Ninety-five times out of a hundred, the answer to "where are they now?" questions about pop's one-hit wonders is: playing in a very small nightclub somewhere, or very quietly living off annuities. But some quickie stars take surprising career paths years after they've burned out as musicians. For this exercise in insatiably curious nostalgia, we looked up 10 quick flame-out hitmakers who rose to fame for a half-minute in the late '70s, '80s, or '90s...and we found realtors, teachers, visual artists, British reality-show stars (of course), and even a fitness guru. See how the years have treated these former chart-toppers, who, we hope, are giving thanks this holiday for their single shot, as well as for life after pop.
DEAD OR ALIVE'S PETE BURNS
Then: "You Spin Me Round (Like A Record)" hit No. 1 in a lot of countries in 1984, but fell just short of the top 10 in America, peaking at No. 11—though you'd never guess it wasn't a chart-topper here. Most notably, it formed the basis of Flo Rida's 2009 smash "Right Round," though it's gotten straight remakes by everyone from Jessica Simpson to the Chipmunks. The band had its final entry on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1989 but soldiered on through 2000.
Now: Plastic-surgery-excess example and activist! He's released two solo singles since the turn of the century, but lately he's been more famous for being famous…and for an altered appearance that rivals Jocelyn Wildenstein's for bizarreness. His notoriety in the U.K. was renewed in the 2000s when he appeared on British reality shows like Big Brother and Celebrity Wife Swap. In 2006, he was the subject of a special on English TV, Pete Burns's Cosmetic Surgery Nightmares. He won damages from a cosmetic surgeon who did his lips and left him "suicidal," yet he continues to advocate for plastic surgery, and last year told the Daily Mail: "It's something I'll always do. People redecorate their homes every few years and I see this as no different. Changing my face is like buying a new sofa…I don't feel like I'm addicted to surgery. I could leave it alone for long periods of time if I wanted."
Mike Edwards of Jesus JonesJESUS JONES'S MIKE EDWARDS
Then: "Right Here, Right Now" reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1990. (Oddly, it only made it to No. 32 in the band's native Britain, though they did have a No. 1 album at home.) Jesus Jones continued releasing albums on and off through 2004.
Now: Personal trainer! "I decided early on that being cardiovascularly fit would prevent me losing my voice onstage," the former lead singer told the Guardian in 2010. "As the band's career went down the tubes, I wondered what I'd ever do should Americans ever stop playing 'Right Here, Right Now,' and remembered Mick Jagger saying that apart from music he was unemployable. I came across an advert asking 'Have you ever fancied a career in fitness? and I did...I now run a personal training business with a couple of trainers under my wing. The band thought I was nuts, but I was always the least rock 'n' roll in the group." Nerves are not a problem for him in his adopted career. "When I was first qualifying [to be an instructor], the people around me were absolutely terrified, but after playing to 72,000 people at Wembley Stadium, doing exercises in front of 10 people was nothing."
Rex SmithREX SMITH
Then: Smith recorded six albums for Columbia in the late '70s and early '80s and became a teen idol in 1979 with "You Take My Breath Away." "That popped out when I was doing Grease [on Broadway]," he recalled. "They called me up to say I was selling 300,000 copies of the song a week. I went out around the world because of that, and then did Pirates Of Penzance onstage and on film. Then I did Solid Gold...which was a huge mistake career-wise. I was young and having fun...But it came at the expense of really losing momentum in terms of achieving some great roles." He did television with Street Hawk, and did further Broadway roles in the late '90s, releasing his latest album to date with 2000's Simply…Rex.
Now: Realtor! His website advertises that he's available for Pirates Of Penzance revivals, though he's been most visible with touring productions of Kiss Me Kate. But his day job has been as a real estate agent in Orange County, California. His website used to be split between his music/acting and realtor sides, but he's more recently scrubbed any sign of house-selling from the homepage.
Then: Nothing says "one-hit" quite like Rob Van Winkle's album discography. To The Extreme topped the sales chart in 1990 and was certified seven-times platinum. None of his subsequent albums even made the Billboard 200. He did at least have two top 10 singles, following up "Ice Ice Baby" with a remake of "Play That Funky Music," before disappearing off the radio for good. By the time his feature film Cool As Ice came out in late 1991, his career was living up to the movie's name.
Now: House-flipper! "I had a 'weekend' that lasted a few years," he admitted of his partying times in the '90s. Then he got addicted to…house-flipping. His home renovation show, The Vanilla Ice Project, about his flipping a 7,000-foot mansion in Palm Beach, did well enough on the DIY Network to warrant a second season. He even wrote a real estate self-help guide. "I can get these distressed homes, and get some really good deals, " he said, "then three or four months later [after renovating them], I can make money." And this is somebody who knows what can happen to a truly distressed property. This year, he told CNBC: "The short sales, the foreclosures are great, but tax auctions are even better. I just bought the Season 3 house on a tax auction. If no one's bidding against you…you can steal the homes for pennies on the dollar."
EMF'S JAMES ATKIN
Then: Atkin got as sick as anybody of "Unbelievable," which reached No. 1 on the Billboard chart in 1990. "I couldn't listen to it for quite a while…but now I quite enjoy it." EMF haven't released a new album since 1990 (their bassist, Zac Foley, died in 2002), though they've done periodic reunion gigs.
Now: School teacher! "Initially I intended to move to the countryside to retire," Atkin said, "but decided I wanted to keep making music." Which didn't mean he felt like getting back onstage. He started volunteering for a local school in the U.K. town of Keighley, and eventually took a full-time position teaching music.
98 Degrees' Justin Jeffre (Dave Allocca/Getty Images)98 DEGREES' JUSTIN JEFFRE
Then: It may be stretching to call this boy band one-hitters: They had four top 10 singles between 1997-2000, although only one, "Thank God I Found You," reached No. 1.
Now: Occupier! Jeffre was arrested for trespassing after participating in an Occupy Cincinnati protest last year. "I didn't feel like singing in there," Jeffrey told a Cincinnati paper after being sprung from jail, but he did say that some of his cellmates recognized him and "everyone was very nice…Nothing is more important that standing up for what you believe in." Jeffre blogs about political issues and ran for mayor of Cincinnati in 2005, though he garnered just 2 percent of the vote, even after a campaign appearance by Nick Lachey. "The local media chose to marginalize my campaign," he complained to MTV. Things are going better on the band reunion front, as the band did a gig on The Today Show in August, after being apart for a decade, and an album is being planned.
ELASTICA'S JUSTINE FRISCHMANN
Then: The band had to settle for success on alt-rock radio and press accolades in America. But in England, Elastica's self-titled debut on Geffen soared to No. 1 in 1995, and Frischmann became the pinup girl for a generation of indie-rock boys jealous of her long relationship with Blur's Damon Albarn. "Stutter" and "Connection" both made the top 10 on Billboard's modern rock chart. The band broke up after releasing a second album in 2000.
Now: Visual artist! She's long since settled down with her husband in San Francisco. "I don't write songs too much anymore," she said in 2010. "I help friends out with their songs and production...That's the only musical work I do. I'm not interested in writing for myself or performing anymore. I feel really satisfied by making visual work. It feels more natural to me." As for locale, ""I got very burnt out by London," she said, and in 2005 she enrolled at a liberal visual arts college in Boulder, Colorado, before settling in the Bay Area. In 2008, she married a UC Davis professor/scientist, leaving fans' fantasies of a male/female Britpop dynasty even further in the dust.
Rep, John Hall (D-New York)ORLEANS'S JOHN HALL
Then: Orleans had two top 10 singles in the mid-'70s, with "Dance With Me" and "Still The One"—which was much later used as a presidential campaign song by both George W. Bush and John McCain, much to the consternation of Hall, a liberal Democrat. He left Orleans in '77 for a solo career but reunited with the band in the '80s and beyond.
Now: Congressman! Or ex-congressman. New York elected him to the House of Representatives as a progressive Democrat in 2006 and again in 2008, though he lost his bid for a third term in 2010, which was not totally unexpected, given the historically Republican makeup of his district. In the final election, his GOP opponent, Nan Hayworth, created a spoof ad featuring a fictional organization called "Young Voters For An Orleans Reunion Tour."
Samantha FoxSAMANTHA FOX
Then: Prior to recording her debut single, "Touch Me (I Want Your Body)," in 1986, Fox was the London Sun newspaper's most popular "Page Three girl"—that is, topless model—for three years running. Her retirement from modeling coincided with her signing with Jive Records, which resulted in a first single that reached No. 4 in the States. Thus did the busty starlet become one of the very few pop stars ever to have a picture disc released with her semi-nude photo underneath the grooves. Though she's primarily remembered for "Touch Me," Fox did crack the American top 10 two more times in the late '80s, technically rendering her a three-hit wonder.
Now: Celebrity lesbian! (Or bisexual.) In 2003, while refusing to label herself as strictly gay, Fox acknowledged that she was deeply in love with her female manager—dashing a decade and a half of men's pinup fantasies. She and her manager/partner appeared on a show called Celebrity Wife Swap, making a trade with a heterosexual couple, in 2008; a year later, she parlayed her renewed notoriety into a slot on Britain's popular reality show I'm A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here.
Terry JacksTERRY JACKS
Then: He had joy, he had fun, he had seasons in the sun… and his musical season ended when he released his final album in 1987, 13 years after "Seasons In The Sun" was a No. 1 smash.
Now: Environmentalist! Jacks became more concerned about water pollution than chords, and embarked on drawing attention to the damage caused by paper mills in his native Canada. His Facebook page mentions that he wrote, produced, directed, and—of course—scored a 2000 environmental documentary, The Warmth Of Love: The Four Seasons Of Sophie Thomas.