“The winner is….”

It’s Tuesday night at the John Bassett Theatre in downtown Toronto, and as the summer winds down, the hottest question of the season is about to be answered. Two young men stand on stage in front of a wound-up crowd one thousand strong, and for the first time, a hush falls over the sign-waving throng. In homes across the country, people sit glued to their TV sets, on the edge of their seats in anticipation as host Ben Mulroney draws out suspense as long as the time constraints of live TV will allow.

Canadian Idol fever has swept the nation.

The two young men on stage are Ryan Malcolm, 23, and Gary Beals, 20. Five months ago, Malcolm was a waiter in Kingston, while Beals was a theatre student in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. Today, they are celebrities, known simply as “Ryan” and “Gary”, and in the next minute, one of them will become Canada’s first Idol.

How did a show that started out as a clone of the glitzy, schlocky American Idol become a summer phenomenon in Canada? Canadian Idol, CTV’s homegrown version of the international Idol brand of glorified karaoke competitions, is now in the history books as the highest-rated Canadian television series of all time, averaging 2.06 million viewers weekly. On Monday night, the last night of competition that pit Malcolm vs. Beals one-on-one, 3.3 million votes were dialed in across the country-the most calls ever recorded in any two-hour period in Canadian history.

The formula sounds so simple-hold auditions across the country, narrow the thousands of star-wannabes down to an exclusive top group, and then throw the kids on live television. Each week, choose a theme, have a singoff, and allow fans to vote for their favourites. The competitor with the least votes is eliminated, and the rest go on. Rinse and repeat until you’re left with one singer standing, hand the lucky kid the title of “Idol” and an international recording contract, and hope to god the country got it right.

Invented by pop music bigwig Simon Fuller, the idea was a huge hit in England, and an even bigger hit south of the border, where American Idol has made stars out of Idols Kelly Clarkson and Ruben Studdard, and created an unlikely heartthrob in second-season runner-up Clay Aiken.

“I think American Idol in particular, and Canadian Idol, give regular people people to gravitate to,” special guest Studdard said at a press conference Tuesday night (following the final episode of CI) when asked to explain the concept’s enormous popularity. “The record industry spends their whole year trying to figure out what people want, and these shows give people exactly what they want.”

What the people in Canada wanted was a lot less clear than our American cousins, who were ready to coronate Studdard and Aiken weeks before AI 2’s finale. Malcolm, the new Canadian Idol, was almost eliminated twice before he finally made the cut for the show’s final group. Dubbed “Waiter Boy” by media and fans after cranky judge Zack Werner said one of his outfits would be better suited to a restaurant server, Malcolm was number eleven in a group originally meant to be a Top Ten, ushered in through a ‘wild card’ process that saw him receive such a large percentage of the votes that CTV made a last-minute decision to throw an extra person into the mix.

Beals, the runner-up, was on the harsher end of the judges’ comments many times over the course of the series, and despite judge Sass Jordan’s shameless attempts to praise even his worst performances, found himself on the chopping block more than once.

Reporters across the country were baffled as they picked what they thought was one sure winner after another and then saw them all fall-first diva Toya Alexis, who, upon elimination, got in the best line of the season by referring to herself in the third person and declaring that Canada was “not ready for Toya Alexis!”, then Newfie oddball Jenny Gear, and finally Quebecois ingénue Audrey de Montigny. Even when only three Idols were left standing, Canadian voters managed to provide a shocker, killing a much-anticipated final showdown between Malcolm and Calgary rocker Billy Klippert by eliminating Klippert and leaving Beals standing.

Strange voting wasn’t the only thing that made CI unique. Though the show slavishly followed the now-familiar cookie-cutter format, as weeks went by, external similarities to AI began to fall away and a distinctively Canadian core emerged.

“The talent is entirely Canadian. The judges know what Canadians listen to,” host Mulroney explained. “What makes it Canadian is everything about it-that’s part of the format. It can’t be a copycat. The format itself is universal… the beauty of it is that it allows each nation to imprint its national character on it.”

In what other country would you find audiences as diverse as those who filled the Bassett Theatre each week, causing tickets to live tapings to sell out in mere minutes? While AI audiences were typically comprised of teenyboppers and baby boomers (mostly Caucasian and female), CI crowds ran the gamut from four-year-olds hanging onto homemade signs declaring devotion to favourite contestants, to squealing teenagers, hip 20-somethings and families of all races. While votes were split along regional lines, there was a national feeling to the fervour.

“I can’t believe how people have just come together because of the show,” the newly-crowned Malcolm commented. “It’s really brought communities together and really, the whole country.”

“The best part was how it’s grown over the course of the summer,” judge Zack Werner added. “Canadians identified with these kids… People actually stopped and cared about us as Canadians, as opposed to having this reference to the international Idol scene.”

Werner perhaps hit on the key to the phenomenon-Canadian Idol made Canadians care about Canadian talent, and in doing so, gave the country something of our own to discuss around the proverbial water cooler.

“This is the most incredible thing that has ever happened to me-to all of us,” Malcolm offered sincerely. “It was really amazing to see the people come together. This show is amazing, it really is.”

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