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Flying Without Wings

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Sitting beside Jay Leno less than 24 hours after winning FOX’s American Idol, Ruben Studdard can’t stop beaming with shy pride as the Tonight Show host runs through the nicknames that have been coined to describe the singer’s rich, mellow pipes: “Velvet Teddy Bear?” asks Leno. “Yeah,” Studdard answers, smiling. “Chocolate Marshmallow?” Ruben, still grinning, concedes that’s his personal favorite. But Leno has his own pick: “I gotta go,” he says, “for Sumo of Soul.”

A few days later the Sumo of Soul is slumped backstage at NBC’s Today show after singing “Flying Without Wings,” his first single, and two other ballads to a crowd of 1,500 fans who braved the morning rain in Manhattan. When a visitor asks, “How you doin’, Ruben?” his listless answer suggests one more nickname: “Tired, dawg.”

There’s still plenty of adrenaline-fueled elation to go around for Studdard, 24, the second-ever American Idol champ. Just ask the women outside Today. “His voice really hits your heart,” says Kapiolani Laronal, 23, from Seattle. “His whole face is warming.” Or call his folks back in Birmingham. His grandmother Hattie Williams, 68,-was so thrilled at his win, “I hugged the TV.” Says his mother, Emily Studdard, 49, a teacher: “It’s not often that we get to see our children reach their dreams. It’s just a blessing.” With Ruben, though, it’s hard to say whether it’s all still sinking in or just sunk right through. “It’s wonderful, but as far as the absolute feeling of it…I don’t have an answer, because I haven’t had a chance to just breathe,” he says. “Being in the machine we call American Idol, we’re always working.”

The foreman’s whistle isn’t going to blow for lunch any time soon, either. Studdard spends his days wading through a barrage of TV interviews and an ever-surging tide of fans who have no trouble picking an oversize 6’4″ TV star out from a crowd. (He and Clay Aiken, 24, the runner-up from Raleigh, N.C., got an ovation at Rent, the Broadway play they attended May 24.) The Velvet Teddy Bear naturally seems to invite hugs—bear hugs. Once, “this lady jumped on me, and the guards had to pull her off. She would not let me go, dawg.” Ruben has some serious wheeling and dealing ahead too: His first album is being produced by fabled R&B impresario Clive Davis, the man behind Whitney Houston and Alicia Keys. There’ll be an Idol tour in a few months. And, according to Aiken, “Ruben and I will possibly do a movie”—as did the first season’s top two, Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini. For a man whom the often catty Simon Cowell describes as “quite innocent,” flying without wings means charting a very challenging course.

And it’s not as if he could just chuck it all and return to Birmingham. “We wouldn’t get no rest,” says his brother Kevin Studdard, 29. The place is rabid for Ruben: The Idol finale sucked in 71 percent of the local audience, and the mayor and city council are planning a bash in the convention center. The banks that lent him money to attend Alabama A&M University for 3 1/2 years are eager to talk with him too. “They’ve been seeing me on TV,” says Studdard, who took home a million-dollar recording contract, “so they’re expecting payment.”

Things have been just as dizzying for his runner-up, who a few months ago was a special-education major (with nerdy hair) at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “I’m on a new fork in the road,” says Aiken. “But this road hasn’t even been built yet.” Now, says his proud mom, decorator Faye Parker, 57, “he belongs to the world.”

For the moment. But what are the longterm odds for winners of reality-show pop contests? “That’s like asking me to predict the weather in six months’ time,” says Cowell. But Studdard, who at the very least stands to earn millions as the reigning Idol, has a sound that transcends trends: “He’s making music romantic again,” says Cowell. “Barry White was the same.” Though orders for his upcoming single are far outstripped by Aiken’s, which will be “Bridge over Troubled Water,” Studdard says there’s no rivalry. Indeed, on the summer tour, the pair, along with other finalists, will “be going everywhere,” he says. “But,” he adds, sounding a little disappointed, “I’ll be seeing it from inside a bus.”

Tom Gliatto

Cynthia Wang, Monica Rizzo, Pamela Warrick and Alexis Chiu in Los Angeles, Linda Trischitta and Don Sider in Miami, Mark Dagostino and Caroline Howard in New York City and John Slania in Chicago