LOS ANGELES — Not much has changed about Kris Allen since his mostly forgettable "American Idol" audition.
Well, except for the winning-it-all part.
When the 23-year-old college student from Conway, Ark., first auditioned with Leon Russell's "A Song for You" in Louisville, Ky., he seemed nothing more than a boy-next-door "Idol" hopeful, lacking the instant juggernaut feel of showy 27-year-old runner-up Adam Lambert or even plucky 17-year-old spark plug Allison Iraheta.
A newsboy cap pulled down around his eyes, Allen was asked back then by the judges if he was the best singer.
"You know, there's probably people who are better than me," was his response, a humility that Simon Cowell said he found off-putting.
"Idol" producers must have agreed. Back in February, viewers had seen less of Allen out of all the crooners that moved forward in the competition. During Hollywood Week, neither of Allen's solos were aired, just his "I Want You Back" group performance. In fact, more footage from his original audition was aired during Wednesday's eighth season finale than in any previous episodes.
Once selected as a finalist, Allen got off to a rocky start after his first performance. The judges were decidedly mixed over his rendition of Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror," yet his charming nice-guy demeanor quickly emerged when it was revealed that the longtime Jackson fan had been helping the other singers — his competitors of all people! — tackle their takes on the King of Pop.
Allen himself seemed the most surprised about his shocking win by a margin of votes that, unlike last season's landslide victory by David Cook over David Archuleta, was not publicly declared by host Ryan Seacrest.
"I'm exhausted, and I'm shocked," Allen said backstage after winning the title. "I'm really shocked."
In the beginning, the judges simply seemed, if not in love, then "in like" with Allen — not heaping the same amounts of love on him as Lambert until later in the season.
The panel's initial feedback bordered on superficial. Paula Abdul once gushed he was "adorable/sexy" while Cowell teased the smiley newlywed for introducing his wife so early in the competition, at risk of scaring of female fans.
He always seemed to take their remarks in stride, content to forge ahead with his earnest singer-songwriter vibe no matter the outcome, never telegraphing a drive to best his fellow contestants.
Instead, Allen stuck to focusing on his guitar and piano on the "Idol" stage, impressing the judges with his folksy, heartfelt interpretations of such songs as "Ain't No Sunshine," ''She Works Hard for the Money" and "Falling Slowly" from the indie musical "Once." He hit a crescendo last week when he transformed Kanye West's robotic tune "Heartless" into a soulful, acoustic ditty.
"I had written you out of the competition, but that has changed after that performance," Cowell boasted afterward.
However, it was runner-up Lambert who always received the most praise — by both judges and screaming fans — right until Tuesday's final performance. All the while, Allen was apparently neck-and-neck with Lambert when it came to viewer votes: The only time either was in the dreaded bottom-three was after their Rat Pack-themed performances.
Last week, only 1 million viewer votes separated them — a tiny margin considering that nearly 100 million votes were cast for the finale.
"I knew it was going to be a close race," Lambert said backstage. "I think Kris is incredibly talented, and he's a good person."
Though never referenced on the show, Allen's religious background may have also played a role. Allen has worked as a worship leader at his hometown church, traveling on mission trips around the globe. His pastor, Brandon Shatswell, said Allen told him that his first time on the "Idol" stage reminded him of only one thing: going to church.