Kelly Clarkson, the 20-year-old waitress from Texas, was chosen "American Idol" Wednesday night - the culmination of the TV talent show that became the summer's biggest new hit.
With a big, soulful voice and a girl-next-door personality, she beat mop-haired runner-up Justin Guarini 58 percent to 42 percent, it was announced at the end of the two-hour final telecast, which closed with Clarkson weeping through the single she'll be releasing Sept. 17, "A Moment Like This."
She had been the favorite going into the finale Wednesday at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, though she had been leading by wide margins in call-in polls by USA Today and E! online. She was the only one in the competition who never was named in the bottom three vote-getters for possible elimination.
And the three judges were united for Clarkson as well Wednesday, including the often-caustic Simon Cowell.
"I don't know what to say," Clarkson exclaimed after she won. "I was just thinking: how am I going to sing this next song while I'm crying?"
For Guarini's part, he thanked his family, fans and judges for carrying him so far in the competition. "I'm so blessed to be up here," he said. "I am so happy with tonight's decision. Nobody deserves it more than this woman right here."
The announcement came after 15 million phone calls Tuesday and a two-hour buildup on Wednesday.
"American Idol" was the No. 1 new show this summer among viewers 18-49 years old. With audiences of up to 15 million, it gave Fox its biggest hit in years and two slots in the overall weekly top 10.
With huge ratings that just kept growing, "American Idol" was the 2002 summer TV breakthrough the way "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" was in 1999, "Survivor" was in 2000 and "Fear Factor" was last summer.
Like those shows, "American Idol" will continue with a regular second run, while spawning copycats. CBS plans to re-launch "Star Search" and USA is developing a "Nashville Star" competition. Over its 13-week run, "American Idol" logged more than 100 million calls from fans voting for their favorites.
The major live musical moments Wednesday were well-rehearsed, long-running medleys of songs written decades before the contestants were born.
It served as a way to promote the upcoming "American Idol" concert tour featuring the final 10, which starts Oct. 8 in San Diego. Tickets go on sale Saturday for its closest stops, at the Worcester Centrum Oct. 28 and the Pepsi Arena in Albany Oct. 29. The 10 finalists also return to TV with a Fox special airing from Las Vegas Sept. 23.
It's all part of an "American Idol" commercial juggernaut that includes a current paperback book and upcoming video and DVDs culled from the show, due out Oct. 15 - the same date that "American Idol Greatest Hits," the CD featuring songs from the 10 finalists is released.
For Clarkson's part, she'll also reportedly sing at a Sept. 11 memorial concert at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington next week. Clarkson's win may have been foreshadowed a half-hour before the results were announced when she teamed up on "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" with Will Young, winner of the British "Pop Idol" show that inspired the American hit.
Cowell, who was also a judge in the British contest (and has signed on to judge in the sequel) also said that after the long American competition, "I have to begrudgingly admit the talent is better here."