster success, really! It would be short-sighted of me to pooh-pooh 'American Idol,' because it gave me my break, just like anyone else's break. And I'm thankful for it," he says. "Nothing beats the impact that we made that first season. People still remember who I am and they care what I'm doing. People from other seasons can't always say that, not because they're not talented, but because they didn't have the impact of that first season."

And what about that OTHER musical he did, with Kelly Clarkson, the notorious box-office bomb From Justin To Kelly, a beachy romp that seems about as far removed from Ghost Brothers' dark Mississippi swamplands as imaginable? Is Justin proud of that, too? "Every time it crosses my mind to regret doing that film, it usually coincides with when I get a paycheck from the royalties," he laughs. "But people come up to me talk about it all the time. Especially the kids, they love it. It's a cult classic, you know? It was what it was. It wasn't designed to win an Oscar. Either you love or you don't, but I am proud of it."

Ghost Brothers of Darkland County premieres April 4th at the Alliance Theater at the Woodruff in Atlanta. Click here for tickets and info.

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