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The Happy Hickster

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“Let’s not fool ourselves,” he says with his eyebrows up in his arch, queeny way. “The truth is? There are people like Justin Timberlake, males who are cool on radio right now, and then there’s me. If I heard myself in a dance club? If I went into a dance club—which I never do—and I heard Clay Aiken come on, I’d roll my eyes and get out. But you know what? I’m fine with being kind of vanilla! It’s oh-kye!” In his book, Aiken says that it’s not just clubs but also bars he dislikes: “The only reason people go to bars is to get drunk and have sex. To me, bars are what hell is like.”

He imagines his social life here will be “nonexistent, really. I’m not a nighttime person.” He does not plan on dating, and he is not involved with anyone. “Heck, no,” he says. “My dogs.” He has never had a romantic relationship with anyone, unless you count the girls he took to dances back in high school in Raleigh. “I just don’t have an interest in … any of that at all. I have got too much on my plate,” he says. “I’d rather focus on one thing and do that when I can devote time to it, and right now, I just don’t have any desire.”

But Aiken is 29 years old and he is also a human. Surely he must have needs. Urges. He contemplates this in silence for 20 or 30 seconds. “Ah think maybe I don’t! I mean, not really. I’ve just kind of shut it off, maybe. Is that bad?”

I believe that some people just don’t like bars. But I also believe that sometimes people create the conditions necessary for change before they realize they want to change in the first place. You don’t come to the city that never sleeps and put yourself in a show that mocks priests and culminates in a gay wedding if you are uninterested in expanding your horizons. Perhaps Clay Aiken is not a homosexual; not every person who is sexually thwarted is in the closet. But the thing that makes Aiken seem much younger than a nearly 30-year-old man is that he insists so incessantly that he is brimming with folksy self-acceptance when he so clearly doesn’t have a clue. I don’t think Aiken’s compulsive self-deprecation, his insistence that he is funny-looking, a dork, a nerd, a neuter, is going to withstand eighteen weeks in New York. I am convinced this city is going to crack Clay Aiken like an egg. Then I see him on Broadway.

I had forgotten: Between Eighth Avenue and Broadway, there’s a little patch of regular America, right in the center of Manhattan. Regular America loves Clay Aiken exactly the way he is. (They voted for him.) “Watch out,” says the guy at the box office who hands me my tickets for Spamalot. “Those Clay Aiken fans are insane. They scream like teenagers, but they’re middle-aged women!” Everyone manages to keep her underwear on during the performance I see, but they do make a joyful noise every time Aiken appears onstage in the role originated by David Hyde Pierce.

In a Broadway musical, Aiken is perfect—he can throw that cheesy, octave-spanning man-voice of his around all he wants and hit all those honky gospel notes. It sounds great! He can slowly, slowly raise his arms in the air as he holds a note for 45 minutes. He can make his corny, cartoony facial expressions, and onstage, they’re utterly appropriate. Also, musical theater takes place in a land only slightly more erotically charged than Smurf Village, so here Aiken’s suppressed, indeterminate sexuality seems logical, usual, male. And he doesn’t seem hick. Partly because the twang is replaced by an equally theatrical Cockney and partly because he’s in a funny show. (The theme of his big number is “You won’t succeed on Broadway if you don’t have any Jews.”) Every joke gets a roar. “When I’m up here onstage, I’ll be the idol of my age,” he sings, and the women go crazy. You can almost feel them sucked toward him by some unholy mix of maternal yearning and abject horniness.

This is something he’d told me about at lunch, when he acknowledged that the most ardent of his fans are not the preteen girls but their moms. “Don’t ask me why,” he said. “Ah wish I knew. Women, middle-aged women, like Clay Aiken.” But he has a “chasm” when it comes to his male audience that he does not like. “Somehow, they’ve kinda fallen out. For some reason, gay male, straight male, young kids, even adult men, some people are a little more hesitant to say they’re fans. I don’t know if I’m not cool enough for them or what.” This is why Aiken chose to make his Broadway debut in Spamalot—a show that rhymes “a lot” with “twat,” requires Aiken to break his no-cussing policy, and makes him say the noun Jew over and over—and not any of the other, more wholesome theatrical productions that have approached him since Idol. “You read the reviews, and everybody said Spamalot is one of the first shows that’s really just pulled guys into Broadway. So if the Claymates and the middle-aged women show up because of me, maybe some of these guys will get there and think, Okay, he’s not as dorky as I thought he was. He could pull off Monty Python. So at the end of the day, the next album will come out and they’ll think, Oh, I saw him in Spamalot, I’ll give him a shot. I hope that maybe Spamalot will do for us as we will do for Spamalot.

Us. We. He uses those words like one of those aggressively married women. But then he is married—to his brand, his team of staff, his celebrity, self-promotion. That’s what he was trying to tell me: He’s promosexual. And in New York City, that’s not so unusual. Perhaps Clay Aiken will fit right in.


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