The untested singing competition format was considered a huge gamble when it first premiered on Fox as a summer series in 2002.
"American Idol" is an institution, a juggernaut and a show that changed the face of reality competition television forever.
It's first winner, Kelly Clarkson, is a bona fide superstar (even after that terrible post-show movie "From Justin to Kelly" with her runner-up Justin Guarini), and the entire casts of those early seasons became household names.
And yet, Clarkson says that the cast from her season actually thought of the show as "kind of a joke." It may be hard to imagine with the hindsight we have now of what the show became, but it was a very different time then.
It's easy to forget what a huge risk the show was for Fox when they first picked up the format from the UK's "Pop Idol." This was also in what was still the early days of reality television, debuting the same years as MTV's "The Osbournes" broke new ground for the format as one of the first shows to just follow people around living their lives.
In fact, the only reality competition series really going at the time were over on CBS, which had only recently launched "Survivor," "Big Brother" and "The Amazing Race" in just the previous two years. Reality television was still untested with networks and viewers uncertain what to expect.
The fact that "Idol" debuted in June of 2002 instead of during the regular season shows just how much of a gamble the show was perceived as. Not only was it alternative programming, but it wasn't even considered worth taking a chance on during the real season.
Of course, it would go on to quickly become a ratings juggernaut, even by the time Clarkson was crowned the winner that September, and dominate all of television for years to come. And yet, it turns out the networks and critics weren't the only ones wary about this strange new show.
While chatting with Kevin Hart during his "Heart to Heart" series on Peacock, Clarkson was talking about how she was catapulted fully unprepared into the entertainment industry, with Hart noting that for her, it all started with an audition.
"Which we thought was a joke," she laughed. When he pushed her to explain what she meant, she clarified, "I mean, we didn't think it was gonna come [to] anything."
"We were the first season of 'American Idol', so we were there for that paycheck that [SAG-AFTRA] gives you, to pay for some bills," she added. "Nobody knew that anything would actually come to fruition. That’s what everyone hoped, but that doesn’t usually happen."
That's changed dramatically since then, obviously, with every contestant knowing exactly how much these types of reality shows could change their lives. Granted, that impact was much greater in those early years, with even "Survivor" cast-members like Elisabeth Hasselbeck being able to find careers in entertainment from their TV appearances.
Most of the biggest stars to come out of "American Idol" are from the show's first decade, including Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, Adam Lambert, Kellie Pickler, Clay Aiken, Ruben Studdard, Scotty McCreery and Jordin Sparks.
Clarkson also credits the way the show came from nowhere and suddenly she was a global superstar for much of how she's been able to remain down to earth and relatable (considered a huge part of her success beyond just music).
"We got thrown into it," she told Hart. "I will say, I am thankful for that at the same time because I think I skipped the surreal part."
"It really doesn't matter to me, in the best sense. It matters, but it matters for what worth I give it," she continued. "I love what I do, I love singing, and I love, you know, what you’re able to do with your spotlight, but I think because I skipped all that so fast and I was thrown in, there was no time for people to really drill me on, 'You have to do this, you have to be this.'"
As such, Clarkson has been able to just be exactly who she is, which has made her a beloved addition to "The Voice" franchise on NBC and the lead of the most buzzed about new talk show in a long time, poised to take over Ellen DeGeneres' slot after the veteran host ends her show following this upcoming season.
What started off as "kind of a joke" for a paycheck has turned into a huge payday and a massive career for the multi-hyphenate star. It may have been about paying bills, but it's also proof that it pays to take a chance on yourself, even if it all seems a bit silly at the time.