The girls still screamed every time former bar mitzvah singer Justin Guarini flashed his pearly whites, but it was soulful girl-next-door Kelly Clarkson who took home the title of "American Idol" Wednesday night.
Coming off her bravura performance on Tuesday, the 20-year-old Burleson, Texas, cocktail waitress brought down the house moments after being crowned the champion of the talent contest. "I can't believe it's happening to me," Clarkson sang, as fireworks rained down behind her during a performance of her soon-to-be-released first single, "A Moment Like This."
A choked-up Clarkson blew a line during her command performance (one of her first of the competition) and could hardly contain her emotion as she worked through the lyrics to the love song, which, for that moment, might as well have been her theme song. "I may be dreaming/ But until I awake/ Can we make this dream last forever," she sang.
Moments before, mop-topped Guarini flashed his signature perma-grin and hugged Clarkson as hosts Brian Dunkleman and Ryan Seacrest announced the results of Tuesday night's voting, which was not as close as many had predicted. The hosts said more than 15.5 million "Idol"-izers cast their votes, with 58 percent going to Clarkson and 42 to Guarini. Gracious in defeat, Guarini said, "No one deserves it more."
"How am I going to sing this next song while I'm crying?" Clarkson said after the announcement, which followed nearly two hours of audition clips, skits by the hosts, medleys of Motown and '60s songs by the show's 10 finalists and visits to Guarini and Clarkson's hometown high schools. Judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson — who took the back seat to the finalists during the series' final shows — each cast their vote for Clarkson before the results were read.
"I didn't actually hear them say I won," Clarkson said after her victory, according to a Reuters report. "Justin just hugged me."
Clarkson emerged victorious among the 10,000 entrants in the competition, which became one of the biggest television hits of the summer, with more than 100 million votes cast over its run, according to the hosts. The series reached its ratings peak during Tuesday's final showdown, with 18.2 million viewers; Wednesday's show will likely top that number.
Having won the coveted recording contract with RCA, Clarkson will release her as-yet-untitled debut album on November 26, which will include "A Moment Like This" and the other ballad she performed on Tuesday's show, "Before Your Love." Clarkson told the Associated Press that she plans to write and sing a song with Guarini for the album.
Clarkson won't miss the rest of her "Idol" gang for long. The top 10 qualifiers on the show — Clarkson, Guarini, Nikki McKibbin, Tamyra Gray (see "Ousted 'American Idol' Tamyra Gray Gets Another Shot"), RJ Helton, Christina Christian, Ryan Starr, A.J. Gil, Ejay Day and Jim Verraros — will hit the road on October 8 for a six-week U.S. tour that begins at Cox Arena in San Diego and winds down on November 20 at Key Arena in Seattle (see "'American Idol' Finalists Plan Arena Tour, Compilation Album"). The album featuring all 10 finalists will be released on October 1; a 64-page quickie book, "American Idol: The Search for a Superstar," by Marissa Walsh, has already hit shelves.
The top 30 contestants will also be brought together one more time on September 23 for a two-hour television special tentatively titled "American Idol in Las Vegas," which will feature performances from all the crooners, as well as Clarkson singing "A Moment Like This."