Before J. Lo, Mariah Carey and Ellen DeGeneres garnered all the attention as judges on American Idol, the name Justin Guarini was heavily associated with this generation’s most famous talent competition — after all, he was the runner-up to Kelly Clarkson for the very first season of the groundbreaking TV show way back in 2002.
These days, his career in theater has become more noteworthy; like other fellow American Idol alumni Fantasia Barrino (After Midnight), Constantine Maurolis (Rock of Ages) and Syesha Mercado (The Book of Mormon), Guarini has found great success on the Great White Way.
Guarini is one of the newest cast members of the Broadway blockbuster Wicked, taking on the role of Fiyero. But this isn’t Guarini’s first trip to the Broadway stage. He made his debut back in 2011 in American Idiot, followed quickly by a role in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Just last fall, he played Paris in the Orlando Bloom/Condola Rashad-headlined revival of Romeo and Juliet.
Below, the 35-year-old happily married father of three opens up about his key to longevity after Idol, his love for Oprah, the benefits of being biracial and how the stories of him being broke are greatly exaggerated.
1. I had to choose either the stage or Idol
I was at a crossroads in my life there in 2002. I had a choice to either go into the company of The Lion King or to do American Idol. I could’ve gone either way, but with the success I was having in L.A. I felt I should just keep going with that. And ten years later, I came full circle. The past four years have been steep with musical theater with doing that first Broadway show and really great regional shows, I feel really lucky.
2. My Wicked warm-up ritual is intense
Wicked is the first show in a long time where I really have to do a lot of singing and dancing at the same time. And while Fiyero only has one really big dance number, it did take me about two weeks to get used to doing it without being winded at the end. And I’m in good shape. I used to warm up my voice about an hour before the show and then do some stretching and that’s really about it. I think the first run and the last two weeks of rehearsal I ran on the treadmill a lot just to get used to the cardio. I would warm up my voice and run on the treadmill at the same time so that certainly helped. But nothing beats doing it full out in front of the audience.
3. I’m not broke
My money troubles were really sensationalized by the media [Guarini posted a personal blog in fall 2013 that mentioned skipping meals]. It’s not even remotely the truth. What I really wanted to get across is that I wasn’t facing poverty or even close to poverty, but that I was humbled by life now as opposed to what it was 10 years ago. Ten years ago I was a millionaire and I didn’t know what to do with it. And I thought that type of money was always going to be there for me. And here I am 10 years later still very well taken care of, but I have three kids. Ten years ago it was just me and I could spend the money however I wanted . The internet went crazy with the term “skip meals,” but that was taken out of context. It was “skip meals at really expensive places because I’d rather be spending that on my kids.” That’s the difference. But you know what, at the end of the day even though that was taken out of context, I loved it because it got me a great deal of exposure and I think it really helped people who did see that article.
4. I never watch Idol
I haven’t been able to watch American Idol because I’m mostly onstage when it happens. And then when I’m home I’m spending time with my family. But I really do love the fact that they’ve brought on somebody like Harry Connick, Jr., who is one of my idols. I think he is an absolutely invaluable asset to an already amazing brand. I am really proud of my Idol roots.
5. I still plan on making my own music
I really love soul and R&B and funk and I really kind of dug deep in the crate trying to find my signature sound and stop trying to copy folks. It’s been difficult because I’ve been so busy in the theater world fortunately. So it’s been hard really saying when the next album will come out. I just haven’t had the time to sit and say ‘Here we are 10 years later and what do I want to say and how do I want to say it?’
6. There is one celebrity that surprised me
I would say that I’ve been around a lot of celebrities, a lot of tastemakers, a lot of people in high caliber positions in the government as well as the entertainment all my life because that’s the family that I grew up in [Guarini’s mother is former CNN anchor Kathy Pepino Guarini]. So when I met Oprah, even having had that experience, it still was awe inspiring. But at the end of the day, Oprah treated me like a friend, who was very kind to me and was a normal down to earth person when we were talking even when the cameras weren’t rolling. It was just nice to get next to her and to see how wonderfully human she is for someone who has so much power to do so much good.
7. My background shaped who I am today
Growing up was crazy, but I just kind of got used to it and really it technically set me up for everything I did in my life. I was around the lights and cameras with my mother. I was around politics and the entertainment industry with my father [former Atlanta police chief Eldrin Bell]. And I love that I was born into two really strong and ancient cultures, African American and Italian. I get the benefits of that every single day in everything I do. I think it’s just a blessing.
8. I married my hometown sweetheart
I knew that she was going to be my wife when I went over to Afghanistan to entertain the troops. I was over there and had a lot of time to think and I just knew that she was the one that I was supposed to be with for the rest of my life. It wasn’t anything real deep, like we were in a warzone, but I really think just being there and being half a world away and missing her so much and just feeling what I felt for her just informed my decision. At the end of the day, it just told me everything I needed to know.
9. My favorite role is Dad
I really feel lucky that I get to have the career that I have along with the family that I have. My wife and I pride ourselves with being really present parents and there as much as we can be. Today, I took my son to the YMCA and went swimming. And this morning, I was playing with my one-year-old son on the floor. I’ve just been so lucky that I get to have that and get to have it in a really wonderful town in a place where I grew up and where my wife grew up and both sets of our parents live within a mile of one another. And then at night I get to have this amazing career in the pinnacle of American theater on stage. Ya know, it’s pretty awesome.
10. I’ll never stop trying
I’m still trying to make it as far as I’m concerned. I don’t know if I’ll ever rest and say ‘I made it.’ I’m just going to keep going and keep working and hoping that people still support me.