Ruben Studdard outsang Clay Aiken to become the new "American Idol."
The cuddly mountain of soul aced out his lanky, spikey-haired rival for the title in viewer voting. The results were announced during Wednesday's conclusion of the wildly popular Fox amateur hour.
"I feel great, man! Thank y'all!" said Studdard, 24, of Birmingham, Ala. Then, filled with emotion, he sang a song of gratitude, "Flying Without Wings," as the crowd roared "RUU-ben, RUU-ben!"
As expected with the two highly appealing performers, the margin dividing them was slim. Of 24 million phoned-in votes, 50.28 percent were for Ruben, putting him 130,000 votes ahead of Clay.
Clay, the 24-year-old runner-up from Raleigh, N.C., was gracious in defeat, calling Ruben "one of the most talented people I know, one of the best friends I have. I'm so proud of him!"
Airing live from Los Angeles' Universal Amphitheater, the finale had more filler than a Spice Girls CD. With musical performances but also shtick, recaps and promos, Fox stretched the show into a two-hour marathon, divulging the winner just 10 minutes before the signoff.
"I'm just happy to be at the end of the show," Studdard told reporters backstage after the broadcast. "It was really long."
"This is wonderful, man," 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."
Studdard exchanged a high-five with Aiken, who, playing up his own lighter weight, replied, "Owww!"
Then he reiterated his satisfaction at coming in second.
"I didn't get cut tonight — I just didn't win," Aiken reasoned. "So I don't have to go home earlier than anyone else."
"I wish he could have won," said his grandmother, Amaryllis McGhee, "but then again, he said that he said that he would love it being he got so far if he could come in second, and he did that."
Both singers said they were eager for some rest after the hectic "American Idol" production schedule. But none seems forthcoming: They both head into the recording studio, with a single from each planned for simultaneous release in two weeks, according to Simon Fuller, head of 19 Recordings Limited and "American Idol" creator.
On Tuesday's broadcast, both stars-in-the-making had claimed they felt sanguine as they looked ahead to the outcome of the contest, saying it was in God's hands.
But more directly, it depended on the button-punching fingers of viewers, whose final phoned-in votes were cast after Tuesday's set of songs (among them: "Imagine" by Ruben; "Bridge Over Troubled Water" by Clay).
It all started with 70,000 auditions nationwide. Then in January, this second edition of "Idol" began, proving last summer's initial phenomenon was no fluke. For the current season, the Tuesday and Wednesday broadcasts are ranked fifth and seventh, respectively, in total viewers.
Not only did viewers love seeing performers chase their dreams — they also savored watching those dreams dashed on live TV by an occasional put-down from the judges, who included Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson and the sharp-tongued Simon Cowell (with zingers on the order of "Go back to your vocal coach and demand a refund").
The smash run of the first "Idol" led to the coronation in September of Kelly Clarkson, a 20-year-old Texan who was signed by RCA Records and saw her album, "Thankful," debut at No. 1 last month.
Both Studdard and Aiken can expect no less, thanks to the showcase "Idol" has given them.
"There's stars out there who would die to have this much exposure," Aiken told The Associated Press recently, declaring he had already reached his goal: to be among the final three (which also includes 25-year-old Kimberly Locke of Nashville, Tenn., voted off last week).
"Everybody in this competition is a winner," Studdard said.
And there are more competitions ahead: "American Juniors," which will spotlight talented children, premieres on Fox this fall. Then "American Idol," season three, begins in January.