The glamorous designer gown, the proudly bared arms, the Ryan Seacrest-dwarfing high heels—a few years ago, Jordin Sparks wouldn’t have been able to imagine any part of how she looked the moment she won American Idol. At 5’10” and size 12 by the time she was in junior high school, “I stood out everywhere,” she says, though she tried desperately not to: hunching over, wearing oversize clothing and searching in vain for her size at teen mall stores. Watching Idol’s early seasons at home in Glendale, Ariz., she envied the flirty styles the female contestants wore: “I was like, ‘I would love to look like that!'”
On May 23 she did—capturing the sixth-season Idol title in a strapless Badgley Mischka gown. For Sparks, 17, winning the majority of the 74 million votes cast meant more than fame and a guaranteed record deal—it meant a joyful exclamation point on her transformation from awkward teen to proud, curvy glamour girl. These days, “I’m really comfortable in my own skin,” she says with her signature wide smile. “I learned that I’m not ever going to be a size 2. I would look so weird as a size 2. Somebody would blow and I would fall right over. It just wouldn’t be healthy.”
No one was happier to see her triumph than her family. “It was huge to see her confidence level grow,” says her mom, Jodi, 37, a real estate agent (dad Phillippi, 38, is a former star cornerback for the New York Giants; brother P.J. is 15). One turning point: Just before auditioning for Idol, Jordin landed a modeling gig for plus-size teen clothing chain Torrid. “I think it really helped boost her self-esteem and made her realize she’s beautiful as she is,” says her grandmother Pam Weidmann. Idol cemented that confidence. Says her mom: “She’s standing taller now.”
For Jordin, however, standing tall hasn’t always felt like a good thing. As a young girl, being tall was “cool,” she says. “I could ride all the rides at the theme parks by the time I was in second grade!” But during her junior-high years, self-consciousness about her size took hold. “I’d look at my friends who were just naturally tiny, and maybe they weren’t even a size 2, but they were smaller than me and that was good enough. I was like, ‘Oh, why can’t I look like that?'” She couldn’t shop with her friends at trendy teen stores like Hot Topic. “They don’t have her size,” says Jodi, who went to women’s stores like Lane Bryant, shopped online and had clothes altered to fit her daughter.
Jordin gravitated to baggy clothes—and swore off heels. She says she tried dieting every now and then, but failed because, she says, giggling, “I like food too much to do it. I would try, like, ‘Hey I’m going to diet and I’ll be a size 8 by the end of the summer,’ but it never worked out.”
One day at their local mall, Jordin and Jodi came across the newly launched plus-size store Torrid. “It was like angels—’ahhhhhhhh!’—shining down on it because it’s sizes 12 and up. They have clothes for girls who aren’t an average size so they can totally feel cute and flirty and still keep up with the latest trends,” Jordin says, noting that being the store’s smallest size was “great for my self-esteem.”
So were her parents’ attitudes. “My mom and my dad always were saying, ‘You’re beautiful, Jordin,'” says the Idol winner, whose father is 5’11” (mom is 5’6″). “You could always find me during field trips—just look for the really tall girl with the curly hair,” she says. Bubbly, athletic and always, her mom says, “bouncing off the walls” with energy, she began singing along with her mother’s Kirk Franklin records at age 2 and would often sing to herself in class. In elementary school, a teacher placed her desk “between two filing cabinets because I couldn’t pay attention,” she recalls.
Music and acting became outlets for her energy, along with softball, basketball and her Barbie and American Girl doll collections. “She was a tomboy, but she was also really girly,” says her mom. As she began to dream of a career in showbiz—she appeared on America’s Most Talented Kid in 2004 and landed a gig as a backup vocalist for Christian singer Michael W. Smith in 2005—she worried more about her size standing in the way. Thinness “is surrounding you all the time in commercials, movies, the models that walk down the runway, the ads in magazines,” she says.
In 2006 Sparks entered and won Torrid’s Next Plus Size Model contest, appearing in an ad in Seventeen magazine. A few months later she nailed her Idol audition—a dream come true. “I watched the show from the time I was 12,” says Sparks, who counts Kelly Clarkson as her favorite past winner.
It didn’t take fans long to start rooting for the effervescent teen they affectionately dubbed “Sparkles”—or for Jordin’s self-confidence to soar. For the first time in her life, she embraced her right to bare arms. Before Idol, “I liked to wear sleeves because they would cover up my arms,” she says. When the show’s stylists made suggestions, “I’d go, ‘This dress is way too beautiful. If I add sleeves it will ruin it.’ So I just got over it.” Says her mom: “I’d say about 95 percent of the clothes she wore on Idol were sleeveless, and she looked fabulous!”
Not everybody felt the same way, which didn’t faze the positive-thinking Sparks. “We’re not supposed to read the blogs,” Sparks says, rolling her eyes. “There’s been stuff like ‘Jordin: not skinny like everybody else.’ I’m not surprised because I knew they would say something and at the same time I’m like, ‘Can’t you focus on anything else?'”
Few knew Sparks was also dealing with private pain. On Feb. 3, just two days before the Top 24 contestants headed to Hollywood, her childhood friend Courtney Sierzchula, 17, overdosed on OxyContin and alcohol at a party. Sparks and Sierzchula had known each other since preschool. During their early teens Courtney “took a path that led her down the wrong way,” says Sparks, who spoke at Sierzchula’s funeral about “the good times we had, like putting chips on our sandwiches and piercing our ears when we weren’t supposed to.” She dedicated her song “Reflection” on the Feb. 28 show to her brother, but “it was also to her,” Sparks says.
Her roommate Melinda Doolittle provided support. “She’s my baby girl—I was the oldest on the show, and she was the youngest,” says Doolittle, 29. “She’s one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever met. She’s nearly six feet tall and she’s perfect. Her style has been great from day one—she can carry off a dress or a pair of Converse.”
Sparks says she dropped a dress size during Idol (she’s a 12 now)—not on purpose. “We’re so busy all the time that you have a few seconds to eat a few bites.” She’s not on a diet—”I love steak. I love pasta. I love ice cream!” she says as she digs into the first of two crèmes brûlées after her PEOPLE photo shoot—but she is looking forward to getting back to her exercise routine of hiking in the mountains, spin classes and occasional weight training. She recently ran into boxer-turned-Dancing with the Stars-finalist Laila Ali in an elevator: “Oh my gosh! She looked amazing! She’s beautiful. I’d love to have muscles like that,” says Sparks.
Now that she’s an American Idol, Sparks knows all eyes are on her, including young female fans who look up to her as a role model. Sparks says she has learned to “like my curves” and wishes others would like theirs, too. “It makes me so sad. I wish they would put more real people out there because not everybody is [a size 2]. Hollywood needs to get over the stick figure.”