While her peers are just beginning to plan for their futures, 17-year-old Jordin Sparks has already begun living her future.
The youngest winner in the history of the popular talent show "American Idol" last May, Sparks grabbed the most votes, thanks to her smooth vocals, her sweet charm and youthful exuberance.
Now with her debut album set to be released Nov. 20 and its first single, "Tattoo," sitting at No. 18 after seven weeks on the Billboard charts, the buzz around Sparks has grown.
The singer not only belts out melodies on her self-titled album, she also co-wrote several songs on the record, including "Freeze" and two others that will be available on the album's digital deluxe version.
Her popularity has grown so strong that her hometown of Glendale, Ariz., has honored her with a special collectible postmark.
She says lessons learned from her former NFL football star father, Phillippi Sparks, and her mother, a real estate agent, have helped her cope with her celebrity status.
"My family was always very loving, very grounded," Sparks says on her Web site, www.jordinsparks.com. "My dad kept us calm no matter what was happening with his career, and my mom made me fiercely independent. She was big on teaching us responsibility and fending for ourselves. I think I understood early the importance of setting goals and being prepared to meet them."
Long-Term 'Idol' Success
But is Sparks poised to become another success story for the "Idol" franchise? Some fans of the show believe that fellow contestant Melinda Doolittle actually deserved to win the talent competition.
"I said Melinda should've won," judge Simon Cowell told "Good Morning America" last May after Sparks' win. "She tried the hardest, was consistently the best, and had the best voice."
Regardless of the dispute, the Fox franchise is a powerhouse for the featured singers, according to one professor.
"Clearly this 'American Idol' engine has proved to be a powerful one," said Syracuse University television and popular culture professor Robert Thompson. "Overall, the people who have won -- and I think that their success in recording -- shows this works really well."
Thompson said winners couldn't ask for a better platform from which to launch their careers than "Idol."
"The promotion for the American people happens before they even do the album," he said. "[But] just because you've been on 'American Idol' doesn't guarantee you'll go platinum. It certainly helps."
Two of the talent show's alums cleaned up at the American Music Awards Sunday night. Carrie Underwood, who was season four's winner, has become country music's undisputed princess. And rocker Chris Daughtry, who placed fourth during "Idol's" fifth season, and his bandmates collected trophies for favorite pop-rock album, breakthrough artist and adult contemporary artist.
"We're really seeing them penetrate every last nook and cranny of the musical establishment," said Ken Barnes, USA Today music editor.
Barnes said Daughtry's penetration of the rock genre was the final standout for the show.
"I think it's an established force. The number of successes has reached a point where everyone pays a lot of attention to it, even when they didn't before," Barnes said.
Even the show's losers can be big winners, as Daughtry's career has proved, .
"You've got people who didn't win winning Oscars," Thompson said, referring to former contestant Jennifer Hudson's Academy Award win for best supporting actress in "Dreamgirls" earlier this year.
Season two runner-up, Clay Aiken, eclipsed winner and velvet teddy bear Ruben Studdard in sales, fame and financial success following the show's conclusion.
Roadblocks for Sparks
At least one critic believes that long-term success may be difficult to attain for Sparks.
"I don't think people care that much about her record," said Dave Della Terza, creator the votefortheworst.com, which began during the show's third season and encouraged viewers to vote for the show's least talented singers. In the sixth season, the Web site gained popularity for its "Vote for Sanjaya" campaign.
Della Terza said that because the show focused more on celebrity guests during its sixth season, it didn't give viewers enough history or a reason to care about Sparks.
"She could be incredibly interesting or incredibly boring. We really don't know," Della Terza said. "People are fickle. They'll vote for you, but they won't buy your CD."
Some wondered whether a show that allowed the creative but vocally challenged Sanjaya Malakar to reach to reach the Top 7, while heavily favored vocal powerhouse Melinda Doolittle was knocked out of the final showdown, could maintain its relevance.
"But in the end, let's remember that Sanjaya didn't win," Thompson said. The trouble of attaining long-term success doesn't simply apply to Sparks and the other former reality television stars, he said.
"Look at the Top 10 on the charts for any year. Very few of them make it past five or 10 years," Thompson said. "It's show business. It's really hard to predict. It depends on the material she records, how her persona develops."
Out of the thousands that have competed for the "Idol" crown and the dozens who have gone on to release albums under the banner, the show has had only three major, mainstream successes -- Underwood, Daughtry and original winner Kelly Clarkson, who has seen her popularity flag of late.
The prospect is a sobering one for "Idol" hopefuls, who expect to ride the highly rated show to international superstardom and a lengthy career.
Season five winner Taylor Hicks, who had years of experience performing in bands, had disappointing album sales.
"The major failure for a winner would have to be Taylor Hicks," Barnes said. "His music doesn't fit into the heavily niche radio format. He was very stubborn about the record he wanted to do."
"It just wasn't a fit for contemporary radio," he added, saying Daughtry played it safe with his broad-appeal pop-rock recording. "It's a question of whether you follow your ideals or tailor you music to fit the market place," Barnes said.
Still, Della Terza believes the show can produce good and relevant music.
"I think great music can come from it, but I don't think the winners will ever produce great music," because they have to appeal to a broader market, he said. '"It does produce relevant music," he continued, citing artists like Daughtry, even if it's similar to other artists on the radio.
While the show's short-term affect is undeniable, its long-term influence remains debatable.
"It's not too young to say it's had an impact on television or the charts," Thompson said. "Whether these are going to be stars that we are listening to for generations from now is unknown."
For Sparks, the first step toward a decades-long career may begin with this album.
"Jordin's already got a really good radio presence. So her prospects are better and it's also a really good album," Barnes said. "They didn't try to make her a mature-beyond-her age diva."