Seventy thousand auditions, thirty-two finalists, eighteen weeks and 24 million votes later, Ruben Studdard, the twenty-five-year-old, 350-pound soulman from Birmingham, Alabama, has been christened an American Idol. In a close race that has prompted calls for further audits, Studdard beat out Clay Aiken, 24, by 130,000 votes on the show's May 21st finale.
Newly branded the Velvet Teddy Bear, Studdard's prize is a million-dollar recording contract courtesy of J Records, with the label's founder and president, legendary music mogul Clive Davis, on board to executive-produce the album. (Aiken was signed to a Davis-helmed label, RCA.) But the winner's fringe benefits extend far beyond a record deal -- screaming girls, celebrity endorsements (Kelly Rowland, Stevie Wonder and the Isley Brothers are just a few of Studdard's fans) and the marketing muscle of the Idol franchise practically guarantee immediate star status. Look no further than last season's winner, Kelly Clarkson, whose debut, Thankful, landed at Number One the week of its release and has been certified platinum.
"[Ruben] very well could be a major recording artist for some time," said Davis, who has guided career artists such as Whitney Houston, Santana and Luther Vandross, to whom Studdard is most often compared. Other major music players concur. "As a young Luther, he can fill a void in R&B that's not being serviced right now," says Stephen McVea, a business manager who has worked with Lenny Kravitz and Boyz II Men.
Studdard's first single, the Westlife song "Flying Without Wings," hits stores on June 10th (Aiken's single is released the same day), and the label hopes to have his album out by September. On July 8th, Studdard joins his fellow finalists on the thirty-nine-date American Idol tour, and there's also talk of movies. What else? "Merchandising," says McVea. "I'm shocked they haven't taken advantage of the Velvet Teddy Bear thing yet."