Partway through the second American Idol competition in early 2003, guest judge Gladys Knight christened corpulent crooner Ruben Studdard a "velvet teddy bear," a nod to his smooth, Luther Vandross-styled voice and his Barry White-sized girth. The nickname stuck, since it captured the persona of the 25-year-old native of Birmingham, AL, who had unexpectedly become the front-runner in the televised talent show. Surrounded by skinny kids emulating Kelly Clarkson and Justin Guarini, the two singers who had dominated the previous American Idol season in 2002, Studdard stood out with his massive frame, winning smile, mellow voice, and trademark jerseys bearing the number 205, the area code of his hometown.
That hometown looms large in Ruben's background. The son of two teachers, Studdard was born in Birmingham on July 14, 1978. He sang at his parents' Baptist church as a child, but it wasn't until college that he seriously pursued music. Abandoning a promising career in football that would lead to an athletic scholarship at Alabama A&M University, he decided to switch his major and study voice at the school, eventually graduating with a degree in 2000. He then launched his professional career as a singer for Just a Few Cats, a Birmingham-based jazz and soul band. During 2002, Ruben joined one of the group's backup singers at an audition for the second American Idol, making the first round of cuts at his local audition, then winning himself a slot on the national television program.
Studdard made a big impression from the start. Where most of his competitors were pop star wannabes hungry to win the competition, Ruben was quiet and exceedingly laid-back, impressing audiences and judges alike with his large voice and easy confidence. He soon climbed to the top of the pack and stayed there throughout the show, only once being voted into an elimination round. By that point, American Idol 2003 had turned into a horse race between Studdard and Clay Aiken, a skinny, geeky kid from the South whose appearance and taste were perhaps the polar opposite of Ruben's. Like many horse races, this one ended in a photo finish, with Ruben beating Clay by a few thousand votes in May 2003.