LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Indie artist Phillip Phillips won "American Idol" on Wednesday, becoming the fifth male singer in a row to take the title and a guaranteed recording contract.
The 21-year-old guitar player from Georgia, who brought an indie vibe to the top-rated TV contest, beat ballad singer Jessica Sanchez, 16, of California in the public vote.
"American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest said a world record 132 million votes were cast by phone, text and online for the two finalists.
The winner was announced at the end of a two-hour finale on Wednesday featuring performances by Rihanna, Neil Diamond, Reba McEntire as well as "Idol" judge Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler's band Aerosmith, which closed the show by going back to their hard rock roots with the 1976 classic "Walk This Way".
Phillips looked stunned as Seacrest announced his name, and could not finish his performance of his new single "Home" as he fought back tears. Instead, he unstrapped his guitar and with eyes brimming walked off the stage to hug his family in the front row of the audience.
Sanchez, bidding to become the youngest ever winner of "American Idol," was thought to have the edge after dominating social media and Twitter mentions in the last few days.
But Phillips' goofball humor and individual style earned him a large, young female fan base, and he had never appeared in the bottom three in public votes during earlier stage of the Fox TV show.
The "Idol" judges also raved over his singing at Tuesday night's performance show finale of what will now be his first single - the folk-rock ballad "Home."
VULNERABLE AND REAL
"He's real, we watched him pull out of his soul ... he can really sing a melody right. He's just really evolved and he's been vulnerable and I think America loves that," Tyler told reporters after the finale.
Phillips, who worked in his father's pawn shop before auditioning for "Idol" also won sympathy for a recurrent kidney problem that has plagued his health during the season.
Sanchez was praised in the contest for her big voice but sometimes faulted for lacking the emotion needed to deliver power ballads such as those made famous by Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Celine Dion.
She was saved by the judges from elimination in April after placing at the bottom in public voting, and the show's judges disliked her third song in Tuesday night's performance finale.
But Tyler said on Wednesday she also had a great future ahead of her. "She sings so beautiful, so if the right person writes her the right song, she'll be on her way," he said.
"American Idol" remains the most-watched show on U.S. television but public appetite for the contest and its winners is slipping after 11 years on the air and a slew of rival, months-long talent shows.
Audiences are down about 23 percent this year, and Tuesday's performance finale was watched by just 14.4 million people. In fact, it was beaten by the climax of "Dancing With the Stars".
"American Idol" launched the careers of Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, Chris Daughtry and Adam Lambert - who on Wednesday scored his first No. 1 album with his second disc "Trespassing."
With the exception of 2011 "Idol" winner, country singer Scotty McCreery, recent contestants have fared less well. A female singer has not won the title since Jordin Sparks in 2007, leading Phillips to be dubbed the latest "white guy with a guitar" to emerge as America's newest pop star.
Veteran singer Chaka Khan, who performed on Wednesday's finale in Los Angeles, said the music business had changed dramatically since her heyday 25 years ago.
"Most of the advice I would give (to Jessica and Phillip) they're getting already doing this show. A lot of people think this is a walk in the park. This is hard," Khan told reporters backstage.