When auditioning, Studdard sang Stevie Wonder’s “Ribbon in the Sky”. This guided him to be one of the local finalists. On American Idol, he impressed viewers with his performances of the Leon Russell/Bonnie Bramlett song “Superstar” and the Peabo Bryson/Regina Belle duet “A Whole New World”. During his time on the show, Studdard received praise from music legends such as Lionel Richie, Neil Sedaka, Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees, Luther Vandross, and Gladys Knight.
During the televised competition, Studdard gained the nickname “Velvet Teddy Bear” and was noted for his shirts printed with “205”, the telephone area code of his hometown of Birmingham.
He won the contest over runner-up Clay Aiken by only 134,000 votes out of 24,000,000 casts in the May 2003 finale, becoming the second American Idol winner. Alabama Governor, Bob Riley declared March 11, 2003, as “Ruben Studdard Day”.