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An idol is born

Almost two hours of filler leads up to Kelly Clarkson being named the first American Idol.

By ERIC DEGGANS, Times TV Critic

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 5, 2002

In the end, talent really did win out.

Bombastic vocalist Kelly Clarkson, 20, was crowned American Idol on Wednesday night, at the tail end of a sprawling, two-hour finale capping Fox TV's hit summer talent show.

Clarkson, who beat out the charismatic, yet weaker vocal stylings of mop topped Justin Guarini, broke into tears while warbling the anthemic finale A Moment Like This, colored confetti pouring from the ceiling in an over-the-top finish that seemed a perfect end to this candy-coated TV confection that kept surprising us all.

Her win -- which came by garnering 58 percent of more than 15-million votes cast Tuesday -- capped a 13-week series of elimination contests that built American Idol into a gargantuan summer TV diversion.

As always in the final weeks of American Idol, the challenge remained padding a show that keeps growing in size as the number of contestants dwindle. (Tuesday's show reportedly drew more than 18-million viewers.)

The fans had voted the night before after the contestants delivered their competing performances. So how do you make a two-hour tour de force out of what is essentially an announcement of who won?

Hosts Ryan Seacrest and Brian Dunkleman seemed to take cameras everywhere in Hollywood's Kodak Theater during the show's first hour, desperately killing time by kibitzing at the soundboard and mugging with coffee-drinking stagehands. I couldn't help wondering if they would surface in the men's bathroom next.

Mercifully, they turned to the second-most annoying time-filling option in the show's second hour -- featuring the contest's 10 finalists performing in a host of '60s- and '70s-era medleys that served as some sort of bizzaro preview of their upcoming concert tour.

As obviously overmatched vocalists such as Ryan Starr and Jim Verraros warbled their way through Motown chestnuts such as Dancin' in the Street and My Guy, you couldn't help wishing the ghost of David Ruffin would rise up through the stage and blow them all away with a dab of real vocal prowess.

In one ironic stroke, producers chose material that reminded us of what all these young contestants weren't and could never be. Back when legends such as Mary Wilson, the Temptations and Stevie Wonder were their age, the Motown hit machine built a lineup of artists bristling with talent paired with the slickest music gurus in the business.

Instead, American Idol's 10 finalists came off like a modern-day version of Up With People, or perhaps those dopey musical numbers the Brady Bunch used to sing during their show, singing far too few harmonies and missing way too many notes for a group of vocalists supposedly culled from 10,000 entrants.

If this is a sample of what to expect when the tour hits Tampa on Oct. 23, I think I'll curl up with a Star Search rerun instead.

But by now insulting American Idol participants for being green performers and vocally weak is like shooting fish in a thimble. We know most of these youngsters can barely carry a tune in their acid-washed GAP jeans, and we love them for it.

Of course, to pad the two-hour finale, producers spent lots of time reminding us just how far they had come, showing clips of the top five auditioning contestants with attitudes, their favorite putdowns from acerbic judge Simon Cowell and yet another clip of the weird fat guy singing Bohemian Rhapsody.

We learned that Malcolm in the Middle star Jane Kaczmarek isn't above stopping by the network's hottest summer show to plug her own series -- even while visibly pregnant.

We also learned Ice-T (who picked Clarkson to win) is a good judge of talent -- even if it has been, like, a hundred years since he actually stepped into a recording studio himself.

Even though Clarkson's blue-eyed soul vocal licks won her a million-dollar recording contract and status as the first Idol contestant to release an album, expect 23-year-old Guarini and runners up Nikki McKibbin, Tamyra Gray and Christina Christian to follow suit soon. (All 10 finalists return to TV for a special in Las Vegas on Sept. 23.)

Because if American Idol has taught us anything about the modern day starmaking machinery, it's that success comes from striking while the hype is white-hot.

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