“All the fans out there, thank y’all for voting for us,” said the boyish 21-year-old from the southeastern US state of Georgia before host Ryan Seacrest announced the result at the end of a two-hour gala season finale.
Runner-up was Jessica Sanchez, 16, a southern Californian of Filipino and Latino heritage whose prospects, critics say, dimmed with a less-than-impressive performance during Tuesday’s pre-vote sing-off.
The show ended with Phillips playing his country-inflicted first single “Home,” but — clearly overcome with emotion — he broke off before the end to hug his family amid a blizzard of confetti.
Though its ratings have waned over the years, notably since the departure of acerbic British music mogul Simon Cowell from the panel of judges, “American Idol” remains one of the most-watched shows of any genre on US television.
Its impact on popular music was reaffirmed this month with past contestants Adam Lambert and Carrie Underwood both taking turns at the top of the pop charts.
For the season finale, Phillips and Sanchez shared the stage at the Nokia Theatre in Los Angeles with a galaxy of stars from Neil Diamond to Rihanna, as well as other top 12 season contestants with whom they will now embark on a national tour.
Two of the judges, Jennifer Lopez and Steve Tyler, also performed, the latter with his band Aerosmith.
Easily the most surprising moment came when Seacrest invited former Idol contestants Ace Young and Diana DeGarmo — now an item — on stage, whereupon Young asked DeGarmo to marry him. Cheers filled the venue when she tearfully replied yes.