From Elle - October 2003
How did a baby-faced, jug-eared special ed teacher—and American Idol runner-up—become the fantasy fodder of sophisticated women everywhere? Allison Glock follows the rising star to find out

Clay Aiken smells like fresh laundry. It's the first thing you notice about him—that he's well-scrubbed, radiant in his cleanliness, a walking, freckled dryer sheet. The second thing you notice are his lips, which are plump and ripe and shell pink. Much has been made about his hair—the whole flatironed, geek-hipster red nest of it all—but little, too little, has been made of his lips, perhaps because most of the world has only ever seen them contorted and trembling in song.

Aiken, for the uninitiated, was the second-place finisher in this year's American Idol contest. “I lost,” he says, then laughs, which is easy enough for him to do since his single “This Is the Night” has already gone platinum. He has also graced the cover of Rolling Stone (before Idol winner Ruben Studdard did; the issue allegedly sold more copies than any in the last two years, including the Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera, and Eminem covers, to name a few). His first album, Measure of a Man (RCA), out in mid-September, was ranked number three on back in July. His fans range from Diane Sawyer (who admitted to a serious Clay crush on Good Morning America ) to Neil Sedaka, who cried on camera when Aiken covered his hit “Solitaire.” “His voice is incredible-the pitch, the tone,” says Sedaka. “I think he'll be the new Frank Sinatra.”

“So much has happened in the past nine months that I haven't had time to think,” admits the 24-year-old, from the back of the van that's shuttling him from New York City to a concert appearance in Hartford, Connecticut. “Honestly, last night I was sitting in the hotel room crying for about an hour. I had to call someone back in Raleigh to wake them up because I needed to talk. Certain things have just hit me.”

Most recently, it was his inability to take a walk.

“I wanted to clear my head, and I realized that if I were to take a stroll in New York, I'd have to wake my bodyguard, Jerome, and then I'm not really alone, so what's the point? I felt trapped and miserable. Sometimes I just want to go back to teaching.”
That's unlikely, because while Aiken was, by all accounts, a gifted special ed teacher working mostly with grade-school children, he possesses a voice that's impossible to ignore.

“I was going to go to music school but decided against it,” Aiken says. “I didn't see the point. Then I was running an after-school program at the YMCA, and I thought, Forget music, I love this. I want to work with kids with behavioral disabilities.”

But Aiken still sang at the Y, and when he sang, people noticed. Whenever he belted out a song—and he is a belter—the whole room quieted. Heads lifted. Eyes widened. Hearts swelled. When American Idol happened along, the mother of one of his students encouraged him to try out. Reluctantly, he did.

“I liked singing, but I never wanted to make a career out of it,” he says with a sigh. “When you work with kids who have autism, they don't reciprocate any affection. You learn to find your self-worth within what you do, not what people tell you about yourself. Now with all of this, I really have flip-flopped. Also, I'm not much of a crowd person. It's a lot to get used to.”

Unlike many of his fellow Idol finalists, Aiken didn't grow up a fan: “I never idolized celebrities or musicians.” Even now, he can barely name one. “I liked that guy in The Pianist [Adrien Brody],” he offers lamely when asked which famous people he admires. As a boy growing up in a conservative family in Raleigh, North Carolina, Aiken enjoyed TV but was limited in his viewing options. Even The Golden Girls was considered too risqué. As a result, Aiken is the rare pop idol who knows next to nothing about pop culture.

“You know who I idolized? Mr. Rogers. Is there a market for the next Mr. Rogers? Because I'd love to do that. I'd much rather be quiet and important like him than live large and be some useless celebrity.”

Aiken's ignorance of all things hot translates into a doofy authenticity and a captivating vulnerability. He's so uncool, he's cool. Dressed in loose khakis, a striped polo-style shirt, New Balance running shoes, and his ever-present WWJD bracelet, Aiken resembles a slimmed-down, Christian Charlie Brown. His hair is mussed but not in the artful, deliberate way it was on Idol.


His teeth are white, square, and shiny. The only concession to his newfound stardom is a $15,000 diamond-studded Jacob & Co. watch that was a gift from the Idol producers but that he's embarrassed to wear. “I was going to auction it off for charity, but it was a present, so I wear it. It's really a woman's watch. I liked it because it wasn't as ostentatious. Ruben wears the men's. He'll probably show it to you.”

Standing over 6' tall but weighing only 145 pounds, Aiken appears recessive, unintimidating, a gentle giant who consistently drives women between the ages of 16 and 60 into a frothy lather of lust. In addition to the Rolling Stone cover, there are the requisite Web sites devoted to all things Clay, run by women who call themselves Claymates and shilling everything from Clay coffee mugs to Claytionary (stationary embossed with his face). And then there are the panties.

“I got seven one night,” says Aiken with a giggle. “And last night, I got five thongs and two Depend diapers. One had a note attached that said, 'Clay, we love you too, from your older fans.'”

That women are so moved by his presence that they hurl their undergarments onstage as if he were Elvis mystifies Aiken: “Ruben always jokes with me that I could have any woman out there. He says, 'You need to hook up with somebody before you leave the tour.' But I try and explain that that's not what this is about for me. The reason women like me, I think, is because I don't threaten them. I realize Ruben's right, I probably could”—he pauses, blushes—“you know, but I respect women more than that.”

He wrinkles his brow, then shakes his head. “I am extremely flattered. There are some gorgeous women who are, quote, in love with me. But I think taking advantage of that is wrong.”

Besides, Aiken is a man who takes sex seriously. “I was raised by my mother and grandmothers, and a lot of what I am is because I wanted to be different from my birth father. He was a womanizer. When I had to go visit him, there would be a different woman over every time. I thought that was really tacky.”

When it's suggested that not many young men would forgo voluntary, anonymous sex with beautiful, knickerless girls, Aiken shrugs.

“If anything, women want to take care of me, to mother me. I think that's part of the reason I've sold a lot of records.”

The other part is the fact that Aiken can wring the juice out of any song he sings. The vocal love child of Celine Dion and Freddy Mercury, he belongs to the grand tradition of powerful, house-rattling singers who own the money note. When you listen to Aiken, two things happen: You want to hear more, and you want to sing along. There's also the unfiltered intensity of the sound mixed with the “Aw, shucks” innocent who's creating it. That dissonance is what first captured the judges' attention. “Where is that voice coming from?” they repeatedly queried, staring Aiken down, waiting for the true source to be revealed. Here was a sweet Southern mama's boy who sang like a big bad man. No wonder the panties are flying!

It's four hours before show time, and crowds are already forming at the Hartford Civic Center. Many of the fans hold cardboard signs with Clay's name written in big bubble letters. Other fans wear T-shirts printed with his photo.

Once safely beneath the stadium, Aiken emerges from the van and brushes the remnants of his Burger King fries off his pants. “I prefer Wendy's, but they aren't as popular up here.” He then explains how much he misses sweet tea, fried chicken, and all the other familiar amenities displaced Southerners long for when above the Mason-Dixon Line. “I had never left the state of North Carolina before American Idol,” he reveals. “I knew what I was going to be doing when I was 50—I was going to teach, then get a master's at William & Mary in administration, then be a principal somewhere. Now I don't know what I'm going to do next week.”

Even when Aiken talks, his voice is difficult to contain. The words rush out from his mouth in torrents, pitching and rising, quiet and loud.

“I want to live in Raleigh, but I know I can't. I tried to go to the ATM the one day I was home last year, and people swarmed my car. I was like, People, please, I just want to check my balance. Ironically, the only place I can really breathe is L.A. People there don't care.”

Just then, Studdard pulls up in a white Cadillac Escalade. He emerges in a white sweatsuit, his diamond watch blinging on his arm. He gives a friendly nod to Aiken, then scowls at his publicist for no ostensible reason.


“Don't look at me that way,” she chides, patting his shoulder with a familiarity suggesting this isn't the first time she's had to diffuse his annoyance.

Aiken pulls me aside. He wants to show me the tour bus, something I was told was off-limits to reporters. Aiken disagrees and confronts a tour manager.

“Ned, you're a lying sack of crap. Don't lie to the lady in front of me.”

“I guess I forgot,” Ned says sheepishly.

“You didn't forget for squat. Now we're going to have to have a fight. That burns me up.”

Aiken turns to me and says through his teeth, “You know what? You are so going on that bus.”

Aiken is nothing if not chivalrous. Considerate. Polite. He's the guy who asks you questions and actually listens to the answers—and even asks follow-up questions hours later, thereby proving that he finds you worth his attention. And he notices things. Like that the empty Burger King bag is rattling at your feet on the floor of the van, so he picks it up. Or that the air conditioner is too cold, and turns it down. It's this empathy and inherent graciousness evident in every press appearance and performance that leads many men to speculate that Aiken is gay (he has denied it) and even more women to say, Who cares?

“I don't think people know what to do with me,” Aiken says. “I'm interesting because they don't know what to do with me.”

The American Idol bus is less bus than nightclub. There are black leather lounge chairs, plasma TVs, marble floors, a neon-trimmed alcohol-free minibar, and beds with privacy curtains. As we open the back lounge door, Kimberley Locke (who came in third) lifts her head from the couch.

“Cla-ay,” she whines, “I'm having a crisis. I need you. I need you now.”

Aiken apologizes, then steps inside the lounge, says, “What is it, honey?” and shuts the door. Outside the bus, the other Idol girls walk around in skinny jeans and mascara, alternately complaining and striking poses like they're on MTV. In time Aiken emerges, apologizes again, then sits down with the crew for a dinner of peanut butter and jelly and a glass of, yes, milk. He playfully scolds a staff member for swearing. Idol Kimberly Caldwell (the sixth Idol to get the hook) joins the table wearing a handwritten T-shirt that says QUIT STARING, I'M HER.

While she picks apart a cinnamon bun, Aiken tries to articulate his ambition.

“Am I going to turn into a diva or try to make sure I do something valuable with my influence?” Caldwell chews and looks off into the distance. “That's why I'm starting a foundation for individuals with disabilities. [His charity, named the Bubel-Aiken Foundation, is named for the woman who encouraged him to try out for the show.] I would be more than happy to do this for three years and have enough clout to make a difference. I don't need to win a Grammy. Still, there are some people who would say I've turned into a diva already.” Caldwell laughs.

Aiken proceeds to give an example of the last time he went to KFC. “It was half an hour before closing, and they said they were out of chicken. It's KFC—how can you be out of chicken? So I'm starving and probably crankier than I should have been, and I said, 'You don't have any chicken in the building anywhere?' And she said, 'We have some wings that are kind of warm.' I said, 'I don't want wings, I want chicken.' And she maintains that she doesn't have any, so I say, 'You can't tell me that every morning you go out and kill some chickens and make it fresh. You know you've got chicken back there, so why don't you go back into the kitchen and cook it up?'”

Now the whole table is laughing.

“The point is, I would have said the same things before American Idol, but I wouldn't have been considered a diva. I just would have been considered myself.”

“Where did you learn to sing, Clay?” Caldwell asks, flipping her shoulder-length extensions behind her neck.

“At church, like everybody else.”

“I learned at a bar,” scoffs Caldwell, pushing back her chair and heading to makeup. Aiken looks around, lowers his voice, then whispers, “I'll bet she did.”


The Hartford show is sold out. Sixteen thousand people have come to watch the nine touring Idols sing and dance. The set resembles a beauty pageant, with dual staircases descending in a heart shape to center stage. There are three giant screens that simulcast the show. The tour is sponsored by Pop-Tarts.

Backstage, Aiken gets his hair ironed. He's wearing a dark suit and pointy Kenneth Cole shoes. Next to him, all the Idol girls pile on the makeup and hairspray. Aiken rolls his eyes.

“You know, Ruben and I did the radio show Zootopia at Giant Stadium, and 60,000 people showed up. I just laughed, because I don't get it. And people will chase the bus! And sometimes I laugh because, you know, we probably aren't gonna stop, honey.”

From the makeup mirror, Idol Julia DeMato announces that she and Aiken have been dating for six months. Uproarious laughter all around. Aiken says, “You wish.”

“I do wish,” she coos, kissing him on the cheek. Aiken smiles, wipes away the lipstick. “I think I'm probably not as innocent as I seem.”

Has he ever done anything he regrets?

“When I was 15, before I got my license, my dad bought me a car, and it was sitting in the yard, so I took it out. I drove it all around the city. I got caught and they sold the car.”


“Okay. How about I'm starting to regret this interview?”

The show has started, and it's Aiken's turn to sing. Kimberley Locke is onstage building him up, but you can't hear her because of all the “Woo!”ing. A look at the audience reveals that it is not a bunch of preteens, but couples and groups of women in their twenties and thirties who are squealing and raising their arms in anticipation. “We love you, Clay!”

Lifted on a platform from beneath the stage, Aiken emerges like a mirage from a cloud of smoke, microphone in hand.

“When the world wasn't upside-down/ I could take all the time I had/ But I'm not gonna wait when a moment can vanish so fast/ Lift me up!”

By the time Aiken hits the second chorus, the screaming makes him all but inaudible. He gamely keeps singing, but a smile slips through. It's clear he can't believe what's happening.

Locke gasps. “This crowd is crazy.”

Aiken finishes his number, then does his bit to introduce “Ruben Studdard, your American Idol!” The crowd yells again, but the enthusiasm is different, more appreciation than hysteria. Studdard is a terrific singer, but Aiken is the star.

Backstage, calm and happy, Aiken holds Locke's jacket while she mikes up. He adjusts her pants, tugging at them a little. “This is my real life now,” he says, dancing a little.
“I'm not going to change who I am. But I am concerned about how I handle myself. Will I be able to stay open and friendly?” His smile drops and he looks, for a moment, genuinely sad. Then he smiles again. “You come back in five years. If I've become someone else, you can look me up and slap me in the face.”

Back in the van, before the show and the fans and the shrieking, Aiken was stuck in traffic. He did not complain. He just told stories. About how he was approached about the leads in Rent and Urinetown. About how he can't dance. About how Justin Guarini's smoothness kind of gives him the willies.

And then he told a story about London, where he recorded his album.

“It was sunny the whole time I was there. But I was recording all day and everything closes at six, so I sat in the hotel room all night. I was only recognized once, when some South Africans who were still watching the show back home stopped me on the street. They said, 'Who wins?' I said, 'Do you really want to know?' And they said, 'Yes! Yes! Yes!' So I said, 'Me!' and then took off running down the street.”

Aiken laughs for a full minute, then exhales. “For one brief moment, I hadn't lost yet."

Clay Causes Commotion at Graduation
Students at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte are protesting the school's quota system after being told that they can only have seven tickets each to attend the upcoming graduation ceremony -- which is slated to feature "American Idol" star Clay Aiken.
Last week, about 500 students signed a petition labeling the ticket policy "unfair" and asking university leaders to meet with students to consider alternatives, the Associated Press reports.

"We're just not being treated right," Cody Willets, the senior leading the effort, tells AP.

The university says it is limiting tickets because Aiken 24, is now finishing an independent study course at UNCC and is expected to collect his Bachelor of Arts degree in special education at the Dec. 20 ceremony.

The school also says that the graduation class is large in number. More than 1,000 students are eligible, says AP.

But the students who want the tickets said the university didn't get around to announcing the seven-ticket limit until they had already invited friends and family to attend graduation.

Upcoming graduate Sherry Vadney proposes that the university come up with an extra ceremony to accommodate everyone. "We don't have a problem with Clay," Vadney said. "He's not requesting any special treatment. We just feel like there are other options."

Willets hopes to collect 1,000 more signatures on Monday, when classes resume after Thanksgiving, and meet with university officials on Tuesday.

November 18, 2003

PETA May Curb Catty Anti-Clay Campaign


The zealous animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had a brand new ad campaign planned to promote the spaying and neutering of cats and dogs -- only it wasn't very nice.
"Get Neutered -- It Didn't Hurt Clay Aiken," says Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, who is featured in the ad.

According to the PETA Web site, Aiken, 24, was targeted for such treatment because the "American Idol" runner-up recently said in a Rolling stone profile: "I think cats are Satan. There's nothing worse to me than a house cat. When I was about 16, I had a kitten and ran over it."

(In fact, Aiken went on to say, though the rest of his comments were overlooked by PETA: "Seeing that cat die, I actually think that its spirit has haunted me. I wasn't afraid of cats before. But now they scare me to death.")

Triumph, of course, is best known as a regular guest on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," and the trash-talking puppet (created by comic writer Robert Smigel) has released his first album, "Come Poop with Me."

"Triumph's big mouth may rub some people the wrong way, but his message in our new spay/neuter ad is right on the money," PETA director Daphna Nachminovitch declares on the Web site. "It's a case where a 'stitch in time saves nine' -- or 90 -- unwanted animals from a life of misery."

But now that PETA's attack on popular Clay has surfaced, the group now appears to be backtracking.

A spokeswoman for the group, Ingrid Newkirk, tells New York's Daily News that her organization is delaying and possibly killing the ad, which was to begin running this week. Newkirk cited a flood of protests from rabid Aiken fans, to say nothing of a call from his attorney.

"We're in a slight holding pattern," she tells the Daily News. "We're always flexible. We got a lawyer calling, and our lawyers said maybe we can work something out, make the ad evaporate, and put a leash on the insult dog."

Aiken has yet to comment on the ad. On Saturday, he's due to go home to Raleigh, N.C., to serve as grand marshal of the 59th Annual Raleigh Christmas Parade.

No word on whether he also fears reindeer.


PASSAGES: Clay's Old Yearbooks for Sale


SURFACED: Clay Aiken memorabilia is showing up online, from old yearbooks to videos of Clay dressed as Santa and singing Christmas tunes, reports the Associated Press. Marc Cram, a financial planner in Durham, N.C., found videotapes he made in the late '90s of variety shows where Aiken performed. Cram then edited out everything not related to the Raleigh-born star, made copies and put them up for auction on eBay, where the first one sold for $180. Other old "friends" appear to be following suit.


PASSAGES: Clay Fends Off Rod Stewart


SOLD: Clay Aiken, 24, held on to the No. 1 spot on the album sales chart for a second week as his "Measure of a Man" staved off the challenge presented by Rod Stewart's "As Time Goes By ... The Great American Songbook: Vol. II," according to SoundScan. "Measure" did slide 64 percent to sales of 225,000, though it still outsold Stewart by 12,500 units. The Eagles' two-CD "Very Best of the Eagles" took third place with sales of 161,000. Other debuts included Mandy Moore's "Coverage" (No. 14); former Immature singer Marques Houston (No. 18); and Something Corporate's third effort, "North" (No. 24).


Ruben to Get High-Profile Help


The upcoming debut album of "American Idol" winner Ruben Studdard will contain the experienced hands of two veterans: embattled R&B star R. Kelly and "Work It" singer Missy Elliott, reports MTV News.
Kelly, 34, who is currently free on bond after being indicted on child pornography charges last June, reportedly wrote and will produce an inspirational song for Studdard called "Send Me an Angel."

The album, to be called "Soulful," will be released Nov. 11.

"I've been touring nonstop and haven't had the chance to make my album the way I want to," Studdard, 25, said in a statement. "In order to work with the best of the best ... I need time to vibe with them so that I can put out the best album possible."

The Birmingham, Ala., crooner has already recorded a duet with Fat Joe and has been in studios with producers Harold Lilly (who has produced Monica and Deborah Cox) and Static (who has produced Jay-Z), says MTV.

Studdard's schedule should free up once the "American Idols Live Tour" concludes at the end of this month so he can concentrate on the album, MTV notes.

In the meantime, "AI" runner-up Clay Aiken's self-titled album is due Oct. 14 and involves the collaborative efforts of producers Steve Mac (who has produced Nick Carter), Clif Magness (Avril Lavigne), Steve Morales (Christina Aguilera), Rick Nowels (Dido) and Desmond Child (Cher), reports MTV.

Aiken, 24, is also due to sing "This Is the Night" Sept. 20 at the Miss America pageant, which will air live on ABC.


'Idol' Clay Aiken Gets Hometown Ovation


Ruben Studdard may have walked away with the "American Idol" championship, but runner-up Clay Aiken is a hero to his hometown fans whose applause nearly brought tears to the singer's eyes Wednesday night, reports the Associated Press.
Aiken, 24, who's on tour with the nine other finalists in the "Pop Tarts Presents American Idol Live!" tour, opened his performance at the RCB Center in Raleigh, N.C., with his single, "This Is the Night." At its conclusion the audience burst into a prolonged ovation for their hometown hero, AP reports.

"Thank you so much," Aiken said, after appearing to tear up at the tribute. "There's no place like home."

The "Idol" finalists are halfway through a 40-city tour scheduled to conclude on Aug. 31 in Anaheim, Calif.

Meantime, "American Idol" is getting some more competition in the TV talent-show genre. Showtime and Interscope Records have teamed up to create "The Next," a new six-part series hunting for the best up-and-coming rappers, USA Today reports.

Producers of the show say it will be less like "Idol" and more like the Eminem movie "8 Mile," in which rappers would battle each other one-on-one.

The episodes are due to begin airing in October.


Clay Aiken

The American Idol runner-up talks about his new album, his friendship with Ruben and the power of Stevie Wonder.By AMANDA ORR

"It's a lot of hard work," says Aiken, pictured in June, about recording his first album, Measure of a Man.
(Steve Granitz/

What's the measure of a man? If you're Clay Aiken, it's more than just a vote tally on American Idol. Ever since his second-place finish on FOX's hugely popular talent hunt (behind "velvet teddy bear" and good friend Ruben Studdard), the big-voiced 24-year-old from North Carolina has topped the charts with his single "Bridge Over Troubled Water/This Is the Night." Aiken is now finishing up work on his hotly anticipated debut album, Measure of a Man.
PEOPLE caught up with Aiken while he was in Washington, D.C., lobbying lawmakers to support the American Film Institute's Screen Education Program. It's a subject close to Aiken's heart: He was on his way to a career as a special education teacher before competing for the Idol crown.

When will we get to hear your album?
Soon. We are very close to being done — almost finished. We're actually waiting on Ruben (Studdard) to finish because his album comes out first. We're best friends, but we want to make sure that we don't compete with each other.

So, you and Ruben actually are best friends?
Oh my goodness, yes. We see each other every day, but when we don't, we talk on the phone.

Is making an album what you thought it would be?
It's a lot of hard work. Ruben and I talk about how amazed we are when we listen to older albums like Stevie Wonder (made) back in the '70s. You think to yourself, Stevie Wonder had to sing that song all the way through from beginning to end — with the band, in one take, with no mistakes, because they couldn't cut and paste. It amazes me.

And that's what surprised me, is how intricate the recording process is today. The microphones pick up any little difference between takes so you have to go back and record things over and over again. And you know, sometimes it gets a little old, especially when you're not singing the whole song. When I'm singing one line at a time, seven times in a row, I'm thinking, "I'm sick of that line, let's move on to the next one."

Who are you working with on the album?
Well, my album is solo, so there aren't any duets, but I'm working with a lot of amazing producers like Steve Morales — who wrote and produced for Enrique Iglesias and Shakira — Cathy Dennis, who wrote and produced Kelly Clarkson's "Before Your Love," and Desmond Child, who wrote a lot of Ricky Martin's biggest hits. I like that fact that every producer I've worked with is unique so they all bring something else to the table, and I learn something different from each one of them.

(But) everything on the album is true to me. There is nothing that is inappropriate. It seems like pretty often I have to turn the radio down when somebody comes on. This is an album that you can play completely through without having to turn it down at all.

After the album, what else is in your future?
I'd love to sing a duet with Faith Hill. I really want to sing one with her. I hope she reads this article. I know Simon said I should do Broadway, but it's not anything that I ever thought I'd be interested in. Maybe down the road I might consider it.
How are you adjusting to fame?
It still confuses me. Sometimes I just don't get it. Like today, I was did a press conference and there were fans there. And I was just never star struck personally.

Do you still get tips from judges Simon Cowell or Randy Jackson?
Nope, I don't. Randy helped us put the band together for the tour, and we got some really good advice from him about how to tour, and how to do a live show. That was really beneficial to us. Simon Cowell's record label is distributing the album when it goes international, so I haven't had any contact with him yet, but I will when that happens.

You seemed so confident on stage during the show. Were you nervous at all?
I was scared to death inside, but I told myself, "You can be nervous all you want to before and after, but while you're out there, you better hide it." Because if it shows, you'll get voted off.

What do you want people to say about the album when it comes out?
I want them to say, "I have seven copies."