CLAY AIKEN, WHO CAME IN SECOND TO RUBEN “The Velvet Teddy Bear” Studdard in the most recent American Idol contest on Fox, has been keeping a few things to himself. During the months he tenored his way up the competition’s ranks — he missed winning by a mere 134,400 votes out of 24 million, a margin of one half of one percent — he didn’t reveal much more than that he was a good-natured, Baptist-churchgoing twenty-four-year-old with a goofy grin, mudflap ears, penguin-size feet and a pure crooner’s voice that at one point, while working through his rendition of “Solitaire,” brought guest judge Neil Sedaka almost to tears. Aiken was viewed as a kind of genial innocent, largely untouched by the vagaries of life, with a scant biography that nonetheless went far in enlarging his voting bloc. “Refreshingly normal,” Newsweek called him. He loved kids, loved working with kids as a veteran YMCA camp counselor in his hometown of Raleigh, North Carolina, especially kids with autism, and was a senior at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, majoring in special ed. He gave every indication of having been raised among saints.
But the show is over now, and he’s walked away with a recording contract of his own, from RCA Records. So certain things he may have felt it wise to hold close before, he no longer does. He’s scared of water, detests house cats, vastly prefers instant grits to real and bites his toenails: All this he can freely admit to, in that cheerful silky-twangy Southern accent of his. And then one day, he seems to surprise even himself — “I can’t believe I’m talking about this!” — by saying a few words about his father, one Vernon Grissom, whose last name he had until four years ago, when he legally replaced it with Aiken, his mother’s maiden name.
He says these things at an outdoor restaurant in Los Angeles, on Sunset Boulevard, where he’d just ordered a bowl of spaghetti Bolognese. He was sitting with his retinue (two publicists and a bodyguard who he half-suspects even tastes his food, for poison) and trying not to notice all the other patrons gazing in his direction. “I’m really not that special,” he said. “Really, I’m not. I was on a big TV show, but it was just a TV show. I’ve even had waiters give me their head shot. Like, why? What can I do?” He seemed honestly perplexed by his new celebrity status and not happy with some of it. When one of his publicists began gawking at another celebrity — “I think he was on Magnum, P.I.,” she said — Aiken glowered and said, “You know what? Please don’t stare at people. You should go sit with those people over there. They like to stare at people, too.” After that, he chatted pleasantly about his morning pedicure and manicure; about how before American Idol the show he really wanted to be on was Amazing Race; about meeting Britney Spears; about how somebody offered his mom, Faye Parker, $16,000 for his 1999 Honda Accord with 88,000 miles on it, if only he’d autograph the dashboard.
“My mom said, ‘Is it OK?’ I said, ‘Hello! I owe $5,000 on it. Of course it’s OK.”‘
Then he was asked to tell the story of the first ten years of his life.
“Are you kidding me?” he said, laughing loudly. But a few moments later, he was off and telling what he had never publicly told before. “My mom and Vernon got separated when I was one. We kind of lived on the run — actually, not on the run so much as we moved back and forth to stay away from him. He was an alcoholic and violent and whatnot. We moved so he wouldn’t know where I was.” He went on to request that Vernon Grissom not be referred to as his father. His father, he said, was Ray Parker, his mother’s second husband, who died last July: “He is the only dad I ever had.” He said that he himself most often refers to Vernon Grissom either by his first name or simply as “my sperm donor.”
A waiter arrived with his spaghetti. Aiken said grace, silently, and when he lifted his eyes, he asked to talk about Vernon later. Right now, he would just like to enjoy his food.
THE THING ABOUT CLAY AIKEN is that he is genuinely nice, open and warm. In Raleigh, in the sunny areas surrounding the leafy middle-class neighborhood where he grew up, this is well-known and stated nearly ad nauseam by everyone who has ever come into contact with him. The encomiums flow freely from Mr. Murphy, his high school principal; from Mrs. Fitzpatrick, his high school attendance officer; from any number of other teachers; and from all of his childhood friends, both male and female, of which he has many. Clayton Aiken — everyone in Raleigh calls him Clayton — is and always has been enthusiastic, outgoing, funny, unique in spirit and dress (the only one in his school to wear yellow high-top sneakers), rarely a disciplinary problem, not a smoker, not a drinker, not a partyer, “sweet and thoughtful, a great catch for somebody,” charismatic and “so nice you could never be mean to him.” They do hold it against him that he likes to wear plaid shorts. And maybe all that Mrs. Fitzpatrick can say about his attendance record is that it was “good.” And maybe when somebody uses the word “retarded” in a sentence, such as “That’s so retarded,” he does tend to come on a little strong with the lectures. In general, though, as Principal Murphy likes to point out, “He was absolutely a gift. A gift.”