Ruben Studdard, the 24-year-old Birmingham, Ala., native with the deep, silky voice, was crowned the new American Idol Wednesday night at Los Angeles' Universal Amphitheater, eking by rival Clay Aiken by a very slim margin.
Studdard and Aiken rose from the ashes of some 70,000 auditions nationwide at the beginning of the season. The field was then narrowed to 12 finalists--of which Aiken was actually a wild card, not an audience vote--until there were two. The nearly 24 million telephone votes cast Tuesday evening reflected the final contestants' popularity, which has been split almost evenly throughout most the season. Studdard bested Aiken by only 130,000 votes.
Studdard's win was announced in the last 10 minutes of the show's two-hour, drawn-out finale, which featured performances, recaps and promos. After the announcement was made, an emotional Studdard performed his song, "Flying Without Wings," while the crowd chanted his name.
While Studdard's victory assures him a recording contract deal with J Records, Aiken's popularity also resulted in a recording contract and agent representation. According to The Associated Press, both singers are headed into the recording studio to record singles for simultaneous release in two weeks. Studdard plans to sing a duet with Tamyra Gray, a finalist from last season, and Aiken will also likely team up. They each have albums aimed for a December bow as well.
Kelly Clarkson, who won the first American Idol series, saw her debut album Thankful shoot to the top of the Billboard charts in April.
"I'm just happy to be at the end of the show," Studdard told reporters backstage after the show. "It was really long.
"I am just elated," he added. "I've dreamed of being in this place my whole life and I'm finally here. I'm finally living out my dream."
Runner-up Aiken took his defeat in stride. "I didn't get cut tonight," the 24-year-old student form Raleigh, N.C., said. "I just didn't win. So I don't have to go home earlier than anyone else."
British judge Simon Cowell noted both Studdard and Aiken are destined for fame. "It was image over talent," he said. "Talent won."
American Idol 2 was a bigger hit than last year's show, drawing audiences of around 20 million viewers per episode. According to show organizers, a total of about 250 million votes were received over the past four months--double that of last year.
An estimated 33.7 million people watched the final American Idol competition Wednesday night, with viewership climbing to just under 40 million for last half hour when the winner was announced, the AP reports.
The Academy Awards telecast in March--traditionally the most-watched entertainment event of the year-- drew 33.1 million people by comparison, according to Nielsen Media Research.