Kris Allen, the 23-year-old worship musician from Chi Alpha ministry at the University of Central Arkansas and New Life Church, is the new “American Idol”.
Topping favored Adam Lambert in the pool of nearly 100 million votes cast, Allen’s folksy guitar-strumming style won out over Lambert’s theatrical flamboyance.
The town’s excitement was displayed for the nation to see as fireworks went off behind a jubilant throng in Conway’s Simon Park. The park is in the heart of the downtown area of the city of approximately 60,000 people, said Conway mayor Tab Townsell. It is also down the street from a rented loft apartment above a storefront Allen recently called home.
“My guess is there will be a ‘room for rent’ sign there pretty soon,” Townsell chuckled Thursday.
And with good reason.
Life will never be the same from this point forward for Allen and his wife Katy, whom he embraced before the cameras went off on the final broadcast of the season for the popular Fox reality show.
“It was truly exciting,” Townsell said. “We’re kind of in the doldrums today. What’s next is the question.”
Indeed, what’s next?
For Conway, life will go on much the same as before even if its outside perception won’t.
“First and foremost this is about Kris Allen,” Townsell said. “He’s the type of person who really is like the boy next door. He’s clean-cut, happy, humble and the type of person you would like to meet and you’d like your children to be like.
“Even though Conway’s population is around 60,000 there is still a deep sense of community pride in where we live. We have pulled together in our support of Kris.”
Conway’s most recent brush with fame came in the ’90s when it was associated with Scottie Pippen. Pippen played basketball at Central Arkansas and was the integral sidekick to Michael Jordan’s superstardom during the Chicago Bulls’ run of six NBA championships in eight years.
Allen’s fame will have a similar, and perhaps a more long-lasting, effect.
“I think it will always provide some degree of cultural literacy for us,” Townsell said. “People will hear or see Conway in some other context and say, ‘Hey, that’s where Kris Allen is from.’ It puts you on the map and on people’s radar screens. Any recognition we get will be linked to Kris.
“For him, I don’t think he’ll be able to have a Stoby’s cheese dip by himself again,” Townsell added, referring to a popular local restaurant shown during Allen’s visit to Conway two weeks ago.
Townsell believes the name recognition could help in ways that directly impact his job in helping to steer the local economy. Townsell, 47, has been Conway’s mayor for 11 years and been re-elected twice.
“We have a Hewlett-Packard facility coming in here with 1,200 people and a call center,” he said. “I was talking to a division manager at the (“American Idol” finals) watch party and he described to me how Kris’ presence has elevated Conway’s profile within the company.
“It has made it easier for them to sell and recruit people to come to Conway, that this is not some hole-in-the-wall place. For them, it has made an impact.”
Wednesday night’s celebration was also a rare moment to observe from a professional perspective for Rachael Dickerson. Dickerson is a reporter for Conway’s Log Cabin Democrat who has covered the local fervor over Allen in recent weeks.
“The mood in Conway (Wednesday) night was joyous,” she said. “The fans that turned out for the watch party were ecstatic when he was announced as the winner. I have never seen anything like it. Today (Thursday), the interest has not diminished. I have received phone calls and e-mails about various story angles.”
She’s also well-aware it’s not a story that is going to go away or lose readers’ attention any time soon.
“Now that Kris has the title, we at the Log Cabin will continue to follow his career closely. He has a lot of support here in Conway, and so we will provide that information that our readers want.”
Moving forward also has a profound effect on Matt Carpenter, director of UCA’s Chi Alpha chapter. Carpenter has known Allen for years.
The shock and humility Allen showed immediately after upsetting Lambert wasn’t surprising to Carpenter, nor was the win itself.
“I was excited but I wasn’t that surprised,” Carpenter said. “Going into this week, I thought that God had brought Kris this far and was going to see him through. Afterward when it was said, ‘Kris Allen just won American Idol,’ it was surreal. To see him on that stage in that platform is a little dumbfounding.”
The humility is something that made judge Simon Cowell uneasy about Allen all the way back to his audition, but that, Carpenter said, is a true reflection of Allen’s personality.
“What Simon was trying to do was to get Kris to show more swagger, but that’s just not who he is,” Carpenter explained. “When people see someone who has an authentic relationship with God and lives it out in who they are, they’re attracted to that even if they can’t articulate it.”
But what about the cultural factor?
There are volumes of stories, blogs and speculation online about how Kris’ easy-going story and Christian roots allowed him to defeat the enormously talented and somewhat ambiguous Lambert.
Townsell downplayed it, saying that many local people recognized Lambert’s talent and might have otherwise voted for him if it weren’t for Allen’s local connections. He also cited a Baltimore Sun television column run in the local Arkansas Democrat-Gazette looking at the cultural divide in rock ‘n’ roll going all the way back to Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson.
“We naturally think of Elvis because of his success and being named the ‘King of Rock ‘n’ Roll’ as having won out, but in their day, there was a real division between those two,” he said.
Carpenter said Kris’ demeanor is the type of Christian witness needed for Hollywood in general.
“I believe that when someone is following after God with humility there is attractiveness in that which can’t be found anywhere else,” Carpenter said. “You can’t fake that and it’s something that shines through in Kris.”
Baltimore Sun story comparing Kris Allen and Adam Lambert to Elvis Presley and Ricky Nelson: http://www.baltimoresun.com/entertainment/tv/bal-zontv-column-0517,0,2532025.column
Conway Log Cabin Democrat Kris Allen site: http://lcdesign.net/krisallen/
Stoby’s Restaurant: http://www.stobys.com/rest/conway/
Chi Alpha: http://www.xauca.com/XA_Web_Site/Home.html
Conway mayor Tab Townsell: http://www.cityofconway.org/departments/mayor/mayor.html