Justin Guarini's smooth and soulful vocal styling gave him the edge to make it all the way to the finals during the first season of "American Idol" (Fox, 2002- ) and helped him carve out a successful career on Broadway. He was born Justin Eldrin Bell on Oct. 28, 1978 in Columbus, GA to Kathy Guarini, a former CNN anchor, and Eldrin Bell, a former Atlanta police chief. The future "Idol" star began singing at a young age; at four, he became a member of the Atlanta Boys Choir, which normally did not accept children under six. Growing up, he often performed for his large, blended family, which included 19 brothers and sisters. As a senior in high school, Guarini formed an a cappella group before graduation called The Midnight Voices to impress girls, but the group ended up recording an album and placing second at a regional music competition. Determined to elevate his talent, Guarini attended the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, PA and the School for Film & Television in New York City. After his theater training, he received an offer to join the renowned master class program in the award-winning Broadway musical "The Lion King" (1997); however, he declined the role when he earned a spot as a finalist on the first season of "American Idol" in 2002.
During the competition, the curly-haired crooner easily impressed judges and audiences with his smooth and soulful renditions of Stevie Wonder's Motown classic "For Once in My Life" (1968), Nat King Cole's R&B hit "(Get Your Kicks On) Route 66" (1946), and Al Green's "Let's Stay Together" (1971). Yet, in spite of earning positive comments throughout the entire season, Guarini finished in second place, losing the title to Kelly Clarkson. In June 2003, he released his self-titled debut album, which earned mostly lukewarm reviews from critics and suffered from low sales. Coinciding with the release of his album was the critically panned film "From Justin to Kelly" (2003), where he starred opposite Clarkson in an ode to 1960s "Beach Blanket Bingo"-type films. Guarini's sophomore effort, Stranger Things Have Happened (2005), fared slightly better than his first album and featured his interpretations of jazz standards. While his recording career floundered, Guarini achieved more success as a stage performer, making his Broadway debut in the 2010 musical "Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown," based on the 1988 film of the same title by Pedro Almodóvar. In 2011, he nabbed a lead role in the Broadway production of "American Idiot," based on the 2004 concept album of the same name by the punk rock group, Green Day. Guarini played Will, the slacker best friend of a disaffected youth (Davey Havok) who leaves suburbia to make his fortune in the city.