LOS ANGELES Kris Allen beamed with disbelief, shook his head as if to reject that this was really happening and struggled to find words.
The fact that he d just beaten rollicking vocal powerhouse Adam Lambert for the American Idol title wasn t going to sink in quickly for the unassuming underdog from Arkansas. The only downside to this stunning victory: He d have to sing No Boundaries one more time.
Adam deserves this. I m sorry, I don t even know what to feel right now. This is crazy, said the 23-year-old from Conway, Ark.
Allen s smooth vocals and boy-next-door image gave him the edge after nearly 100 million viewer votes were cast, turning the theatrical Lambert into the most unlikely of also-rans. When the season started, Allen seemed unsure he had a right to take center stage, let alone stand there and snatch victory from such a formidable rival.
During his Idol audition last summer, Allen, hands in his pockets and a newsboy cap pulled down around his eyes, was asked by the judges if he was the best singer around.
You know, there s probably people who are better than me, was Allen s response, offered in the quiet, low-key spirit he retained despite his growing profile.
Conversely, Lambert s commanding vocal range and stage presence and the judges lavish adoration at times turned Idol into The Adam Lambert Show, with the other contestants mere guests. But it turned out that Idol viewers could embrace a gifted performer like Lambert, one who sported black nail polish and bold self-assurance, only to a point.
Cowell tipped his hat to both contestants Wednesday night, who shared a moment of musical camaraderie when they joined with Queen on the rock anthem We Are the Champions.
To both of you, and I don t normally mean this, I thought you were both brilliant ... the future s all yours, the judge said.
Adam did win. So did Kris. Nobody lost tonight. These are two champions, said Kiss guitarist Paul Stanley from backstage.
The comments from Cowell and Stanley aren t necessarily empty platitudes. Past contestants can testify that losing the title doesn t mean you re a loser, nor does winning mean you re a shoo-in for superstardom.
Chris Daughtry and Jennifer Hudson, who finished fourth and seventh in their respective seasons, have gone on to huge success. As for Idol winners, they range from blockbuster artists like Carrie Underwood to the mostly under-the-radar Taylor Hicks.
Backstage, Lambert was asked about how his second-place finish would be interpreted online.
The blogs have a lot of opinions, don t they? he said, smiling and looking relaxed.
His own interpretation?
I think Kris won because he s a great artist and I was happy to be runner-up to that, he said.
Allen had yet to come to grips with his new status several hours after the Fox show ended.
I felt shocked every week that I made it. To be the American Idol, I m really shocked, he said backstage. He paid tribute to his competitor.
He deserves it just as much as I do, Allen said, calling Lambert an amazing performer.
On the personal front, he said he was looking forward to getting back to married life with his wife, Katy, whom he called the coolest chick in the world.
Wednesday s outcome echoed last year s contest, which also looked at the outset like it was going the other way. Cowell all but crowned David Archuleta after the performance finale, calling his a knockout performance but the victory went to David Cook.
Lambert was such a powerful, unique performer that his fans were allowed a sense of entitlement on his behalf. But his triumph wasn t inevitable. When Allen and Lambert were declared the finalists last week, just 1 million viewer votes separated the pair out of 88 million cast.
Allen bloomed during the season, gaining more assurance onstage and winning viewers over with his heartfelt vocals, modest demeanor and well-scrubbed good looks.
There was also the Danny Gokey factor. Gokey made it to the top three before he fell out of the contest, leaving his supporters up for grabs.
After the third one leaves, you wonder where do the votes go from that third contestant, Paula Abdul said backstage after Tuesday s singing showdown.
Allen seemed the likely candidate for those viewers affections, for on- and offstage reasons. Allen and Gokey, 29, of Milwaukee, were downright conservative when compared to Lambert s elaborate staging and wardrobe choices. Allen is a married college student his wife was often on hand to root for him and has worked as a church worship leader. Gokey, a recent widower, is a church music director.
Lambert, 27, of Los Angeles, brought measured rock flashiness daring, not freaky with songs including Whole Lotta Love, the first-ever Led Zeppelin tune on Idol. He s largely kept his personal life under wraps, saying I know who I am when asked about it.
Earlier this week, Allen said he hoped the outcome wouldn t be decided by having the Christian vote.
I hope it has to do with your talent and the performance that you give and the package that you have. It s not about religion and all that kind of stuff, he said.
Added Lambert: It s about music. That s really important to keep in mind.
The finale Wednesday included the usual bag of tricks for extending the show to two hours and delaying the result until the final minutes. There were group numbers, the Golden Idol Award semifinalist funnyman Nick Norman Gentle Mitchell among the contenders and celebrity-contestant combos.
Allen was joined by Keith Urban on Kiss a Girl, while Lambert stomped the stage in elevator boots and oversized ribbed shoulder pads for a pyrotechnic performance with Kiss.
The female finalists, including Allison Iraheta, opened up for Fergie, who sang Big Girls Don t Cry and then was joined by her group, the Black Eyed Peas. Iraheta later dueted with Cyndi Lauper on Time After Time and Danny Gokey joined Lionel Richie for two tunes.
Rod Stewart sang Maggie May after the male finalists opened for him with Do Ya Think I m Sexy.
An offbeat guest was Steve Martin, the actor-comedian who also specializes in the banjo. He played his song Pretty Flowers with finalists Megan Joy and Michael Sarver on vocals.
Asked by Seacrest to guess who might win American Idol, Martin replied: I know it s a long shot, but I m hoping I do.
Allen rose to the occasion during Tuesday s performance show, especially with his soulful version of Ain t No Sunshine. But he was tripped up by No Boundaries, a power ballad song co-written by judge Kara DioGuardi and ill-suited to his voice.
(One audience wag said the tune s exhortation You can go higher, you can go deeper ... Every step you climb another mountain made it ideal for a Stairmaster exercise machine ad.)
Lambert did a better job with No Boundaries and excelled on his reprise of Mad World and on A Change is Gonna Come.
That was the best I ve ever heard you sing ever! exclaimed Abdul.
But it wasn t good enough for American Idol voters.