Fans cheer as they hold up copies of a special edition of The Albany Herald during Wednesday night’s viewing party at Lee County High.
LEESBURG, Ga. — Tension could be felt across Southwest Georgia, especially at the Lee County High School football field, as Ryan Seacrest paused, and then announced the winner. "Phil—"
The rest of the words were drowned out as screams of joy peeled out of the home team bleachers where more than 1,000 Phillip Phillips fans had gathered to see the final leg of their favorite son's remarkable journey to win the crown of American Idol.
Phillips, the 21-year-old pawnshop worker from Leesburg, had beaten out tens of thousands of other contestants from across the country to claim the title following a final show featuring him and the other finalist, 16-year-old Jessica Sanchez of California. A record 132 million votes were cast after that show.
The announcement came just after 10 p.m. Wednesday, immediately after Phillips and Sanchez sang a duet — "Love Lifts Us Up Where We Belong."
Host Ryan Seacrest opened the envelope and announced Phillips' victory. "Congratulations, you did it," Seacrest said. "Ladies and gentlemen, your new American Idol singing 'Home.'"
Phillips immediately began singing the original song that he debuted Tuesday night in the final competition episode. It is the song that will be released to radio stations. Judges Jennifer Lopez, Steven Tyler and Randy Jackson gave him the only standing ovation of the evening after he sang it Tuesday night, with Lopez remarking that he showed a unique style with it.
But Phillips was so emotional he couldn't make it through the song. Half way through, he stopped singing and made his way to his family on the floor of the Nokia Theater in Los Angeles.
As the confetti fell on Phillips Wednesday in L.A., the fans back in Leesburg were laughing, crying, hugging and even squealing with excitement.
"I'm so excited for him," a teary Amber Balkcom, a Lee County resident, said after the announcement just after 10 p.m. Wednesday. "He deserved it."
"I was going to cry either way," added Becca Ball, also of Lee County.
Earlier in the evening — before the show opened — Balkcom had reflected many area residents' confidence that Phillips would emerge the winner. "I voted 3,000 times last night. I had four phones in front of me," Balkcom said. "I love Phillip. He is the sexiest thing I've ever seen in my life."
Jessica Greene, of Lee County, agreed that she thought the win would belong to the Leesburg native. "He has a very distinctive voice."
She also thought that Phillips' run on "Idol" has been good for the community.
"I think it's a good thing for kids to come to," she said. "I think he's a good role model. I've yet to find a negative thing about him."
The fans began lining up at 5 p.m. for gates that opened exactly at 6:30.
The event, put together by WFXL Fox 31, in conjunction with the Lee County Chamber of Commerce, the Lee County High School and Q102, was something that the organizers had hoped for in anticipation of Phillips' success on the show, but planning began in earnest right after he was announced as a top two finalist last week.
Brenda Holloway, president of Fox 31, said attendance at the event was more than 1,000 people.
"Absolutely it could not have been any better. People stuck with us until the sun went down (the setting sun had partially obscured the video screen)," Holloway said. "It just shows how much support Phillip had in the area.
"The sponsors, the city of Leesburg, the chamber ... everybody pulled together in support of our young talent. What people think we've done as a station is nothing compared to what Phillip went through."
Leesburg native and country star Luke Bryan took to his Twitter account immediately following the show. "Wow. That's great. Go Phillip." He later added, "Wow. Freakin. Go leesburg."
The Albany Herald, in anticipation of a Phillips' win, handed out copies of a special four-page, full-color section commemorating the event immediately after his win was announced. The commemorative edition was distributed at the stadium and at other venues in the area where people had gathered to cheer on the Southwest Georgia star.
During the two hour results show, viewers were treated to performances from the finalists, other Top 10 contestants and special celebrity guests. Phillips performed with rock legend John Fogerty during the show, while Sanchez performed with Tony winner Jennifer Holliday.
Former contestant Joshua Ledet sang a number with former "Idol" winner Fantasia Barrino and Skylar Laine performed with country superstar Reba McEntire. The finalists honored two late disco greats, Donna Summer and Robin Gibb.
The show also made some history with a surprise marriage proposal involving two former "Idol" performers. Ace Young, a season five finalist, told Seacrest that he and Diana DeGarmo, season three runner-up, had recently moved in together.
Then Young dropped to one knee and asked DeGarmo to marry him. She tearfully accepted.
Other celebrity performers Wednesday night included Chaka Khan, Neil Diamond, Rihanna and Tyler's band, Aerosmith.