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The Happy Hickster

Clay Aiken sounds like Tootsie, looks like Opie, and hates to go out after dark. How will he ever survive New York?

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Clay Aiken is communicating with a groomer about his plans for his famous red hair. “We’re just kind of experimenting—if we can get it where we don’t have to cut it, wonderful. If we have to cut it, cut it,” he tells her. The stylist stares back at him, blankly. She has just met him and she will probably never see him again after this photo shoot, and she has pancake makeup and a blow-dryer but no scissors. “Oh, ahm not even talkin’ about today,” he says. “I mean big picture.” She still looks confused but asks what he will be wearing for the shoot. “We wore one of the possibilities,” he says, pointing at his sweater. “The warmer of the possibilities. But I don’t know, what are we wearin’?” He goes into the bathroom with his tour manager, Mary, and reemerges in a purply-blue striped shirt and a tie made out of matching material. “I will tell ya I wore this shirt in 2004 and I still fit into it. Because let me tell you: I got fat on that Paxil! I gained 30 pounds. And then I stopped tookin’ it … Tookin’ it. Pah-leeze quote me on that!” He lets fly one of his giddy guffaws. “I stopped takin’ it, and I swear twenty pounds just fell off.” It was for anxiety, not depression, Aiken says. “I was always nervous in public situations, and then I went from nobody lookin’ at me to everywhere I go, even if they don’t come up to me, they’re…” He mimes whispering and furtive glances.

Ever since Aiken placed second on American Idol in 2003, he gets recognized everywhere, always. “Even in New York. I was always told people in New York don’t care, and I think they probably don’t that much, but there’s a little bit of a different thing about Idol. I was with the woman who runs the ambassador program for UNICEF”—Aiken was appointed an ambassador in 2004—“so she’s worked with Katie Couric, people who are very recognizable, and she was one of the people who said that to me. And it was funny because a minute after she said it, as we’re walkin’ down the street, no fewer than five people said something to me. Just screamin’ from across the street! She said, ‘Ah have never seen anything lahk this in my life!’”

Although Aiken can depend on the adulation of strangers, he doesn’t know anyone in New York and is worried he will be lonely now that he’s moved here to take a role in the Broadway musical Spamalot, based on Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “I almost cried on the first day on my way to rehearsal,” he says. “I’m here until May 4, and I’ve never lived alone before.”

Realize: Before Aiken journeyed to Los Angeles to appear on American Idol at age 24, he had never been on an airplane. He had barely left his native North Carolina, except to drive west to the Tennessee border or south to Myrtle Beach with his beloved “Mama,” who wrote him inspirational notes on his lunch bags every day and to whom he dedicated his best-selling 2004 memoir, Learning to Sing. The book is an account of his childhood as an “insult magnet” who “looked like Howdy Doody,” and his stunning post-Idol rise to fame. (Aiken was the first artist in the history of the Billboard Hot 100 to debut at No. 1 with his first single. His album sold 613,000 copies in a week, more than any debut solo artist’s had in a decade. Aiken has now sold over 6 million copies of his three albums. His fans are obsessed with him and call themselves Claymates—they subdivide by nationality into Claysians and Claynadians and so on.) In Learning to Sing, Aiken writes, “I want to use my voice to inspire good in others. I never want to produce anything that a family could not enjoy together.… I do this because it feels right. I do this because if I didn’t my mother would snatch me bald-headed. As she should.”

Hair in place, shirt determined, Aiken takes his spot in front of the camera and makes a sort of soulful wince. “What’d you do, rob a church?” Aiken suddenly asks, looking around Andres Serrano’s studio at the photographer’s collection of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century carved Christs hanging from the stone walls. Serrano says the statuary comes mostly from antique shops in France and Italy and points out a Spanish Madonna from the twelfth century. Former senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina—for whom Aiken voted—made Serrano famous in the late eighties by attacking his Piss Christ, a red-tinged photograph of a crucifix submerged in a glass container of his own urine.


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