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Photo: Justin Guarini (by Christopher Boudewyns on Facebook) | By Lyndsey Parker·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music | Twenty years ago, Justin Guarini, the runner-up from the historic inaugural season of a new surprise hit show called American Idol, thought all his showbiz dreams had come true. He’d just released his debut album, which featured contributions from industry heavy-hitters like Babyface, Justin Timberlake, Gregg Alexander, Carole Bayer Sager, and executive producer Clive Davis. He’d just starred in a major motion picture that bore his name, From Justin to Kelly. But by the end of 2003, it was all over — or so it seemed.

“Oh, just say it: My album was a flop. The movie that I did after that was an absolute flop,” Guarini blurts out. He chuckles now, but confesses that at the time, “It was really painful. Like, I remember it being something that just crushed me, because I had always wanted to have a record deal. I had always wanted to be a recording artist. … But I have benefit of 20 years of hindsight to be able to see that oh my goodness, this business is truly cyclical.”

As it turned out, Guarini’s career wasn’t ending — it was just beginning, albeit in a different way from how he’d once envisioned. He’s since become “arguably the most versatile person, career-wise, to come off of American Idol,” branching out to theater, TV hosting, and even commercial acting: For instance, he has played Dr. Pepper’s hair-metal spokesrocker Lil’ Sweet for going on seven years now. And in his latest career twist, Guarini is taking on the even campier role of Disney villain Cat Burglar, an opportunity that he describes as a “dream come true,” in the new animated series SuperKitties, premiering Jan. 11 on the Disney Channel, Disney Junior, and Disney+.

Speaking to Yahoo Entertainment, however, Guarini admits that “there were definitely times when I felt like, ‘Ugh, I don’t want to get out of bed; I don’t want to go do the Hollywood thing’” and “I could’ve given up and it could have shrunk,” as he remembers his “lowest point” back in 2003. Thankfully, that humiliating moment ended up being a “catalyst” that changed the direction of his life.

“One night I was watching Saturday Night Live. I was living in Beverly Hills in this huge home, and I didn’t want to go out into L.A. and the Hollywood scene and everything. I just wanted to just chill, so I turned on SNL,” Guarini recalls. “It was back when Tina Fey was reading the news, and I will never forget sitting in my beautiful room, in my 1 billion-count Egyptian-thread-sheet bed. … And all of a sudden, right next to her head, my face pops up. And so, I sit up. Now, having been through the ringer, having been made fun of for my hair, having been the brunt of many late-night jokes at that time, I knew it wasn’t going to be something positive. But I had no idea exactly what it would be and how profound it would be.

“And so what [Fey] said was something to the effect of: ‘This week, former American Idol Justin was dropped from his record label, RCA.’ And then they flipped the picture and said, ‘And now he looks like this,’ and it was a picture of Art Garfunkel, another person who has big hair, but significantly older and grayer. And that was the joke,” Guarini continues. “And it would’ve been really funny — had I not found out, with however many other million people that were also watching SNL, that I had been dropped! That was the moment that I found out that I had been dropped from my record label.”
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“I just feel lucky that after 20 years I’m still able to be a part of wonderful projects like SuperKitties and play really fun characters like Cat Burglar,” Guarini, now age 44, asserts. “I’ve kept my eyes open, and I’m willing to just have fun and see what happens … As long as you stay in the game — which is one of the hardest things to do — you’re kind to people, and you do good work, it’ll always come back around.”
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Watch Justin Guarini’s full, extended Yahoo Entertainment interview, in which he talks about SuperKitties, his time on American Idol, playing Lil’ Sweet, his friendship with Kelly Clarkson, and what’s next for him.

Photo: Justin Guarini (by Christopher Boudewyns)

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