HOLLYWOOD — Simon Cowell called Fantasia Barrino's final performance during Tuesday's "American Idol" competition her "acceptance speech," but it was her actual acceptance speech Wednesday that will forever be remembered.
After a long embrace with runner-up Diana DeGarmo, and with tears rushing down her face, the raspy 19-year-old singer looked at host Ryan Seacrest and declared, "I broke my shoe!''
"That's what's so great about her," Cowell said later Wednesday (May 27). "She's so normal. But let's be honest, she also has an astonishing voice."
Few will argue with that, as the High Point, North Carolina, native emerged from near elimination twice to become the clear favorite in the later weeks and heading into the finale. The judges all but crowned her Tuesday, with Cowell calling her the best singer of any "Idol" competition in any country.
Still, Seacrest said before Wednesday's two-hour extravaganza that the victor won by a margin of just over 1 percent. Producers said 65 million votes were cast — up from 24 million last season — after phone lines were kept open an additional two hours and extra numbers were added to counter logjams and busy signals that have called voting procedures into question (see "Through The Wires: A Look At The Mechanics Behind 'Idol' Voting").
By winning, Barrino earned a million-dollar record deal, which had the singer still in tears backstage a few hours later.
"I'm a single mom and I've always wanted to take care of my own child without having to borrow from people, and I don't have to do that anymore," Fantasia said, tissue in hand. "I came here to be an example for young moms, single moms, anyone who has a dream, and I made it."
Just after singing what will be her first single, "I Believe" (co-written by first-season finalist Tamyra Gray), to end the show, Fantasia was greeted by the original "American Idol," Kelly Clarkson.
"I was like, 'Why are you crying? You won,' " Clarkson, who had been moved to tears by both Fantasia and Diana's performances, recalled later. "Then I figured it out. It's so emotional. All the effort and drive she put into this and she got our dream."
Cowell, who called Fantasia his favorite after the final 12 were determined (see "Simon Cowell Picks Favorites As 'American Idol' Finals Begin"), got his dream as well.
"I was a little bit nervous turning up this evening. If Fantasia didn't win I didn't want to do all these interviews and pretend to be happy," the judge said. "So I'm genuinely happy.
"She had, funny enough, what La Toya didn't have," Cowell continued. "There was all this controversy when La Toya was kicked off, but the problem was she didn't wear her heart on her sleeve like Fantasia does. You just want to root for her 'cause it's all out there. There's no mask. And she's super talented and very versatile."
Fantasia, who hopes winning allows her to collaborate with her idol, Aretha Franklin, said her secret was simple.
"My thing was always to have a good time and go out and try to encourage somebody with my music," she said. "And I was always myself, and I'm just happy people like me for being me."
A release date has not been announced for "I Believe," but it should surface in the coming weeks, followed by an album in the fall.
When Fantasia's debut is released, she might have some competition.
"Fantasia, you'd better watch out, sista!" DeGarmo joked backstage. "I'm really looking forward to recording an album."
First, however, the bubbly 16-year-old from Snellville, Georgia, has other things to take care of.
"I have finals I'm doing this week," said the singer, who was required to meet with a tutor three hours a day throughout the competition. "Yesterday, before the show, I was typing up a paper. It's a little difficult, you know, Algebra 2, what's the quadratic function? It's like, 'I don't know!' "
Once DeGarmo's homework is finished, Clarkson is predicting Clay Aiken-like success for this season's number two. "She's only 16, so she's got time, not that she needs it," Kelly said, before pointing out what she considers both Barrino and DeGarmo's greatest strength.
"They're Southern," the former waitress from Burleson, Texas, added. "I guess we really get it in the South."