Mathieu Young/FOX
August 07, 2009 12:00 AM

With a record-breaking 21.6 million votes cast for the finalists, Jeanine Mason came out on top in what was the biggest finale for Fox’s summer hit So You Think You Can Dance.

In front of more than 3,000 screaming fans Thursday, the 18-year-old contemporary wonder from Miami, Fla., beat out one of the toughest, diverse and most talented final fours the show has ever seen (Brandon Bryant, Kayla Radomski and Evan Kasprzak), taking home the $250,000 in prize money, as well as a cover shot on Dance Spirit magazine.

“When host Cat Deeley said ‘Jeanine,’ it was the slowest pronunciation of my name I had ever heard,” Mason, who said she was still numb from head to toe, gushed to PEOPLE backstage after the show. “I am so beyond happy and I am ready to party right now!”

Admitting that if she had not made the cut at her Miami audition, she was ready to give up professional dance for good and try her hand at acting. “I will never ever regret that decision because it has brought me to a place I never thought I could be,” Mason said, adding. “I will never think about leaving dancing again.” Just a face in the top 20 crowd, Jeanine began to blossom in the final weeks of the show. But many, including the show’s producer, Nigel Lythgoe, were a little shocked, believing that powerhouse and current runner-up, Bryant, would end up the winner.

“I love surprises and I think it was a bit of a surprise tonight,” explained Lythgoe after the show at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, admitting, “I didn’t think she would be in the final, and when she got into the final, I thought she was outstanding. But I still thought Brandon would win in my heart of hearts, so when I got the result, I went ,’Yes!’ “

Added Lythgoe: “I think everyone was happy she won. I think she’s a great representative for this program and for dance in general.”

Mason says she plans to use some of the prize money to move to L.A. and attend UCLA. Plus, she joked that she “promised all the contestants I would buy them all Free City Sweatpants if I won.”

After some much-needed rest, in just a few weeks, she will join the rest of the top 10 on the nationwide SYTYCD tour, which kicks off in Manchester, N.H., on Sept.20.

“It has been more than you could ever imagine,” added a beaming Mason. “People don’t really realize how much work goes into it, but it is so worth it, so worth the support and the fans and the emails and everything. I’m just ready to go on tour and meet all those that inspired me that are the reason I’m standing here right now, and I’m going to try to give each of them a hug.”

–Jed DrebenMathieu Young/FOX

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