American Idol Star Deaths You May Not Know About

For the better part of a decade, "American Idol" was the biggest thing in American pop culture — the most-watched TV series year after year during its 2000s run on Fox that also operated as a factory for likable, relatable, and mega-selling pop stars. Sadly, many of those aspiring singers and would-be rock stars didn't get much of a chance to build long careers and musical legacies because they died suddenly and tragically not long after their high-finishing, star-making turns on "American Idol." 

Dedicated "Idol" viewers may feel like they really got to know these striving young talents during their time on "American Idol," watching their stories, listening to them sing, and then voting to advance them in the reality TV contest. There's a true, widespread sense of loss when these musicians die tragic and untimely deaths. Here are all those across the long history of "American Idol" whose deaths may have gone under-reported.

Nikki McKibbin

"American Idol" began as a summer replacement series on Fox in 2002, and Nikki McKibbin helped the show establish itself and its hallmarks. Every season seems to feature a rock-oriented performer who doesn't quite fit in with all the pop singers and adult-contemporary divas, and McKibbin was the first. Recognizable for her bright pink hair and flashy stage outfits, McKibbin covered Pan Benatar and Stevie Nicks songs on her way to nearly winning "American Idol," finishing in third place behind Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini. After struggling with Sony Music over the creative direction of her career, McKibbin independently released her long-awaited debut album "Unleashed" in 2007.

On October 31, 2020, McKibbin's husband Craig Sadler announced that an aneurysm befell the reality TV contestant and musician. Kept on life support systems for a few days so that her organs could be donated per her wishes, McKibbin died on November 1, 2020, at the age of 42. "Nikki McKibbin was a fiery, funny lady who could sing the hell out of a rock song with the same kind of ease and command she lovingly used to cut you with her twangy Southern wit," Guarini wrote on Instagram. "Thank you for the laughter, merciless teasing, strength, vulnerability, love and friendship you showed me during our time together in the spotlight."

Willie Spence

Even before his very successful run on "American Idol" in 2021, Willie Spence was already famous for his singing. While still in high school, his self-made YouTube video of himself singing Rihanna's "Diamonds" became a viral hit, amassing more than 30 million views. Spence then breezed through every stage of the "American Idol" process, almost winning Season 19, finishing in second place behind Chayce Beckham.

On the afternoon of October 11, 2022, Spence was driving his Jeep on Interstate 24 in Tennessee when he suddenly lost control of the vehicle and struck the rear end of a semi-truck stopped on the highway's shoulder. Upon arrival, authorities pronounced Spence dead, and the Marion County Medical Examiner's office would cite "multi-system trauma due to motor vehicle accident" (according to NBC News) as the cause of death. Tragically numbering among the famous people killed in car crashes, the singer was 23 years old. "Willie really did light up every room he walked into," "American Idol" judge Luke Bryan wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. "He could change the mood instantly when he started singing. He will truly be missed."

Michael Johns

Born and raised in Perth, Australia, Michael Johns moved to the U.S. to attend college on a tennis scholarship before switching to his true passion of music. He formed a band called FIlm and then landed a solo deal with Maverick Records just before the label collapsed. When he auditioned for Season 7 of "American Idol" in 2008, Johns was 29 years old, right at the show's age limit. Johns rode what judge Simon Cowell called a "white soul singer" vibe (per Billboard) to an eighth-place finish on "American Idol" before continuing his recording career, releasing the album "Hold Back My Heart" and collaborating with producer David Foster.

According to Johns' family, a fatal blood clot developed in Johns' ankle following a sprained ankle. The official cause of death, as determined by the Orange County Coroner's office in California, cited an enlarged heart and a fatty liver as the reasons why Johns died at age 35 in August 2014. "I'm heartbroken over the loss of Michael Johns," "American Idol" judge Paula Abdul wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. "His enormous talent, gigantic heart, and infectious personality will live in my heart forever."

Leah Labelle

One of the youngest ever "American Idol" contestants, 17-year-old Seattle singer Leah LaBelle, made it to the final, televised, single-elimination episodes of the show in its 2004 season. A wild card pick by judge Paula Abdul, LaBelle got eliminated after reaching the top 12 and covering Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" and the Supremes "You Keep Me Hangin' On." LaBelle joined major hip-hop label So So Def Recordings and released multiple EPs, albums, and singles for the label, including a self-titled 2012 effort produced by Pharrell Williams and Jermaine Dupri.

In the early morning hours of January 31, 2018, LaBelle was riding in a Range Rover driven by her husband, former NBA player Rasual Butler. He lost control of the car, which reached a speed as much as three times the legal limit in the area, and ran into multiple parking meters and then a wall of a strip mall in Studio City, California. Both Butler and LaBelle died in the single-car accident. One of the many sports stars we lost in 2018, Butler was 38; LaBelle was 31.


Mononymous singer Mandisa made it all the way to the finals of Season 5 of "American Idol" in 2006, advancing into the top 12 on the strength of powerful performances of songs like Heart's "Never" and Chaka Khan's "I'm Every Woman." She'd finish that iteration of "American Idol" in ninth place, garnering too few viewer votes for her take on Shania Twain's "Any Man of Mine." Within a year, Mandisa was enjoying one of the most successful careers ever for an "American Idol" contestant. She became a superstar in the world of contemporary Christian pop and gospel, with her 2007 LP "True Beauty" hitting No. 1 on Billboard's Top Christian Albums Chart, a feat she'd repeat twice with future albums. Mandisa's single "Overcomer" topped the Christian songs chart for 10 weeks, and the album of the same name won the performer the 2014 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Christian Music Album.

On April 18, 2024, Mandisa was found dead in her home in Nashville, a representative for the singer told media outlets. Local authorities in the Franklin Police Department launched an investigation into the cause of death, but ruled out any criminal misbehavior. The "American Idol" and gospel star was 47 years old. "Mandisa was a power house vocalist on our season of 'Idol' and she graduated to a wonderful career in gospel music," Season 5 winner Taylor Hicks wrote on Instagram. "Better yet she was a power house person and all of us will miss her dearly."

Rickey Smith

Rickey Smith passed his second "American Idol" audition for Season 2, belting out Brian McKnight's "One Last Cry." He lasted well into the final rounds, ultimately finishing in eighth place in the 2003 season that culminated in a win for Ruben Studdard. After his time on "American Idol," Smith worked on an album in Los Angeles, but after it never materialized, he moved back home to Oklahoma and self-released a compilation of his songs. He found a job singing professionally, serenading customers with "Happy Birthday" at an Oklahoma City sports bar. "I've made peace with it, but it's still frustrating," Smith told USA Today of his career trajectory in 2008.

In May 2016, Smith was driving on I-240 near Oklahoma City when his car was struck by a drunk driver moving in the wrong direction. Smith was pronounced dead at the scene, dying from several blunt force injuries. The "American Idol" standout was 36 years old. "He was such a great person with such an amazing spirit. Every part of my 'American Idol' experience has Rickey Smith in it," Studdard told Billboard. "He was my friend and my brother and I love him."

C.J. Harris

Thanks to a potent performance of the Allman Brothers Band's "Soulshine," C.J. Harris jumped from his Salt Lake City audition spot to the Hollywood round of "American Idol" in its 2014 season. Earning a wild card from viewer votes, Harris progressed to the weekly live episodes, where he performed soul-inflected takes on familiar rock hits like Tom Petty's "Free Fallin,'" John Mayer's "Waiting on the World to Change," and "American Woman," by the White House-rocking Guess Who. Harris would finish his time on Season 13 of "American Idol" in sixth place, but went on tour with his fellow finalists and released music under his own name in 2019.

While living in his hometown of Jasper, Alabama, Harris experienced a serious medical episode in January 2023 and was taken to a hospital. He died of what was later determined to be a heart attack. Among the many reality show celebrities who died before 35, Harris was 31 years old. "I am so grateful that our lives got to cross paths in this lifetime," Season 13 winner Caleb Johnson said on Instagram. "You were a beautiful, kind soul that always made the room brighter with your smile and laughter."

Joanne Borgella

Joanne Borgella utilized many reality shows to advance her various career goals. In 2005, she won the first season of Oxygen's plus-sized beauty pageant and modeling series "Mo'Nique's Fat Chance." That landed Borgella a modeling contract and high-profile work as the face of campaigns for Torrid, Ashley Stewart, and Kohls. But Borgella also wanted to be a singer, and in Season 7 of "American Idol," she made it into the round of the top 24 singers. Borgella performed Dionne Warwick's "I Say a Little Prayer" on television, but it wasn't enough to stave off elimination before the finals.

In the fall of 2013, doctors diagnosed Borgella with endometrial cancer, and she openly documented her treatments on her social media accounts. By October 2013, the cancer had metastasized, moving into other parts of the singer's body. Radiation treatments proved ineffective, and Borgella died in October 2014 at the age of 32.

Haley Smith

On the strength of a spirited, folky performance of Rufus' "Tell Me Something Good" at her Colorado audition for the 2012 season of "American Idol," judges granted Haley Smith a coveted ticket to the taped-in-Hollywood round. Her throwback style notably impressed judge and Aerosmith singer Steven Tyler. "I love your voice so much. You're right out of my era and I'm honored to be here listening to your voice," Tyler, whom you probably wouldn't want to meet in real life, gushed (according to People). But that Hollywood level was as far as Smith went on "American Idol," failing to make it into the group of the top 12 finalists.

Smith, an avid and experienced motorcycle operator, crashed her vehicle in Millinocket, Maine, in August 2019. Investigators believe Smith misjudged a difficult turn and lost control of her motorcycle; her family told TMZ that Smith was too skilled a rider to do something like that and was likely trying to avoid hitting a deer. The accident killed the singer — she was 26 years old.

Marque 'Tate' Lynche

While "American Idol" served as a vehicle to discover, promote, and elevate young and not-yet-famous singers, it didn't mean that contestants were necessarily unknown or inexperienced. Marque "Tate" Lynche, for example, auditioned for the 2004 third season of "American Idol" a decade after his work as a cast member on the Disney Channel's "The All New Mickey Mouse Club." After singing, dancing, and mugging alongside future stars like Ryan Gosling and Britney Spears, Lynche so expertly delivered a cover of "Wind Beneath My Wings" that judges advanced him into the competition's round of 32 standouts, but he just missed making it into the group of 12 finalists.

On December 6, 2015, Lynche's roommate discovered the singer unresponsive at their New York City apartment. Authorities were called to the scene, and they pronounced Lynche dead. He was 34 years old. Three months later, the office of the New York City Chief Medical Examiner published its autopsy findings, ruling that Lynche died from the effects of chronic alcoholism.

Alexis Cohen

Unfortunately for Alexis Cohen, an appearance on "American Idol" didn't lead to fame and success as a pop singer. The reality TV hopeful attended an open audition in Philadelphia in 2007 and sang "Somebody to Love" by Jefferson Airplane (which later became Jefferson Starship). Cohen's performance was featured in an early Season 7 episode of "American Idol" that showcased auditions that missed the mark; "possessed" is how judge Simon Cowell derisively characterized Cohen's work, and he also quipped that she resembled the actor Willem Dafoe. A very upset Cohen then told Cowell he was an "egotistical f***" and then raised a middle finger to the TV cameras as she exited the audition room (according to ABC News). Cohen attempted the "American Idol" path to stardom once more, in 2009, but didn't make it past the audition stage.

A few months after her second "American Idol" appearance, Cohen was the victim of a hit-and-run traffic accident in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. Cohen, 25 years old, died in July 2009 after a motorist hit her with his vehicle, as she succumbed to serious injuries to her head, abdomen, and chest.

Paula Goodspeed

"American Idol" revived the career of early '90s pop sensation and dancer Paula Abdul, who served on the talent show's judge panel. The contest held open auditions where Abdul's appearance was required, which opened her up to exposure to an overly fixated follower named Paula Goodspeed. "She had been a stalker fan for about 17 years," Abdul said on "The View" (via the New York Post) in 2008. "It wasn't until 'American Idol' that she ever knew how to get to me." Goodspeed showed up to an "American Idol" open call in 2005, and advanced to the third round of auditions where she'd sing for the show's on-air judges and have her performance taped for broadcast. "I really like Paula Abdul a lot. She's very cool. I'm a really big fan. I make life-size drawings of Paula," Goodspeed told "American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest (via ABC News).

Goodspeed didn't progress any farther in the competition. She did, however, reportedly track Abdul to her home in Sherman Oaks, California, and continued to stalk the "Idol" judge. In November 2008, Goodspeed's body was discovered in a car not far from Abdul's house. The troubled one-time "American Idol" contestant died by suicide at the age of 30.

If you or anyone you know needs help with addiction issues or is struggling or in crisis, contact the relevant resources below: