ABILITY Magazine: Clay Aiken Article Illustration Interview with Clay Aiken by Chet Cooper

In a day of reality-show instant celebrities, still only a select few know the exhilarating adventure of being plucked out of anonymity and thrown into the proverbial fishbowl of super-stardom. These men and women are members of a club that share the virtues of grit, determination and raw talent. Membership in this club grants fame, fortune and opportunity, and to each of these Aiken is now privy.

For weeks Aiken sang, danced and withstood disparagement from the show’s most critical judge, Simon Cowell. Despite Cowell’s criticism of his non-pop star image, Aiken’s success is a nod that true talent still prevails. With a change of hair color and a few minor wardrobe adjustments, Aiken has morphed into a real-life pop star. While Aiken may have acquiesced to a few minor alterations, he has stayed true to himself and his passion, using the stage of American Idol as a platform to raise awareness and money for children with disabilities.

In 1978, Clayton Aiken was born thousands of miles from Tinseltown in Raleigh, North Carolina. By age three, his talent and love of performing had become apparent. Standing on carpet samples at the local Sears where his mother worked, Aiken would sing for the reward of a dollar per song. As a child, his musical inspirations came from listening to country radio stations. The first single he ever bought was “Meet Me in Montana” by Marie Osmond. Aiken later sang in the Raleigh Boys Choir and appeared in high school productions of Oklahoma! and The Music Man. Soon thereafter he did a dinner theatre stint of The Sound of Music. It was not long after graduating from high school that Aiken discovered he had a talent for more than singing and acting—he loved to teach.

North Carolina has one of the most progressive programs in the country for teaching children with developmental disabilities, known as the Community Alternatives Program for persons with mental retardation/developmental disabilities (CAP MR/DD). While Aiken was working for CAP, one of his students, Mike Bubel, relentlessly encouraged him to audition for American Idol. In appreciation for Bubel’s faith in him, Aiken has set up the Bubel-Aiken Foundation, which breaks down the barriers that prevent families from obtaining the services and financial assistance they need. The Bubel-Aiken Foundation will also focus on the integration and full inclusion of people with developmental disabilities in educational, employment and recreational settings.

Prior to competing in American Idol, Aiken’s career goals had nothing to do with entertaining. “I decided to study special education and fell in love with working with individuals with autism. That’s what I planned to do with my life,” he explained. In fact, Aiken envisioned himself as a high school principal by age 50. The transition in goals from high school principal to pop star is a radical contrast.

These days Aiken is enjoying phenomenal success after touring with American Idols Live! His album, Measure of a Man, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard charts and he made a historical debut with his single, “This Is the Night,” which also charted No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100—an accomplishment which hasn’t been done since Elton John’s tribute to Princess Diana, “Candle in the Wind, 1997.”

ABILITY’s Chet Cooper and Jennifer Melendres recently sat down with Clay Aiken and discussed his sudden success and the future of the Bubel-Aiken Foundation.

Chet Cooper: I had an opportunity to view your schedule and you’re doing one interview after another. How are you holding up?

Clay Aiken: I’m pretty used to it at this point. I haven’t even seen a schedule for today. I don’t know what I’m doing. (laughs) I sometimes think I might be autistic because I like to know—I need to know—my beginnings and my ends. I don’t have to be in control of it, but I need to know what’s going on.

CC: You’re scheduled to be taping several shows. How do you feel about being in the spotlight?

CA: People always say, “You’re going to be on TV tomorrow. How do you feel?” I was on TV for almost sixteen weeks during American Idol. It’s at the point now where it’s old. I’ve done shows, local shows especially, and they’ll say, “This is the microphone and I’m going to put this pack right here…” Give me that. (laughs) I know how to wear a pack. When we did American Idol, especially the week of the finale, I thought all I did was give TV interviews all day long, everyday.

CC: Did you ever imagine yourself in this position?

CA: God, no. I auditioned just for fun. I thought about that the other day after I went to the grocery store and had to sign fifteen autographs before leaving. On one hand, it’s just so flattering. On the other hand, sometimes it would be nice to get the bread and leave, you know?

CC: You mean get your paycheck? (laughs)

CA: (laughs) No, get the loaf of bread and leave. Somebody once said, “You asked for it.” And I thought, “Did I really ask for it?” When I auditioned for this thing, I never for a second believed that I was going to be here today. I never thought I was going to be in the top
fifteen, much less the top two.

Jennifer Melendres: Of course, you hoped you might.

CA: I think I probably hoped for it a little bit, but I’m not an optimist. I’m a realist…or maybe even a pessimist.

CC: Is the glass half empty?

CA: The glass has water in it; that’s all I know. (laughs) I didn’t think I’d ever make it. Seventy thousand people. Six thousand people in line in Atlanta. I was not expecting to make it through that line of six thousand, much less go to Hollywood. It gives me the chills to even think about it. It really does. I just thought, “Let’s go out and spend a weekend in Atlanta and audition.”

JM: How do you like your new look?

CA: I got rid of my glasses and they changed my hair. That’s really all they did. They went shopping for me, so the clothes are different too. It wasn’t like Extreme Makeover where I got a nose job or anything. I went into it initially saying, “If I’m going to lose this, I’m going to lose it on my terms. I don’t want anybody messing with me. I’m going to dress the way I want to dress.” And then I lost it on my own terms, and when I came back for the wild card show I said, “Okay, do whatever you want to do with my hair. That’s fine.” (laughs). I still wore what I wanted to wear and I made it through. Once I made it to the top twelve I thought, “Well, I’m going any week now, so I might as well let them do whatever they want.” Somebody asked me, “Aren’t you offended when they say you look nerdy?” I’m not, because I don’t put any emphasis or stock in that. I don’t care. I don’t judge a person by how they look so it doesn’t matter. As long as I don’t change [in my heart and in my head] then I’m the same person. It’s just a different wrapping.

CC: As you continue to grow in popularity, do you see yourself putting up a wall to maintain your own sanity?

CA: Realistically, there’s a good possibility that might happen. If I’m signing autographs and I see one hundred people in a line I’ve got to remind myself, “That person is one one-hundredth of my day, but to them I’m their day.” You know what I mean? Unless they meet J.Lo later on.

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More stories from The Clay Aiken issue: (2003)

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