LOS ANGELES – Taylor Hicks, the mop-topped manic dancer who wooed TV audiences with his raw singing style and boisterous personality, was named the new “American Idol” on Wednesday in a pop star-filled finale that included Prince and Mary J. Blige.
Hicks, 29, of Birmingham, Ala., became the latest in a string of Southern and Midwestern contestants to win the Fox talent contest after collecting more viewer votes than runner-up Katharine McPhee, 22, of Los Angeles.
Hicks leaned over, overcome by host Ryan Seacrest’s announcement.
“Soul Patrol!” he shouted, acknowledging his avid fans by their nickname. “I’m living the American dream,” he added as he closed out the show with a performance of “Do I Make You Proud.”
It was Katharine vs. Taylor, McPheever vs. the Soul Patrol, with a recording contract and the fifth “Idol” title up for grabs.
More than 63 million votes were cast, “more than any president in the history of our country has received,” Seacrest said.
Fans picked the raw sound and footloose moves of Hicks, who made his mark on Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” on Tuesday’s show. The sultry McPhee’s well-trained voice was shown to perfection on the standard “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
Last season’s victor, Carrie Underwood of Checotah, Okla., opened the finale, joining Hicks and McPhee on “I Made it Through the Rain” and later soloing on “Don’t Forget to Remember Me.”
On Tuesday, Underwood won two trophies at the Academy of Country Music Awards, underscoring how much an “Idol” victory can mean. She was named top new female artist and won best single for “Jesus Take the Wheel.”
Other pairings of contestants and stars included Paris Bennett and Al Jarreau; McPhee and Meat Loaf; Chris Daughtry and Live; Elliott Yamin and Blige; Hicks and Toni Braxton, and the dozen finalists with Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick.
Prince was a surprise final performer, taking the stage for two songs, including “Satisfied” – and without an “Idol” contestant alongside.
Asked backstage if he had any advice for contestants, Meat Loaf replied: “If you want to do this, you’re gonna go up and down, and up and down, and people are going to love you and hate you … Just stick with it,” he said.
With two hours to fill the show also tossed in some comedy. Contestant Kellie Pickler was seen trying gourmet dining and dumping her escargot – snail – under her chair, while “Golden Idols” were awarded to also-rans who flopped in their auditions.
Second-season runner-up Clay Aiken, with a slick new look, performed a “duet” on “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” with his alter ego, a wannabe “American Idol” contestant who evoked the originally geeky Aiken.
Hicks and McPhee weren’t as odd a finals pairing as second-second finalists Ruben Studdard and Aiken, but close.
McPhee was the first Los Angeles native to make it big on “American Idol.” With a singer-vocal coach mom behind her and a starlet’s beauty, McPhee looked and sounded groomed for success.
Hicks, whose thatch of prematurely gray hair helped him stand out from the pack, had barely survived the first audition at which judge Simon Cowell warned he didn’t have a chance of advancing in the contest.
McPhee attended the prestigious Boston Conservatory for a semester; Hicks has been a fixture on honky-tonk stages. McPhee skillfully played to the cameras, all calculated seduction; Hicks stomped across the set, with Cowell once comparing him to a drunken dad at a wedding.
The finale closed out a relatively tame contest compared to seasons past, when jammed phone lines, technical glitches and annoyingly untalented singers drew complaints from fans. Last year, judge Paula Abdul denied an ex-competitor’s claims of an affair in 2003.
This season’s biggest jolt came when rocker Chris Daughtry of McLeansville, N.C., was voted out before the finale. Many observers had predicted he would win the contest after routinely drawing praise from the judges and online support.
Despite the lack of offstage drama, or because of it, this edition of “American Idol” was the most-watched yet. Compared to last year, the show was up 14 percent in total viewers with an average weekly audience of 30.3 million – impressive growth for an established program.
The Tuesday and Wednesday episodes routinely ranked as the top-rated TV shows, drawing 28 million or more viewers. The series also is seen via delayed broadcast or satellite delivery in more than 150 other countries.
Debaroti Dasgupta, 26, accompanied by her mother, flew in from Malaysia for the show after winning a radio competition in which she impersonated finalist Elliott Yamin.
“So my heart broke when he was out in the semifinals,” she said before the show Wednesday at the Kodak Theatre. “But I”m here supporting Taylor and I hope he wins tonight.”
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