?American Idol' connected to Clayton

By Trina Trice

Kennedy and Audrey Holt are smiling ear to ear today because of a family member's idol-making voice.

The Holt's cousin Ruben Studdard earned the title "American Idol" Wednesday night after beating a dozen finalists for the reality show's second season.

"I'm hoarse from screaming last night," said Audrey, a second-grade teacher at Pointe South Elementary School.

With nearly 24 million votes cast by telephone, Studdard outshined runner-up Clay Aiken of North Carolina by only 130,000 votes.

Studdard, a Birmingham, Ala. native, gained popularity for his big, teddy bear looks, humble demeanor and soulful song-renderings that were reminiscent of R&B singing legends, such as Teddy Pendergrass and Luther Vandross.

"I called his mother at 1 a.m." she said. "They were in a limousine on their way to a post-party. I could hear him in the background screaming ?Who's that? Hey, Audrey.' There was a lot of chatter. You could hear the cell phones popping."

Although America has gotten to know its new "Idol" over the past couple of months, the Holts have known him for years.

Support for the family's cousin began when Studdard auditioned for the show in Nashville several months ago.

"We'd been building up that support base since then," Kennedy Holt said.

The Holts are related to Studdard because his mother, Emily Studdard, married into the family, Holt said.

The family knew about Studdard's love for singing and weren't surprised when he left college to pursue it.

Audrey Holt, who has known Studdard since he was born said he "was singing in the church choir when he was a young boy. He would sing a lot at the family reunions. He sang at my husband's military retirement ceremony. He stole the show."

But they didn't realize how much support Studdard really had until they took a trip to Los Angeles to visit him in April.

"We went to Hollywood," Holt said. "We were out there when Lionel Ritchie (who was a guest judge) was out there. The way Ruben set it up for us was the hotel was across the street from the studio. Everything was at our convenience. The network took us out to an Italian restaurant.

"We watched the crowds line up to see the show. I saw a tremendous support base for him in Hollywood."

Holt saw Studdard's fans sporting homemade "205" shirts. The number is the area code for Birmingham, Ala.

When he got the chance to talk to Studdard, Holt said his cousin "was missing home, missing mom and missing the meals, ?cause nobody cooks like mom," he laughed. "He'd been out there since January. But with the work load, it looked like it was something he had gotten used to."

Studdard is very humble, a quality he displayed throughout the show's duration.

Humbleness seems to run in the family, however, as Holt didn't alert anyone at Forest Park Middle School, where he works, that Studdard was his cousin.

The school's secretary Susan Welliver discovered Holt's secret Thursday.

"We're going to have to get some ?205' shirts around here," she said. "I've been keeping up with the show, I watched it last year, too. But I liked him. I liked his spirit. He's not a boastful, bragging person. I feel like I know him. It couldn't have happened to a nicer person."

"American Idol's" second season began with 70,000 auditions nationwide. The field was narrowed to 12 finalists, who were eliminated one by one based on how many votes they received from the show's viewers who cast their votes by telephone or e-mail. The show has averaged 21 million viewers, becoming a bonafide TV hit.

Studdard signed a record deal Thursday with J Records; his album could come out in December. The Holts hope to see Studdard when the "American Idol" tour stops in Birmingham or Atlanta.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.