- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 24, 2006

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Taylor Hicks proved Simon Cowell wrong, and Prince proved that “American Idol” has earned serious respect.

Mr. Hicks, who barely made it past the famously judgmental Mr. Cowell during initial auditions, was named the winner of the TV talent contest last night over sultry brunette Katharine McPhee, 22, of Los Angeles.

Hicks, 29, of Birmingham, Ala., wooed viewers with his raw singing style, boisterous personality and an unlikely mop of gray hair.

For the show’s best-rated season yet, “American Idol” grew in stature as well with Prince, Mary J. Blige and others performing in the finale. The series has proved a huge boost to the album sales of pop stars who have appeared on it.

Mr. Hicks, becoming the latest in a string of Southern and Midwestern contestants to win the contest, leaned over in an emotional reaction to host Ryan Seacrest’s announcement of his victory.

“Soul Patrol!” Mr. Hicks shouted, acknowledging his avid fans by their nickname. “I’m living the American dream,” he added as he closed out the show with a performance of his new single, “Do I Make You Proud.”

It was Katharine vs. Taylor, McPheever vs. the Soul Patrol, with a recording contract and the fifth “Idol” title up for grabs.

More than 63 million votes were cast, which was “more than any president in the history of our country has received,” Mr. Seacrest said.

Fans picked the raw sound and footloose moves of Mr. Hicks, who made his mark on Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” on Tuesday’s show. Miss McPhee’s well-trained voice was shown to perfection on the standard “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

Last season’s victor, Carrie Underwood of Checotah, Okla., opened the finale, joining Mr. Hicks and Miss McPhee on “I Made it Through the Rain” and later soloing on one of her singles, “Don’t Forget to Remember Me.”

On Tuesday, Miss Underwood won two trophies at the Academy of Country Music Awards, underscoring how much an “Idol” victory can mean. She was named top new female artist and won best single for “Jesus Take the Wheel.”

Other pairings of contestants and stars included Paris Bennett and Al Jarreau; Miss McPhee and Meat Loaf; Chris Daughtry and Live; Elliott Yamin and Miss Blige; Mr. Hicks and Toni Braxton, and the dozen finalists with Burt Bacharach and Dionne Warwick.

Prince was a surprise final performer, taking the stage for two songs, including “Satisfied” — and without an “Idol” contestant alongside.

Asked backstage if he had any advice for contestants, Meat Loaf replied: “If you want to do this, you’re gonna go up and down, and up and down, and people are going to love you and hate you … just stick with it,” he said.

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