Los Angeles: Former paint salesman Lee DeWyze was the surprise winner of American Idol on Wednesday, beating front-runner Crystal Bowersox on a night that saw the talent show's former champions reunite to bid farewell to Simon Cowell.
DeWyze, a 24-year-old Chicago native, won the coveted title and a recording contract after a nationwide phone and text vote based on the contestants' performances the night before.
Idol judges had all but anointed Bowersox the winner after her three songs on Tuesday outclassed a nervous DeWyze. But Americans made up their own minds and chose DeWyze.
"I have never been happier in my life," said a stunned DeWyze, choking back tears after the result was announced at the climax of a two-hour finale that featured performances by Christina Aguilera, Janet Jackson and Joe Cocker.
"It felt like a huge weight is off my shoulders. Now that this big step is done, it's on to the next step, which is to make an album and go on tour and do all the things I've wanted to do for a long time," he told reporters later.
Initially shy, he blossomed in later rounds of the show, and emerged as a serious threat to Bowersox after a rousing version of the Leonard Cohen classic Hallelujah last week. His cover of U2's Beautiful Day, his first single, was made available immediately on iTunes. His debut album, on a Sony Music Entertainment record label, will likely follow in the fall.
Bowersox, 24, said she had sensed before the show that DeWyze would take the title. "I knew Lee was going to win and people seem to be surprised by that, but I just had a feeling. I couldn't be happier for him...We both win. Both of us are going to have very successful careers and we're going to be friends for a long time," she told reporters backstage.
Barry and Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees and Alanis Morissette were also among the guest performers on Wednesday, while Poison rocker and Celebrity Apprentice winner Bret Michaels played his first live gig since suffering a brain hemorrhage in April and a mini-stroke last week.
DeWyze and the show's high-wattage guests had to share the spotlight with both Cowell, whose departure was described by host Ryan Seacrest as "the end of an era", and former Idol judge Paula Abdul.
Abdul, who quit last year after a contract-renewal dispute, got a standing ovation from the 7,000-strong audience at the Nokia Theatre when she appeared on stage to bid her old sparring partner a teary farewell.
"My darling Simon. I've worked with a lot of people over the years...but none of them holds a candle to you, my friend. I have loved all the fun we had together. American Idol is not gonna be the same without you. But as only I can tell you, it will go on," she said.
Seven past Idol winners and more than 15 former contestants appeared on stage singing Together We Are One in tribute to Cowell's part in making them stars.
Pulled on stage after a series of flashback video clips of his years on the show, Cowell seemed genuinely moved. "I didn't think I was going to be this emotional," he said. "I am going to honestly, honestly miss you".
Cowell announced in January that he would be leaving Idol at the end of this season to launch a U.S. version of his The X-Factor talent show on Fox in the fall of 2011. His replacement has not been announced.
American Idol remains America's most popular TV show of the last seven years. But this year audiences have slipped by about 9 percent to an average 23.9 million viewers per episode, compared to a 2006 high of about 30.8 million.