The Happy Hickster

Photo: Andres Serrano; Grooming by Losi for the Wall Group

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.

“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…”

Clay Aiken?

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.

“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.

The Incredible Rise (and Many Hairstyles) of Clay Aiken

Photo: From left, Courtesy of Clay Aiken; Charles Ommanney/Getty Images; Vince Bucci/Getty Images; Lisa Rose/AP; Bruce Glikas/Film Magic

Carolina Boy
Clay claims he was “clumsy” and “spastic” as a child growing up in Raleigh, North Carolina.

American Idol
Behind the scenes, Clay was still just a special-ed teacher who loved his mama.

Sweet Second Place
The spiky-headed singer lost the Idol title to Ruben Studdard, who was dropped by his record company in December 2007.

Hollywood Virgin
When Clay appeared at L.A.’s Megastore, two Claymates ended up tattooing his autograph onto their backs.

Blame It on Broadway
Clay (not Carrot Top) bows and smiles at the many mothers who flocked to his opening night in Spamalot.

The Happy Hickster