Stephen M. Silverman
May 26, 2004 10:00 PM

And the Idol title goes to … the feisty, masterful Fantasia Barrino, who promptly broke into tears on Wednesday night’s live finale of the third season of FOX’s American Idol.

“Thank you so much – I broke my shoe,” said Fantasia, wiping her eyes. “You know what, I’ve been through some things, but I’ve worked hard to get where I’m at. Thank you all so much, man.”

Her rival, Diana DeGarmo, said a simple, “Thank you very much.” To her fans, she repeated, “Thank you so much.” Diana credited her fans for helping her “grow as a person.” She called Fantasia “my girl.”

Then Diana’s girl sang her new song, “I Believe.”

After hopping around backstage making small talk with the contestants and the judges to pad out the first half of the two-hour live finale, Idol host Ryan Seacrest made the eagerly awaited announcement at 9:54 p.m. ET (6:54 p.m. local L.A. time). Earlier, he announced that a record number of votes had been called in to make the selection: 65 million.

Immediately preceding the big announcement, the two rivals embraced, and Fantasia’s necklace broke. As Seacrest recapped the judges’ past comments about them, the two clutched one another, with Diana coming up to Fantasia’s ear.

But she never did quite measure up to the single mother from North Carolina.

Fantasia, 19, had been applauded for her strong voice practically every step of the competition, though twice this season she was nearly voted off while up against singers with weaker lungs.

Schoolgirl Diana, at 16, was the youngest contestant to reach an Idol final round in any of the more than 20 countries worldwide to have adopted the popular format.

Both women started out among 70,000 hopefuls who auditioned for the show in cities across the United States last summer. Judge Paula Abdul said this third season of Idol had offered more surprises than any other, and had the “most emotional ups and downs.”

Judge Randy Jackson said Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre was the only place in the world to be Wednesday night, while judge Simon Cowell congratulated himself for having accurately predicted at the outset that the contest would ultimately winnow itself down to two women pitted against one another.

In anticipation of heavy viewer interest, Idol producers on Tuesday night extended telephone voting to four hours (rather than the usual two) and added supplemental phone numbers to counter the logjams and busy signals that have frustrated callers and provoked newspaper editorial and computer chatroom complaints.

The issues over the voting procedures became especially heated in recent weeks, when the ousters of popular contestants Jennifer Hudson and La Toya London were highly criticized.

As for whether it really matters who wins, last season’s runner-up, Clay Aiken, has seemingly not emerged as any type of underdog.

Since his debut album, Measure of a Man, was released in October, Aiken has sold 2.5 million copies – compared to the 1.7 million copies of winner Ruben Studdard’s Soulful, according to the latest count from Nielsen SoundScan.

Aiken was also highly visible during Wednesday’s finale, hosting a celebration for thousands of screaming fans of Fantasia’s at the Greensboro Coliseum, near her hometown of High Point, N.C.

Studdard was seen only briefly on the show, joining first season winner Kelly Clarkson along with Fantasia and Diana as they all sang “The Impossible Dream.” (The runner-up to Clarkson, Justin Guarini, who reportedly was dropped by RCA Records and his management company, was not even mentioned Wednesday night.) Studdard later sang one other number, his latest, “What If?”

Past contestant Kimberly Caldwell emceed festivities at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, where pink-clad supporters – including Gov. Sonny Purdue – gathered for Diana of Snellville.

Another former player, Christina Christian, covered red-carpet arrivals in Hollywood, including those of Nicole Richie (The Simple Life star said she TiVos Idol), and Ray Romano and Sharon Osbourne, both of whom said they favored Fantasia.

Jennifer Love Hewitt introduced the show’s opening number, “If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” performed by La Toya London in the sun-drenched Babylon Court outside the Kodak.

This summer will see the live Idol tour, with 52 dates already scheduled, Seacrest said.

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