Within a few short years, Lambert was touring the world with Queen as their frontman while somehow managing a hugely successful solo career (His second album, Trespassing debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 and sold 77,000 copies in its first week, making Lambert the first openly gay male musician to top the charts in history.)
How did Lambert rise from an aspiring American Idol auditioner to fronting for Queen? Below is his journey from fanboy to Hollywood fame:
Meet Adam Lambert: Theater Kid with a Set of Pipes
Adam Lambert was a bright-eyed theater kid from Los Angeles with a dream — and a set of incredible pipes — when he watched Kelly Clarkson get crowned champion of the first season of American Idol.
“I remember watching the first year when Kelly Clarkson won,” Lambert remembered in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. “I’m a singer and I’ve always been a singer and a theater kid. Getting to tune in week after week and watching young singers compete, it was very exciting because we hadn’t had anything like that in the U.S. in a while.”
But Lambert didn’t think he was the kind of performer the show was looking for. A theater nerd at heart, the young actor drew inspirations from mighty female vocalists like Judy Garland, Liza Minelli, Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Cher. He had been starring in musicals since he was 19 years old. In addition to acting in shows like “The Ten Commandments: The Musical”, “110 in the Shade”, and “Wicked” (understudying for Fiyero), Lambert was the lead singer for the rock band The Citizen Vein.
Adam Lambert Auditions for American Idol with “Bohemian Rhapsody”
At 26 years old, Lambert was ready to take a leap. “I thought, ‘Why don’t I just try out? Why don’t I just try?,'” he told Entertainment Weekly “Even though I still thought, ‘Nah, this is a long shot’.”
Even so, the theater kid was ready to give it a go. He even quit his job with a professional theater company, jeopardizing his income and health insurance because participants on the show weren’t allowed to be under any kind of entertainment contract. Finally, it came time for Lambert to audition before the judges, a panel which included Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Kara DioGuardi. He performed a “Rock With You” by Michael Jackson — but it didn’t go that well.
” …It didn’t quite connect like I wanted it to, and they were kind of looking at me sideways,” he recalled. The judges asked him if he had anything else. Luckily, he did — and it was Queen’s Bohemian Rhabsody.
“That seemed to click for them,” Lambert said. It did: The performer was allowed to progress to the next round and Fox ended up airing the Bohemian Rhapsody portion of his auditon on TV. In the episodes that follow, Lambert quickly rose to the top of the pack with songs like “Born to Be Wild”, “If I Can’t Have You,” and “Black or White”. His acoustic version of “The Tracks of My Tears” even got a standing ovation from Smokey Robinson, the episode’s featured mentor and the song’s original songwriter.
The Season 8 Finale
Spoiler alert: Adam Lambert didn’t win. But even though Lambert ended coming in second to Kris Allen, there was no question that the runner-up was the real star of the show. Lambert, with his charisma and one-of-a-kind vocal talent, captured the attention of global audiences in a different way than his sweet, humble, unassuming fellow finalist. (Host Ryan Seacrest described Allen and Lambert as “The guy next door versus the guyliner”.)
In the season 8 finale, Lambert performed Gary Jules’ “Mad World” and the legendary civil rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come”.
In addition to solo performances from the contestants and queen, the action-packed finale included a number of other collaborations between the performers and other celebrities. Kris performed a duet with Keith Urban, while a glam rockered-out Lambert jammed with the band Kiss. Meanwhile, the female finalists, including Allison Iraheta, opened up for Fergie, who sang “Big Girls Don’t Cry” before being joined by the Black Eyed Peas.
And to cap it off, Adam joined Kris on stage to perform “We Will Rock You”/“We Are the Champions with Brian May and Roger Taylor, the surviving members of Queen. “Just meeting them for the first time, it was so surreal. I don’t even think I realized the weight of the moment until after the fact,” Lambert described the experience of meeting Queen in the 2019 ABC documentary The Show Must Go On: The Queen & Adam Lambert Story.
Finally, the results were revealed; Kris Allen was named the winner. Much like many fans, Lambert was disappointed.
“This was an absolute shocker of a finale for American Idol,” Michael Slezak, senior writer for Entertainment Weekly, told NPR. “I did not expect Kris Allen to beat Adam Lambert, and I don’t think Kris Allen expected to beat Adam Lambert. I mean, honestly, saying ‘Adam deserves this, I’m sorry.’ I’ve never heard that kind of quote from an Idol winner.”
“I was sitting in the front row and he looked me in the eye and said, ‘I really wanted to win,’ and I mouthed to him, ‘you did’, ” his mom remembered in the documentary. And Lambert knew it: “I knew that in my way I had won, for myself, for my life,” he said.
Adam Becomes Frontman for Queen
Adam Lambert and his mom were right. In the years that would follow, Adam continued to give performances around the world, appearing on everything from the Late Show with David Letterman and the Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien to The Voice of Poland and BBC One’s Strictly Come Dancing. His image was stamped across the cover of magazines like Rolling Stone and Entertainment Weekly. Meanwhile, his debut album, For Your Entertainment, rose to number three on the Billboard 200 and sold 198,000 copies in the U.S. within its first week.
And — perhaps most incredibly of all — within two years of that fateful night, Lambert took the stage as the lead singer for Queen, taking the place of the legendary Freddie Mercury. For his first performance as frontman, Lambert joined Queen an eight-minute medley at the 2011 MTV European Music Awards in Belfast, Ireland. Following the MTV performance, Adam would continue to perform gigs with Queen until they began officially touring together in 2014.
Queen guitarist Brian May says Mercury would have approved of his successor — and been a little jealous. “Freddie would love and hate him, because Adam has a real gift from God,” May said in an interview with Yahoo. “It’s a voice in a billion, nobody has that range, nobody that I’ve ever worked with, not just the range but the quality throughout the range.”
Want to see for yourself? Check out Queen’s recent performance of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love”: