Season 1 ‘American Idol’ star Nikki McKibbin dead at 42

Lyndsey Parker
·Editor in Chief, Yahoo Music
·5 min read
Nikki McKibbin with Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini on 'American Idol' in 2002. (Photo: Kevin Winter/ImageDirect/FOX)
Nikki McKibbin with Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini on 'American Idol' in 2002. (Photo: Kevin Winter/ImageDirect/FOX)

Nikki McKibbin — the pink-haired rocker who made a big impression during American Idol’s inaugural 2002 season with her feisty Alannah Myles, Melissa Etheridge, Alanis Morissette, Bonnie Tyler, Stevie Nicks, and Janis Joplin covers, and eventually placed third behind Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini — has died. According to a personal Facebook post by her husband, Craig Sadler, McKibbin suffered a brain aneurysm on Wednesday, and was kept on life support until Saturday so that her organs could be recovered for donation. She was 42.

“The current COVID situation won't allow the huge service that [McKibbin] deserves, but I would like to offer you the opportunity to honor her. She will be taken to the OR at 3:00 am Central time to give her final gift that will save the lives of strangers,” Sadler wrote on Facebook. “You probably know she practically worshiped Stevie Nicks. Before they begin, they will play ‘Landslide’ for her one last time. If you are able, you can pause at 3:00 wherever you are and listen to it with her. She will know that you're sharing her farewell. She loved so many of you and I know you loved her too.”

Nikki McKibbin was born Sept. 28, 1978 in Grain Prairie, Texas, and she got her start on reality television in 2001 via the WB girl-group competition Popstars. But it was her participation in the first season of a singing competition that would become a bona fide pop-culture phenomenon, American Idol, that made her a star a year later (and arguably set the template for fuchsia-haired female Idol rockers for seasons to come). While McKibbin did not win Idol, she was offered a post-show contract with 19 Management and RCA Records; unfortunately, the Idol powers-that-be pushed her to record a country album, while McKibbin wanted to remain true to her rock roots, so the deal fell apart and no music was released. McKibbin’s only full-length album, Unleashed, eventually came out independently in 2007.

McKibbin’s next high-profile reality television appearance was on Season 2 of VH1’s Celebrity Rehab with Dr. Drew in 2008, on which she received help for her serious cocaine and alcohol addiction. On that show, she revealed that she had been sexually, physically, and emotionally abused as a child, and that her mother had died from addiction the previous year. After completing treatment, McKibbin appeared on VH1’s Celebrity Rehab spinoff Sober House, on which she sang her original song “Inconsolable.” The emotional performance, her first-ever performance while sober, was filmed on the first anniversary of her mother's death. McKibbin later appeared Celebrity Rehab Season 5 to celebrate three years of sobriety and perform for that season's cast. (At the time of her death, McKibbin had been sober for 12 years, since June 10, 2008.)

In another full-circle TV moment, McKibbin also later returned to Idol in 2014, when her son Tristan Langley, who was 15 at the time, auditioned for Season 13 and made it through to Hollywood. Langley’s audition aired 12 years after he had given his mother a rose on the Idol stage when he was just 4 years old.

McKibbin is the fourth American Idol finalist to die, following Michael Johns in 2014, Rickey Smith in 2016, and Leah LaBelle in 2018. McKibbin’s former Idol castmate Guarini broke the tragic news to the general public via Instagram on Saturday, also referencing Nicks: “Even in our 20’s when we were on American Idol together I could tell that she’d had a challenging life, and that not that many people had been kind to her along the way… but I’ll never forget the day that her idol, Stevie Nicks, sent her flowers with a card that said ‘You are the Gypsy that I was…’ Nikki was on cloud nine and the joy and excitement that radiated from her was infectious. After the kind of emotional beating she took at the hands of the masses, she deserved to feel good about herself, even for a little while. Rest well, ‘Gypsy’…and thank you for the laughter, merciless teasing, strength, vulnerability, love and friendship you showed me during our time together in the spotlight.”

Below are some social media tributes from McKibbin’s extended American Idol family:

Related: 'Idol' contestant Haley Smith dies in motorcycle crash at 26 (2019)

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