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Diana DeGarmo is parting ways with RCA Records, but that doesn't necessarily mean she's destined to follow in the fading footprints of her "American Idol" predecessor Justin Guarini.
DeGarmo, who turned 18 in June, recently nabbed the lead in "West Side Story" at a regional theater in San Jose, Calif., after passing on the lead role in Broadway's "Beauty and the Beast" so she could finish high school and promote her debut album, "Blue Skies." She just performed a corporate gig on a cruise ship. And she's scheduled to appear at the Georgia Music Hall of Fame Awards next month.
"The good thing about where I'm at in my career, I'm at a place I can do whatever I want," DeGarmo said.
She's done well for a teenager three months out of high school. But it's a long way from the superstar promises "Idol" dangles in front of its finalists. Of the 46 contestants from the show's four seasons, only two have achieved anything like superstardom: first season winner Kelly Clarkson and second season runner-up Clay Aiken. Second and third season winners Ruben Studdard and Fantasia Barrino have found success as well, each selling more than 1.5 million copies of their debut discs. A few other contestants have parlayed "Idol" into TV and stage work or moderate album sales.
But Guarini is a cautionary tale. RCA dropped the first season runner-up after he sold only 150,000 copies of his debut. He's done little since. Now DeGarmo, who sold 160,000 copies of her debut, is splitting with RCA --- though her camp said she initiated it.
What's likely to happen next?
Ian Burke, a former manager of OutKast and Xscape and a consultant to Jagged Edge, has known DeGarmo since she was 13 and thinks she still has a bright future.
"She's doing what everybody else expects of her musically right now," he said, "but I feel once she finds her own lane and niche, she'll be incredible."
Monica Ewing, an Atlanta attorney who has R&B clients such as Kelly Price, said DeGarmo has a tough road ahead if she opts to go pop.
"The issue with her is marketability, not talent," she said. "There's going to be a real challenge for her to find a record label who is going to invest that type of money in a pop singer."
DeGarmo's main strength, Ewing said, is her vocal ability: "She's not very distinctive except her voice."
Ewing said it's smart for her to do theater. And rather than committing to a full album, Ewing recommends she record a couple of songs and get them on soundtracks or TV to keep her in the public eye.
"She should get a fun product endorsement, too," Ewing said, thinking of Mary Lou Retton, the former gymnast who has done a host of endorsements over the years that play off her wholesome image.
RCA signed DeGarmo immediately after the 2004 season ended and teamed her with star producers such as Desmond Child and David Foster, who helped assemble "Blue Skies," an album of pop, ballads and rock.
When it came out in December, it garnered passable reviews but struck some critics as unfocused. Though DeGarmo did a fair amount of TV and radio promotion, only Radio Disney consistently supported her. Top 40 radio largely ignored her singles "Dreams" and "Emotional."
Jason Rich, who wrote two "Idol"-sanctioned books, said RCA at the time focused on new releases from Clarkson and Aiken, making DeGarmo a lesser priority. As a result, RCA's promotional support struck fans as lackluster, with no music videos shipped to MTV or VH1 and no follow-up single.
"There were two or three other songs on the album I thought could have been Top 40 hits," said Fred Bronson, a music industry veteran who writes a column for Billboard magazine and knows DeGarmo and her family.
"They felt the label didn't do what they wanted them to do," added Bronson, who has spoken to DeGarmo's family about the situation. "They felt they'd be happier elsewhere. I admire them to be bold enough to walk away. That's a tough decision to make."
Nevertheless, attorney Steve Sidman said DeGarmo's relationship with RCA is not officially over yet: "The sides are talking and working out details. The termination of the relationship between Diana and the record company is a work in progress."
DeGarmo and RCA declined to comment.
DeGarmo doesn't have a deal for a second album but says she hopes her next release will be less rock-oriented, "a little more dance, a little more vocal, a little more R&B."
For now, she's looking forward to playing Maria in "West Side Story" at the 2,500-seat American Musical Theatre of San Jose in California. She will do 17 performances in early November. "I'm excited," she said.
She's also building a team of professionals to guide her career. Four months ago she signed on with powerful entertainment attorney Joel Katz, who has an impressive roster of talent, including Jimmy Buffett, Sheryl Crow and Alan Jackson. "We've known each other for four, five years," said DeGarmo, a networker long before "Idol."
And in June, she signed with ICM, a major Hollywood talent agency with celebrities ranging from the Beach Boys to Jay Leno to Usher.
Her mom, Brenda, continues to be her day-to-day manager.
"I know at the end of the day, she has my best interests at heart," DeGarmo said. "But she's ready to retire and be a mom. It's coming to a point where I need a professional. Eventually, the right person will come along."
Copyright 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution