LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Seventeen-year-old Jordin Sparks won the 2007 “American Idol” television singing contest on Wednesday, beating an older, more offbeat male rival to become the youngest ever winner of the coveted title.
Sparks, who captured the hearts of viewers of the most popular U.S. TV show with her bubbly personality and big voice, beat 25-year-old Blake Lewis in a contest that was decided by a telephone vote in which a record 74 million votes were cast.
The two finalists embraced after host Ryan Seacrest announced the result with Sparks, dressed in a long, flowing gold gown, having difficulty catching her breath.
“Thank you so much for everything — Mom and Dad, I love you!” said the emotional teenager, who along with the “American Idol” title will receive a recording contract.
In its sixth season, “American Idol” has grown from a cheesy summer talent competition into a cultural phenomenon that draws about 30 million viewers twice a week to News Corp.’s Fox network.
About 100,000 people auditioned for this year’s show, which puts contestants through auditions and performances that showcase musical genres ranging from country to hard rock. In its first five seasons, “Idol” has produced a list of successful stars from both its winners and losers.
On Wednesday night’s show at Hollywood’s Kodak Theater, four of the show’s five previous winners — Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Ruben Studdard and Taylor Hicks — performed a medley of Beatles tunes with the show’s top 12 finalists.
Backstage, Sparks could barely contain her excitement at joining the ranks of previous “Idol” winners.
“It just turned out pretty cool, I guess,” she said, giggling and brushing back her long dark hair.
In addition to transforming nobodies into stars, “Idol” has become a coveted forum for established artists to be seen. Wednesday’s star-studded event included performances by Gwen Stefani, Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight and Green Day.
Sparks, who is from Glendale, Arizona, and is the daughter of former National Football League player Phillippi Sparks, started singing as a toddler and auditioned for “American Idol” as soon as she could after becoming eligible at the age of 16.
“She sings so good it’s hard to believe that she’s 17,” music legend Robinson told reporters after the show. “To sing like that you would have to have lived for a long time.”
Heading into the competition’s final week, many thought the show’s top title was up for grabs, with “Idol” judge Simon Cowell saying viewers would have to decide between the better singer, Sparks, and the better entertainer, Lewis.
Throughout the season, Lewis, a Bothell, Washington, native, delivered energetic performances in which he put an original twist on classic songs using a vocal percussion technique known as beat-boxing.
Following Tuesday’s final performances, however, all eyes were on Sparks. At the end of that show, Cowell told Sparks that she had “wiped the floor” with Lewis and both he and fellow judge Randy Jackson on Wednesday’s show predicted she would win.
After the show, Lewis told reporters backstage that he had pegged Sparks as the next “American Idol” weeks ago.
“I feel great,” he said. “I was trying to wear a ‘Vote For Jordin Sparks’ T-shirt last night but they wouldn’t let me.”