HOLLYWOOD – Taylor Hicks, the silver-haired crooner from Birmingham, Ala., was crowned "American Idol" Wednesday night in what surely will go down as the most-watched season finale of 2006.
And after tallying more than 63 million votes, "more than any president in the history of our country has received," as host Ryan Seacrest said, it's no wonder.
"I'm very grateful to all of the fans who supported me through this," Hicks said after the show. "I'm very excited about this opportunity to share my voice with the world."
With Tuesday night's performance showdown between Hicks and the beautiful, talented Katharine McPhee planting 35.4 million people in front of their television sets — 43 million during the last half hour, according to Nielsen Media Research — Hicks has indeed been heard.
While the fifth season of the show was the best-rated, Wednesday night's results show was the second most-watched "Idol" finale ever, behind only 2003's competition, and beat last year's contest won by Carrie Underwood. Last year's audience was 30.3 million.
McPhee was more subdued and relaxed after Wednesday's show than she was on Tuesday night.
"I would do it all again," she said. "It's not a letdown at all, but it's not as climactic. It's been a great ride. You remember the positive things."
The show itself was exciting and fun to watch, despite some extra-cheesy moments.
Performances from some of the biggest names in pop music, from legends like Bert Bacharach and Meat Loaf to Mary J. Blige, Toni Braxton and Dionne Warwick — and even a rare television appearance by Prince — were a true testament to just how powerful this little reality show that no network wanted five years ago has become.
"That's true," executive producer Ken Warwick said. "It was a big hit in England, but getting on in America is very hard to do. We're thrilled with the success."
The show also featured music medleys with this season's top 10 contestants, but hopefully for Hicks one of the perks of winning it all will be never again having to do a repeat performance of Wednesday night's first group session.
During the men's musical medley that started with "Taking Care of Business" and ended with "Don't Stop," it looked like Hicks was going to take his harmonica and run far, far away.
Ace Young, dressed all in black with his long hair hanging at his shoulders, looked like he was doing an impression of the late Brandon Lee in "The Crow." All he needed was the white clown makeup to complete the costume.
But I say that in good fun. After interviewing all of the Idols these past few days, each one of them is a talented, well-mannered person, and any one of them would have made America proud.
The women fared much better with "I Feel Like a Woman" and "I'm Every Woman," and McPhee's star power shined bright even next to powerhouse talent Mandisa.
Carrie Underwood, last year's winner, performed "Don't Forget to Remember Me" from her new CD "Some Hearts." I caught up with the "American Idol" star on the red carpet, where she thanked the country music world for embracing her.
"Winning two awards at my first [ACM Awards] is right up there with how I felt a year ago this night," she said. Underwood was named top new female artist and won best single for "Jesus Take the Wheel" at Tuesday night's Academy of Country Music awards show.
Aside from the many performances of the night, perhaps the best parts of the show were the taped pieces with celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck and "Idol" castoff Kellie Pickler. The pixie blonde, sporting a new hairdo, gamely experimented with calamari and wrestled with live lobsters.
"We were totally clueless who was going to win," she said after the show. Ever the diplomat, Picker added, "I love them both. I'm happy for all of their success."
Perhaps the biggest laugh of the night, however, came during an appearance by Michael Sandecki, a sensation from an early audition episode (sensational only for how bad he was), who did a "surprise" duet with Clay Aiken.
They performed "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me," and it really was akin to watching a before-and-after video, with Sandecki playing the role of the younger, naive Aiken, almost too enthusiastically.
During the post-show interviews, nine out of 10 "Idols," from Chris Daughtry to Mandisa to Elliott and Bucky, to Chris "Chicken Little" Covais and Melissa, expressed extreme happiness for Taylor, or as young Paris Bennett calls him, "Tay Tay."
"He's my big brother," the 16-year-old said.
"We bonded because we came from the same place," Daughtry said. "He grinded it out, playing the bars, writing songs. He's a songwriter."
"We've all been through something special as a group," Hicks said. "They are all very talented, and I'm looking forward to having more fun with them on the 'American Idol' tour."
For more coverage of the "American Idol" finale from the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles, click here: www.foxnews.com/foxlife/americanidol/index.html
VIDEO: Watch Mike Straka's "Real Deal" Web casts from the "Idol" red carpet.