The son of Kim and musician Neil Allen, Kris Allen grows up playing the viola and teaches himself guitar at 13. After attending the University of Central Arkansas, Allen drops out to pursue a career in music.
Allen's brother Daniel convinces him to audition for American Idol's eighth season in Louisville, Ky. Singing "A Song For You," the soft-spoken hopeful fails to impress judge Simon Cowell, who says, "I think part of the problem, Kris, is you, because you don't have a huge amount of personality." Despite the criticism, he advances to Hollywood Week.
Allen marries high school sweetheart Katy O'Connell in a sunset ceremony on the Arkansas river. "We just had a blast," he tells PEOPLE of the celebration, attended by 400 guests. "She's been my best friend for a long time. She's the coolest chick in the world."
Emerging as the competition's "dark horse," Allen wows audiences with his soulful performance of "Ain't No Sunshine" during Top 9 week. Though the judges show him no love, EW raves, "Kris's ability to consistently dial back on notes…makes it that much more delectable when he finally goes in for the power growl."
Vying for a spot in the final two, Allen makes a risky decision and performs Kanye West's "Heartless" accompanied by only an acoustic guitar. The stripped-down rendition wins over his harshest critic, Cowell, who praises, "I had written you out [of the competition]. That, however, has all changed."
Allen beats season-long front-runner Adam Lambert for the Idol crown. "I'm shocked," he tells PEOPLE. The gracious winner, who signs a deal with Jive Records, also congratulates his headline-making competitor (Lambert goes on to confirm he's gay on the cover of Rolling Stone). "Adam deserved this just as much as I do," says Allen. "He's an amazing performer, a gifted guy."
Allen's self-titled debut album is released and sells a disappointing 80,000 copies, making it the lowest first-week sales for any Idol winner. Rolling Stone, which describes most of the tracks on the album as "not bad," says, "The likability that helped Allen win last season is so carefully low-key here that it's nearly lost."
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): FOX; INF; Courtesy of Kris Allen; Frank Micelotta/Getty; Frank Micelotta/PIctureGroup for FOX.; Kevin Winter/Getty; amazon.com; Frazer Harrison/Getty