A May 27 Style article incorrectly said that "American Idol" winner Fantasia Barrino is from Raleigh, N.C. She is from High Point, N.C. (Published 5/28/04)
Last night, at 9:54, after nearly two hours and an interminable number of commercials, hideous group medleys and faux celebs on the red carpet, the "American Idol" finale finally gave viewers what they were looking for: a big ol' diva win with a big ol' diva moment. The overjoyed winner, tears streaming through false eyelashes, clutched the unhappy-but-faking-it loser in a passionate headlock, too elated or surprised to realize that maybe, just maybe, she should, um, let go.
"Thank you so much!" Fantasia Barrino sobbed when she finally set runner-up Diana DeGarmo free. "I broke my shoe!!"
Her necklace, too. But we assume she'll be able to afford replacements real soon.
"I always say I've been through some things but I worked hard to get where I'm at," cried the 19-year-old single mother from Raleigh, N.C., who'll take home a recording contract along with the title. "Thank you, God, so much. Man, I'm a crybaby!"
She was indeed, but then so was Diana. After a record 65 million votes were tallied, the 16-year-old from Snellville, Ga., narrowly lost the drawn-out battle of the divas that in recent weeks had viewers fuming over perceived voter fraud conspiracies and Elton John declaring that the show was racist when two terribly talented African American singers were booted.
But last night there was none of that. Judges Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul remained standing but silent, probably worn out from the marathon contest that began with 70,000 hopefuls and ended up with one winner. Paula clasped her arms, the better to squeeze more cleavage out of her plunging gown. In Paula's world, everybody's a winner!
And then Fantasia started singing "I Believe," the Tamyra Gray-penned "American Idol" single destined to be overplayed soon at a radio station near you. "I can see it in the stars across the sky, I've waited all my life for this moment to arrive," she wailed.
And we didn't even mind when she dropped to her knees and choked up, rasping, "Finally, I believe." The thought "over the top" barely flitted past.
If only the rest of the show were so dramatic.
There were pronouncements that big celebrities like Denzel Washington would show up. Instead, we got Nicole Richie and Ray Romano.
To keep the show going for two excruciating hours, there was filler on top of filler, including a regrettable group medley with the 12 finalists singing an unlikely blend of songs from "It Don't Mean a Thing (if It Ain't Got That Swing)" to Ashford and Simpson's "Solid (as a Rock)." Some even sang on key as Simon sat there grimacing. Or maybe he was smiling.
One irrational moment of hope occurred at 8:47 or so, when host Ryan Seacrest stood onstage with the two finalists and announced that soon, very soon, we'd know who the new American Idol was. But first, some "hilarious" behind-the-scenes moments like the time the makeup artist was sent to powder Barry Manilow's nose and didn't know who the singer was.
Diana sang "I Believe" one more time, acquitting herself well and ending up in tears. Fantasia sang "Dreams." She can sing like nobody's business, but this wasn't her best effort, and from her downcast look, she knew it.
Then they came back for a dueling duet, trying to out-sing each other.
Earlier in the show the first American Idol, Kelly Clarkson, sang the newest single from her double-platinum CD, "Beautiful Disaster." The next Idol, Ruben Studdard, baseball hat cocked to one side, crooned to a lady love:
What if I couldn't sing and I didn't win?
What if I had to use the pay phone?
Would you still want to put it on?
Ruben, we hate to say it, but we're betting the answer to that question would be . . . no.
What does an American Idol get?
"Everything they've ever wanted," Simon said. "Fame, stardom, a ton of money. It's what it's all about. The competition has proven this is the best talent show on earth."
And Paula said, "Your dysfunctional family will always be thinking of you."
This is the phenomenon that's spawned at least one rather unlikely career, that of William "She Bangs" Hung, bucktoothed, rhythmically impaired, preternaturally tone deaf. He didn't make it past the first round of auditions but that didn't stop Hung from acquiring a record deal, a music video, a bit of an attitude problem and way more than his allotted 15 minutes in the spotlight.
That's because this is the show that proves that yes, Virginia, good things do happen to bad singers. Witness the nasty little fallout that happened when that red-haired guy, John Stevens, won out over the powerhouse lungs of Chicagoan Jennifer Hudson. That Stevens is white and can't really sing and Hudson is black and can escaped no one's notice, including Elton John's. The R-word (racism) and the C-word (conspiracy) were lobbed about on radio talk shows and Internet chat boards; many were convinced that a fix was in. (Was it a coincidence that there was a power outage in Chicago the night that Hudson lost, hmmmm?) And on the Tom Joyner radio show, after Jasmine Trias sang off-key and cried her way to safety over the more talented La Toya London, Joyner warned that if Jasmine won the next day, white folks should just stay home. He was kidding.
Those busy phone lines that kept viewers from casting their votes became a symbol of the nation's racial neuroses last season when Ruben, the singing teddy bear, became the Idol by a scant 1,335 votes over scrawny but cuddly Clay Aiken. Or was it 13,000 votes? Or 134,000? Whatever. They both got record deals. And now viewers can vote by text-messaging, just to make sure that sort of drama never happens again. Except that of course it did.
Such drama is part of the appeal of "American Idol." Why else watch it? For the peppy covers of Donna Summer disco tunes? No, you watch it to see Simon's eyes roll back into his head. To see contestants cry. To see them bring it. This is, after all, reality TV.