“Well,” Aiken says, “it’s very creative in here.”
Aiken is religious himself and attended Southern Baptist church as a child. “I went back last October with my mom for the first time in five years, and it was very uncomfortable because there was people who didn’t listen to what was going on; they just stared at me the entire time. I was like, This is chah-urch, people! This is God’s house, not a meet and greet!” He sounds very much like Dustin Hoffman as Tootsie. “But I’m in New York now. If I can find a church and sneak in, it’s definitely a goal of mine. I definitely want to get back to it, even though you don’t have to go to church to be a good Christian. That’s just not the case. You don’t have to go to temple to be a good … you know … what’s the noun?” He’s kidding. Sort of.
I have to wonder if Clay Aiken is prepared for New York City. It’s not that he’s stupid. He’s actually well-informed, really into the elections (sad that Joe Biden dropped out; Aiken has become a Democrat), and quite the impressive little charity worker. Before Idol, Aiken was a special-ed teacher and, frustrated by the failure of his beloved YMCA to take special-needs cases in its summer camps, he has since started his own foundation for disabled youth. “And I visit middle schools after I go to Uganda or wherever with UNICEF, but I rarely say, ‘Donate.’ I usually say, ‘Read about what’s going on in the world! There’s a war going on for twenty years in Uganda!’ The media doesn’t talk about this because they’re more concerned with Paris and Britney and…”
“Hell-o! Mah God. What really freaks me out is now the kids who are growing up, if they do watch the news, it doesn’t have anything to do with the world, so what’s gonna happen? Is any kid gonna wanna be involved in public affairs?”
Surely he must have needs.“Ah think maybe I don’t! I mean, not really. I’ve just kind of shut it off, maybe. Is that bad?”
No, he’s not stupid, but playing the hick dummy is definitely part of his shtick. “All the people are so nice.… They can prob’ly tell I’m not very bright,” he says of his new castmates at lunch the day after the photo shoot and follows it up with his showy southern guffaw. But he’s actually perfectly sharp and also perfectly normal-looking: Sitting on a red banquette at Sardi’s, Aiken is not fat but not thin, strawberry blond, freckled, sporting your basic face. His thing, though, since he came into the public eye, has been to proclaim his homeliness. When he was on Idol, he prophylactically drew attention to his big ears, shrewdly beating the evil Simon Cowell to the punch. Here’s how Aiken explains it in his book: “I said it directly: ‘I know I look weird; I don’t care.’ So what did Simon say that night? He said, ‘You know what, you may not look like a pop star, but I think that’s what makes you so special.’ Gotcha!”
But New York’s is not a culture that smiles on false humility or unprocessed self-loathing. And this is the angle Aiken has been working for decades. “Ahm kinda nerdy,” he declares. “I’m not cool, I’m nerdy.” This is absolutely central to his self-conception—or his marketing strategy, which at this point may be indistinguishable. He uses the words dork and geek and nerd more in one hour than most people do in a year.
And while it is true that he is wearing a green sweater with yellow trim on one sleeve and pink trim on the other over a white shirt with bright-green stripes, it is also true that Clay Aiken is beloved, a bizarre sex symbol. He has been in People magazine as one of its Sexiest Men Alive. Despite the fact that Aiken is so widely assumed to be gay that Rosie O’Donnell accused Kelly Ripa of homophobia when Ripa recoiled at having Aiken put his hand over her mouth during an interview, there are women—a lot of them—who absolutely lust after him. So many women threw their underpants onstage during his first tour that on the following two Aiken tours, he had commemorative panties for sale at the concession stand. The pace of the panties has slowed recently, but the occasional pair still flies Clayward as he belts out “I Want to Know What Love Is” or “Everything I Do (I Do It for You).” “I just went on tour for Christmas, and I think somebody threw some up onstage,” he says. “I was with the Minnesota symphony, which I thought was a little out of place—panties with a symphony. But on the Idol tour? I got five or six a night. Ah mean, it was a joke. I think they collected some 300 panties.” Given this, I ask Aiken if his dork identification isn’t a little outmoded.