It was a battle between the geeky boy and the giant teddy bear — and the bear won.
Ruben Studdard, 25, the soulful singing sensation from Birmingham, Ala., emerged victorious from the second season of FOX’s hit talent search “American Idol” Wednesday night, beating out Clay Aiken, the skinny, power-lunged 24-year-old from Raleigh, N.C., by a margin of just 1,335 votes.
As his name was announced at the end of the two-hour finale, a stunned, teary-eyed Studdard stared out into the crowd at the Universal Amphitheater in Los Angeles as fans chanted, “Ruuuben!”
“I feel great,” he said. “Thanks y’all. I love y’all so much.”
As he regained his composure, he then broke into an encore rendition of “Flying Without Wings” (which, of course, will be released as a single starting Thursday).
Studdard was widely considered the man to beat through most of the season, but Aiken’s soaring final performance of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” Tuesday night was thought to have swayed some fans in his favor.
Host Ryan Seacrest said some 24 million call-in votes were tallied in the final decision.
“Talent won, America got it right. They both won,” judge Simon Cowell said before the winner was named. He added that both finalists will be in record stores shortly. “We’re going to put their records out the same week,” he said.
All told, Studdard’s victory capped a two-hour finale that was primarily filler. Prior to the announcement, Aiken and Studdard faced off in another round of songs, and then teamed up for a duet of the ’70s hit “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now.”
The rest of the season’s finalists also reunited and — in a prelude to their upcoming tour together — broke into a medley from past episodes.
As for the first hour, Seacrest padded the proceedings by going via satellite to live parties in Clay and Ruben’s respective hometowns and presenting musical montages featuring this season’s worst singers.
First-season “American Idol” winner Kelly Clarkson also returned to the show (again) and was given enough time to stage her own mini-concert — belting out tracks like her single, “Miss Independent.”
Another guest appearance came from RCA Records honcho Clive Davis, who told the crowd he has already begun recording tracks with both Clay and Ruben. He also presented Clarkson with a platinum record, for her 1.3 million in sales of her debut album, “Thankful.”
Meanwhile, FOX is aiming to keep “Idol” mania going over the next year. A children’s version of the talent search, “American Juniors,” will premiere this fall, and season three of “American Idol” starts in January.