Caleb Lee Hutchinson is still a winner ... in romance

ATLANTA -- In a twist befitting a rom-com, Iowa singer-songwriter and "American Idol" winner Maddie Poppe is dating runner-up and Georgia country singer Caleb Lee Hutchinson.

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Rodney Ho
, Cox Newspapers

ATLANTA -- In a twist befitting a rom-com, Iowa singer-songwriter and "American Idol" winner Maddie Poppe is dating runner-up and Georgia country singer Caleb Lee Hutchinson.

The reveal was made on the season finale on ABC Monday night just minutes before host Ryan Seacrest named Poppe the winner. The crowd gasped as Hutchinson explained that they began dating during Hollywood Week.

The two 19-year-olds then sang a duet, a mash-up of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" and "What a Wonderful World." "Dreams really do come true," Maddie sang. The show then rewarded them a trip to Hawaii, courtesy of ABC owner Disney.

In a tweet after the competition, Hutchinson wrote a note to Poppe, saying that "no one deserved it more than you babe. I am honored to know you and even more honored to call you mine. Don't forget about me. I love you."

During "Good Morning America" Tuesday morning, Hutchinson said he was instantly into her. "It just took some time to convince her," he told Michael Strahan.

Keith Stell, Hutchinson's pastor, said in an interview that he had kept Hutchinson's romance secret for weeks and was surprised they chose to reveal it on air. "They just made this connection during Hollywood week," Stell said. "Their characters melded together. They share a lot in common."

Both are small-town kids who possessed big-city aspirations.

Ultimately, even though Hutchinson came in second, he came out a winner, Stell said.

"There is no way ABC could have scripted this," he mused.

Poppe, whose sweet voice evokes current pop artists like Colbie Caillat and Rachel Platten, was so overcome by emotion after she was named the winner, she could barely sing her victory song, "Going Going Gone." Midway through, the rest of the top 10 ran onstage to help her out.

The couple will have plenty of time together this summer because they'll be on a 47-city tour starting in July that includes the top seven and season eight winner Kris Allen.

Hutchinson's plans after the tour ends in September are not firm, but he has made it clear in interviews that he wants to pursue a serious music career. Hollywood Records, which has signed Demi Lovato and Nick Jonas, is obligated to sign the winner and the label has the option to pick up Hutchinson as well although it specializes in pop, not country.

Hutchinson has been playing music in public for several years around metro Atlanta. The "Idol" stage was far bigger than he had ever imagined. He got to duet with Bebe Rexa and on Monday's finale, Darius Rucker.

Most fans on social media were happy with the three finalists, which included third-place finisher Gabby Barrett of Pittsburgh, a versatile singer who could belt country and R&B songs with ease.

Their primary complaint was the brevity of the season, which ran only 11 weeks compared to 19 weeks during the peak years on Fox. There were only five weeks of live shows.

Michael Slezak, an "Idol" expert and former TVLine writer who used to do a hilarious weekly video show with season six singer Melinda Doolittle, felt the season went by too quickly. "No room for contestant growth, no time for viewers to truly fall for the contestants," he wrote me via text Monday night. "But there was still some of the earnest magic there -- and they got themselves a worthy winner."

"American Idol" will return in 2019 for a 17th season after solid ratings in its first year on ABC with the same judges and host.

Rodney Ho writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Email: rho(at)ajc.com.

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