Georgian guitarist Phillip Phillips extended American Idol’s streak of male champs. From his kidney problems to his pawn-shop gig, six things that distinguish this bizarrely-named new heartthrob.
Where He’s From
Phillips, 21, grew up in Sasser and Leesburg, Georgia, where he worked at a pawn shop. Dreaming of stardom, he travelled to Savannah for his American Idol audition, performing an animated rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” that made Steven Tyler swoon. After being crowned winner on Wednesday night, the bluesy guitarist with a John Mayer-esque voice broke down in tears and performed a song called—go figure— “Home.”
Who He Idolizes
Phillips has cited Johnny Lang, Mumford & Sons and Dave Matthews among his influences, and bears an uncanny resemblance to the latter, particularly when clad in a flannel shirt. The judges didn’t go for his performance of Dave Matthews Band’s “The Stone,” nor his earnest attempt to mimic Rob Thomas with Matchbox 20’s “Disease.” But he hit all the right notes with Damien Rice’s “Volcano.”
Why He Won
There was much Twitter chatter about the Idol winner being just “another white guy with guitar” (#WGWG), but the persona was ostensibly a key factor in Phillips’s win. He’s the fifth consecutive white male singer to win the show, though The New York Times says he’s “easily the best, not a dullard or a mook or a boy made good” and gave off the vibe of a “bored genius in a remedial class, going through the motions and hoping to sneak through.” Humility clearly worked in his favor, too. “I’m not a great singer,” he told People magazine after winning last night, adding, “’I just love having fun up on stage and playing good music and getting the crowd into it.” And nothing melts the hearts of teenage girls and grandmothers alike more than the sight of a sensitive southern boy welling up with emotion. “I hate crying, but I’ll probably cry some more,” he said. “It feels good at times.” Oh, and host Ryan Seacrest’s girlfriend, Julianne Hough, had a sneaker for Phillips throughout the season.
Who He Beat
Idol was due for a female winner, but 16-year-old Jessica Sanchez couldn’t cut it in the end. Despite being hailed for her gale-force voice and wowing performances throughout the season, she fell flat on Wednesday night. Sanchez may have lacked Phillips’s effortless swagger, but even Steven Tyler admitted that her voice was one of the best Idol has heard in years.
Why He’s Different From Previous Winners
What makes Phillips stand out from the other innocuous, guitar-strumming white boys—Kris Allen, Lee DeWyze, Scotty McCreery —who have reigned in recent years? “I’m a little different from the other guitarists, I just can’t strum regular chords,” Phillips told Entertainment Weekly after his final performances. John Fogerty, the frontman of Creedence Clearwater Revival, with whom Phillips sang two duets at the end of the two-hour finale, complimented Phillips’s unique style. The New York Times noted that, throughout the season, “he became known for taking improvisational liberties with melodies and for reinterpreting rhythms,” making him “the most innovative contestant in a strong field of singers this season.”
What’s Next for the ‘Idol’
Despite suffering health issues throughout the season, Phillips managed to mask them onstage. He was ordered to undergo surgery in March for kidney problems, and is indeed scheduled to go under the knife in the coming weeks before reaping the benefits of his Idol coronation. But Phillips disclosed little when asked about enduring pain on the show by Entertainment Weekly last night. Teary-eyed, he quietly thanked his doctors, family, and girlfriend for helping him through tough times.