UNIVERSAL CITY, California — By a narrow margin of less than a third of a percent, voters crowned Ruben Studdard the second "American Idol" Wednesday in a competition that judge Randy Jackson jokingly referred to as "Luther Vandross vs. Barry Manilow."
The unlikely combo of velvet teddy bear Ruben and, as one fan at the finale put it, "the skinny white kid" Clay Aiken, provided an entertaining contest that, according to producers, resulted in a record 24 million votes after Tuesday's performances. (Click for pictures from the show's finale.)
"I just feel elated, man," Studdard said backstage after the show. "This is wonderful, man. I've dreamed of being in this place my whole life and I am finally here, and there is nothing better than being able to live out your dream."
Ruben, who proudly displayed his Birmingham, Alabama, roots with his various 205 jerseys, was an early favorite in the competition, winning over fans with his smooth voice, on songs ranging from Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are" to Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama," and his laid-back charm.
"[Relaxed] is the only way to live, man," Studdard said, adding that he has no worries about staying grounded despite winning the biggest singing competition in the world. "I'm going to be Ruben, y'all. ... If you stress out, it's not good."
Kelly Clarkson's "American Idol" crown was passed to Ruben, but if the fame that has followed last year's runner-up, Justin Guarini, is any indication, life is looking good for Aiken all the same. In fact, before the winner was announced, legendary record executive Clive Davis announced both finalists were already recording for his label.
"They both are going to be successful," judge Randy Jackson said before the show. "I don't think they will have a problem at all."
"That's the beauty of the show — it's designed as a win-win situation," added Tamyra Gray, a finalist from last year who is recording her major-label debut (see " 'American Idol' Finalist Tamyra Gray Gets Recording Deal"). "Nobody fails. And as long as you keep your options open, anything can happen. There's a world of work, so you are bound to get something, even if you don't get the actual 'American Idol' [crown]."
Studdard worked with R&B hitmaker Babyface on his first single, "Flying Without Wings," due June 3 and featuring as a B-side the Carpenters' "Superstar." Aiken, meanwhile, will release the ballad "This Is the Night," which he performed Tuesday, along with Jeffrey Osborne's "On the Wings of Love" on June 10.
"This show is very powerful," Aiken said. "It opens doors for a lot of people who are on the show. Top two, top five, top 10, whatever, doors are open for me I will be excited to explore. So we will see what happens."
Whatever Aiken does, he will have at least two strong supporters at his side.
"That's my dog, man," Studdard said. "He's going to be a big star, man. Y'all watch and see."
"Dude, Barry Manilow is hugely successful, yo," Jackson added. "He could do whatever he wants. He is talented."
"American Idol" fans can see Studdard, Aiken and other finalists on tour this summer, beginning June 8 in St. Paul, Minnesota (see "After 'Idol,' Clay And Ruben Will Share A Stage 39 More Times").