Clay Aiken: Still Soaring

I don’t know what I was expecting when I got on the call with Clay Aiken, but I was surprised to find him such a warm, affable person. He laughed at almost everything we spoke about with a true belly laugh that was infectious. If you remember, Clay first gained popularity on the second season of “American Idol” where he wowed the judges and the rest of us with his soulful vocals. But I found there’s more to Aiken than that booming voice. He’s also a former special ed teacher, actor, politician, activist, and father. On April 28, which also happens to be my birthday, he and fellow “American Idol” veteran Ruben Studdard, aka the “Velvet Teddy Bear”, will be performing their “Twenty Tour” at Parx Casino. He took time out from the tour to have a word with me. You’ll have to imagine his charming, southern drawl. 

I know that you’re from Raleigh, North Carolina. Describe your neighborhood. 

It was a pretty typical Southern subdivision. It was a very quiet neighborhood, half acre lots where everybody’s house looked about the same. I know my friend Carrie and I had the exact same house, just different colors on the outside. I don’t think kids really know their families financial status growing up, but I think we lived a little bit higher class than we probably were. My mom and step-dad were scrimpers and savers, so we lived in a neighborhood that was a little bit better than we could actually afford. But as a trade-off, I ended up having Payless shoes instead of the name brands that everyone else had.

Tell me a little about your parents, were either of them creative?

I think there was some musical talent in the Aiken family somewhere along the way. I know my maternal great-grandfather is in the Library of Congress for playing fiddle and banjo and folk songs. My mom says that she’s not very good at singing but when I was younger I used to get her to sing for me, or with me at church, so I know the ear is there.

Aiken is your mom’s maiden name, what prompted you to use that and do you know the origin?

I didn’t know my birth father much growing up. He and my mom got divorced when I was one. I knew him but didn’t have a relationship with him. But I was very close to my maternal grandparents so I decided to take my mom’s maiden name when I turned 18. It’s a Scottish name, I know that much. We traced Aiken and Clayton, which was my maternal grandmother, Catherine Clayton Aiken. That’s where I got my name from; I’m her without the Catherine part! So anyway, we traced the names back. I’m an 11th generation North Carolinian. They moved from Scotland to about 20 minutes from where I am now in 1768 and that’s about as much as we know. I need to go on one of those shows, “Who do you think you are?” or “Finding Your Roots” to find out beyond that. I did do one of those “23 & Me” things and found out that I’m about as boring as they come. The DNA test came out 98% Scottish and Irish. 

Well, at least you have permission to wear a kilt now. 

[Laughing] Yes! I wish we wore those more often, it would be so much more comfortable in the summer, wouldn’t it? 

Okay, I read that you and I have two things in common. The first is GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian, Straight, Education Network. I used to be on the board in Philadelphia and I understand that you’ve worked with them and testified with them in Washington about anti-gay bullying, and the second thing is a love for Jimmy Carter. 

[Gasps] Oh, don’t get me started on Jimmy right now. I’m so nervous, so nervous. I’m afraid to watch TV because I don’t want to hear anything. I’m so proud to be born a Carter presidency baby. Since he was a one termer, there are fewer of us but I love it. I mean, wouldn’t it be wonderful if all politicians had that same heart to serve. Has there been anyone like him since or will there ever be again? It really worries me and it breaks my heart that he’s, well… I worry for Rosalynn too. They’ve been married for over 75 years, she’s 95 and I fear that as soon as he goes, she’ll go. Ugh, [laughing] now I’m depressed!

I’ll try to brighten it: my mother was his assistant press secretary for PA and one of her assignments was to escort his mother, Miss Lillian, around. This was right after the news outlets had made a big fuss over her new hairdo so someone asked her about it and she said, with her heavy southern drawl, “Well, I have a new hairdresser and he’s wonderful. He’s a homosexual but you can’t print that because his mama don’t know yet.” 

[Laughing] His mama knew! Oh my gosh, that so amazing! What a story! I got to meet him in 2004. I did something for Rosalynn’s Caregivers organization and he was there. I got to meet him and I can still play the entire experience in my head. It’s one of the most vibrant memories I have. He’s the example that I wish more people would try to live up to. Even do half of what Jimmy did and we’d be in much better shape

I’m glad that he did later get recognition as a statesman and humanitarian. 

Yeah, in some weird ways I wonder if sometimes the folks who are the best people are the worst politicians, and I say that having spent more time in the political world that I care to admit. Because to be successful in that world you have to be ruthless and heartless at times, even the nice ones that we like.

Speaking of that, when you won the [2014 congressional] primary, did you have that Sally Fields moment, “They like me! They really like me!” 

No, I didn’t. When I started the race, the polling was incredibly in my favor but I was running against someone who spent a LOT of money trashing me. And doing everything they could to make me out to be a bad person. I won, but by way less than I hoped. I was ahead by 80 points in the beginning, and by the end I squeaked ahead by 1 or 2 points at the end. I was so stressed out. Ironically, the race against the republican opponent was less nerve-wracking even though I lost because I knew how to debate what we disagreed on. Primaries get personal, and I don’t like that. [Laughing] I don’t want to swim in that pond again! 

I didn’t realize how many different causes you were involved with, including the one you founded, the National Inclusion Project. What’s that about? 

After I graduated high school, my expectation was to be a Special Ed teacher. During the school year, I was in a classroom with special needs kids with autism, and after school I worked one on one with one student. During the summer I worked at the YMCA summer camp, and one summer on the first day of camp I was walking around and came across the sister of one of the kids I taught during the school year. She told me that her sister was in a group with some older kids, and let me tell you that scared the living crap out of me because I knew she was very low functioning and not equipped to be at that camp. I ran so fast I think my feet only touched the ground twice as I flew to the other side of camp. I found her and she was exhibiting some of the behaviors that were unsettling for some of the other campers, making strange noises, etc. The other counselors didn’t know what to do, so I took her with me. We went to the office where my boss told me to call her parents to have them pick her up and I said, “Hold on now, her parents should have let someone know their child has autism, but they’re relying on this camp to take care of their child while they work. We’re not going to punish them, we’re going to figure it out. And it became a big battle, but in the end, she was allowed to stay but she had to stay in my part of the camp and we adapted some things so that she could participate. 

But it always ticked me off that the YMCA didn’t have the capability or capacity to include kids with disabilities. Not just the YMCA but other summer and after school programs too. So after Idol happened, I decided to go ahead and, along with the mother of one of my other students, came up with a way to train programs to be inclusive to make sure that kids aren’t left out. The National Inclusion Project. 

You’re a fighter, Clay Aiken! I also read that you challenged camp faculty by insisting that singing “overtly Christian songs” was inappropriate, as some of the kids were Jewish. 

Oh gosh, where did you read that? That’s an old story! I don’t know that I’m a fighter, but I like to think that I’m principled and stand up for things I believe in. I might also just be a stubborn person. Ha! 

Tell me your coming out story, it must have been scary in the public eye.

It’s different for everyone. Don’t you feel like you came out more than once? I think my coming out was similar to a lot of other people except that once I had come out to everyone I knew, and was living my life relatively openly, I had to do it one more time to everyone I didn’t know. [Laughs] I didn’t come out to myself until I was on Idol. I met someone while I was out in LA. and that started me on my journey. Later when I became a father I came out quietly, on the cover of People magazine! 

Wow, subtle! So on to the music, how did a little Scottish/Irish boy end up choosing a soulful R&B song like, “Always and Forever” for your Idol audition?

[Lets out a laugh] I didn’t! This is a crazy story. I went to my 9th grade choir teacher before I went to audition and said, “Let’s come up with several songs I can have in my head so I’m prepared.” One of them was “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” ha ha! That’s a little obvious. One was “Arthur’s Theme,” [sings “If you get caught between the moon and New York city…”], then another Christopher Cross song, “Sailing,” and the last one was, “Always and Forever.” So I got to the audition and it’s like a cattle call. They bring 5 people in and you step forward, say your name, sing your song and step back. I was so nervous. I’d gotten cut in Charlotte and even though at first I didn’t even want to audition, when I got cut I was like, “Oh hell no! You’re not going to cut me the FIRST day!” As I said before, I’m very stubborn, so I went to Atlanta the next week and auditioned a 2nd time. Atlanta was packed, there were thousands of people there and I got super nervous.

When I stepped forward, I completely blanked and I could not think of ANY of the 5 songs. Not one. But I opened my mouth and, I bet you don’t even know what this is, out came, [singing] “Standing tall on the wings of my dream. Rise and fall, on the wings of my dream.” Do you know what this is Suzi? “The rain and thunder, The wind and haze” Do you recognize it yet? No? Okay, I opened my mouth and I shit you not, I sang the theme song to “Perfect Strangers”, you know the TV show with Balki and his cousin. That was the ONLY thing I could pull out of my head! I can still see the look on the producer’s face as I stepped back to my place and thought, ‘Oh my God, what did I just do?’ I just camped on the street for two nights, and I just ruined it.’ Thank God, the producer dismissed everyone else and said, “What was that?” and I stammered out the answer. He said, “do you have anything else you can sing?” Fortunately, at that moment, all 5 songs came back to me. So for the initial audition, this Scottish/Irish boy did not come up with “Always and Forever,” he came up with the whitest TV theme song in history! 

That is hysterical! 

Yeah, when I mentioned “Always and Forever,” he was like, “Uh yeah, do that one. Don’t ever do that other one again. He’s still there and still laughs about it. 

I love it. You should add the theme song to the act! And since we’re on it, tell me about the tour with Ruben Studdard. It’s called The Twenty? 

Yes, it’s been 20 years since we were both on American Idol, so we’re celebrating. We like performing together and we trust each other. We are really different so I think we compliment each other well. When I first ran for office, I stopped performing and hadn’t had much intention of going back, but when Rubin came and said, “Hey look, it’s our 20th anniversary, we have to do something.” We started talking and reminiscing about our individual and shared memories because we both went through it all, side by side. It was interesting to hear things that I’d totally forgotten about, and there was a magic about sharing the experience. And that’s part of the show, us sharing our stories. 

Neither of us had seen [our season of “American Idol”], because it was live and we were there! But we were able to get a copy of it and we watched it simultaneously, which was wild. Because when we were on the show, we had no idea that it had blown up in the 2nd season. I had no idea that there were 40 million people tuned in. It felt like the 300 people in the audience was it. I kept calling my mother every week saying, “Mom, why aren’t you here, I’m going to get kicked off any minute!” She didn’t come until the top 6. So even though we knew the outcome, it was fun to relive it with Ruben in the way a viewer might and feel the excitement build each episode! 

And what can people expect at the concert?

You know, we thought it might be fun to go back and relive 2003 again. We will be doing some of the songs that both of us have recorded since then but the bulk of the show is talking about Idol and giving some backstage stories and secrets, talking about what it was like for us and performing some of the songs we sang on the show. On the show they had a Motown week, so we’ll be singing some Motown, obviously I’ll do “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and Ruben will do “Fly Without Wings.” We try to recapture some of that magic from those early days. Granted I’m quite a few pounds heavier and quite a few wrinkles older, but I don’t think either of us really had a chance to appreciate it the first time around, so this time we can really enjoy it with everyone! Hey, they’re reviving everything else, “The Connors” is a reboot of “Roseanne,” the “Will and Grace” reboot got great ratings, even “Night Court,” so why not us? I think people are extra stressed out from the past several years and we’re all looking for something just fun and comforting. In 2003, we went to war in Iraq, and Idol gave people a distraction. I think we could use that again right about now. 

We sure could. 

Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken