Clay Aiken: New Kid on the Block - Rolling Stone
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Clay Aiken: New Kid on the Block

He transformed a number-two finish on “American Idol” into instant stardom. Now he talks about the trauma that turned him into a survivor

Clay Aiken

Clay Aiken performs 'Invisible' during 31st Annual American Music Awards in Los Angeles, California on November 16th, 2003.

Chris Polk/FilmMagic/Getty

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.”

Gaping eaters aside, nothing much seems to bother him, either, his overall philosophy being “There’s nothing so wrong that it can’t be easily fixed or easily ignored. I just let things roll off.”

Some people, for example, seem to think that because he is slender, has long, fluttering eyelashes, and currently doesn’t have a girlfriend, he must be gay. Indeed, after Aiken somewhat awkwardly tossed the first pitch at a Durham Bulls minor-league baseball game, dreadful comic Jimmy Kimmel felt called upon to tell his talk show’s audience, “But that’s OK, folks, because Clay’s a catcher, not a pitcher.” Even so, this kind of stuff seems to amuse Aiken more than it upsets him.

“One thing I’ve found of people in the public eye,” Aiken says, “either you’re a womanizer or you’ve got to be gay. Since I’m neither one of those, people are completely concerned about me. They’re like, ‘What are you, then?’ I’m sure it has to do with being raised by women. I wouldn’t want somebody gawking at my mom and grabbing her butt and catcalling at her, trying to hook up with her at a bar. I’m not saying I’m not going to look. Hello! But you know what I mean?”

He’s also a good sport and fun to spar with. “So, what’s your position on premarital sex?”

“My own personal position is that it’s much more special to wait for the person who you’re married to.”

“Are you a virgin?”

“Well, this morning, while getting my manicure and pedicure, I watched a biography of Britney Spears on TV. In it, she said that she regrets ever saying anything about it. So, I hate to repeat myself, but: I think it’s much more special to wait for the person who you’re married to.”


“Are you kidding me? I hope that’s a question and not a proposition! Anyway, I don’t think it makes you go blind.”

“And you know that from personal experience?”

“You stop right now!”

“Breakfast cereal?”

“Cinnamon Toast Crunch!” he says positively, with much relief in his voice.

ACTUALLY, AIKEN’S OWN OPINION of himself is slightly different from that of his hometown friends and fans. It’s true, he says, that he was “bubbly” and that his face was the one most often seen singing songs at school events, his voice the one that rang through his school’s loudspeaker system, reading the morning announcements. But among his peers, he says he was generally the quieter one. “In my circle, I wasn’t Ferris Bueller, I was Ferris Bueller’s friend.” he says. “I’ve never minded being the sidekick, which is why coming in second place on American Idol is totally a nonissue for me. My feeling is I got lucky. I love Ruben to death. He’s happy for me, and I’m happy for him. But there’s not as many expectations for me. If my first album flops, all I have to say is, ‘What’d you expect? I didn’t win.”‘

He began singing when he was sixteen months old, mostly country tunes he heard in his mother’s car as they drove around. Willie’s “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” was an early favorite, as was “Islands in the Stream,” by Kenny and Dolly. Both his mother, Faye, and his father, Ray, worked for Sears — she as an in-house interior designer, he in home improvements. “The people there loved him,” his mother recalls. “They’d put him up on the counters and say, ‘I’ll give you a dollar to sing.’ Sometimes they’d even pay him five dollars. Of course, sometimes he’d pretend to be shy and say, ‘I can’t sing. I’m tired.’ But then he’d back up to me and say, ‘Mom, wind me up.’ So we’d pretend to wind him up like a little toy box, and off he’d go, singing again.”

At home, his parents didn’t believe in sparing the rod, so if he did anything wrong, he might have his mouth washed out with soap or be told to go cut down a switch for a spanking, and it had better be a sturdy switch, too. He didn’t get in all that much trouble, though, nor did he lack for direction. He had his singing, which he did for the Raleigh Boyschoir and at Leesville Road Baptist Church, the church he started attending at the age of seven. But he also learned early on that he enjoyed working with children, especially autistic children, a difficult task for most people but not for him.

“Because autism is a puzzle, to me it’s fun,” he says. “I’ve been hit, I’ve been spit on, I’ve had kids pee on me, but it’s only because they can’t communicate any other way, and you have to understand that.”

Aiken thought he might eventually like to become an elementary or middle school principal, or better still, since they make more money, a high school principal. But while attending UNC Charlotte, he was also working with a twelve-year-old autistic child named Michael Bubel, and one day Bubel’s mother, Diane, finally convinced Aiken that Amazing Race wasn’t the show he should set his sights on. He should go to Atlanta, line up with the other 6,500 hopefuls trying out for American Idol there and see if he couldn’t make it on to that show. At every step along the way, and especially after getting voted off the program before the wild-card cliffhanger, his main feeling was, “There’s no chance at all.”

HE’S ALLERGIC TO TREE NUTS, mushrooms, shellfish, chocolate, coffee and mint, the last three causing him “gastric spasms like I’m giving birth out of my chest.” He’s a big fan of reading on the toilet (“I probably do more reading there than anywhere else; it’s just that I’m comfortable, and why get up?”). He’s only ever thought the f word, never said it out loud to anyone, near as he can remember. He prefers his Fuji apples slathered with peanut butter. At one time, he could not drive himself over a bridge if a stream ran beneath it, so terrified is he of water. And don’t get him started on cats.

“I think cats are Satan,” he says, almost seriously. “There’s nothing worse to me than a house cat. When I was about sixteen, I had a kitten and ran over it. Seeing that cat die, I actually think that its spirit has haunted me. I wasn’t afraid of cats before. But now they scare me to death.”

So, he’s got a fair panoply of quirks. But what’s also interesting about Aiken is his ability to change what needs to be changed without a lot of fanfare. Throughout American Idol, he was in a state of constant evolution. In the beginning, Simon Cowell praised his voice but said he didn’t look like a pop star. Subsequently, Aiken ditched his Coke-bottle glasses for contact lenses, got himself some spanky new clothes and highlighted his reddish-auburn hair two-tone blond. He also began applying a flatiron to his hair, a half-hour-long process that resulted in a hip, spiky look. At first, a stylist did the flatironing. Now, he can do most of it himself, all except for what he can’t see behind his back.

THE LAST SIX MONTHS HAVE BEEN quite some whirlwind, of course, and many wondrous things have happened to Aiken, a fellow whose first flight on an airplane for American Idol was only his second flight ever. He has that bodyguard. He got to go to the X2 premiere. He’s turned into what he calls “a shoe whore,” his collection of new shoes now totaling sixteen pairs. He’s received a fan letter from a woman who says she and her husband enjoy having sex to their video collection of his performances. He went on Good Morning America and made Diane Sawyer go all wobbly in the knees. No lady killer before, he now even believes he has a reasonable chance at getting some dates.

In the past, his relationships have been brief; the longest, while at college, lasting six months. Has anyone ever broken his heart? “No,” he says, because he’s never been in love. Has he ever broken anyone else’s heart? “I don’t think so,” he says one afternoon in West Hollywood, pointing at himself. “I mean, come on, hello! The way I see it, I’m not that big a prize.”

He is outside at the fabulous Sunset Marquis Hotel, sitting a safe distance away from the shimmering pool and loading extra sugar into his fruit drink. A few tables over, some stringy rocker types notice him and yell. “Hey, American Idol!” Aiken shouts back a greeting of his own, then, after a bit, he finds himself once more opening up about Vernon Grissom his sperm donor, who in a tabloid news-paper recently wished his son the best, with various blind sources suggesting that he was crushed by the divorce and that Faye Parker poisoned his son against him.

Aiken speaks calmly about it, but at considerable length. “It’s just the most ridiculous stuff I ever heard in my life. My mother was beaten by this man. And he never tried to be a father to me, ever. I saw him when I was growing up only because the court made me see him. But my mother — and this speaks against her brainwashing me against him — she would actually tell me, ‘You need to call him and go see him.’ And now he wishes me the best and he’s badmouthing my mom? I’m not interested in that. But, really, I don’t concern myself with him, because I don’t care, and because I don’t want to give him the time of day.”

According to Faye, the marriage fell apart one week shy of her son’s first birthday. “I remember crying,” she says, “because Clayton wasn’t at his home to have his birthday party, and I had made his birthday cake, and it was back in the freezer and it was just like, ‘I don’t have my baby’s birthday cake.’

“You know,” she goes on, “his dad was a musician, so music was something they had in common. After their visits, I would say to Clayton, ‘Well, did your dad get out the guitar and play guitar with you or any thing?’ And he would say, ‘No, Dad never did. He was always sick.’ And, well, I think as he got older, he understood what that sick was. They say that blood is thicker than water. But sometimes it is not.”

Faye says she forgave Vernon for his behavior a long time ago, but it is clear that her son, in his own way, is still dealing with it. “If I have anything good to say about him,” Aiken says, “it’s that I think I learned to be who I am by being every-thing he wasn’t. Part of the reason I don’t smoke is that he did. He drank, and I don’t. He’s a racist, and I’m not. I don’t want any-thing to do with any of that.”

He sits there for a moment, and then changes the subject, to talk again about the experience of being on American Idol.

“You know what’s funny? I’m the first person on the show who made fun of my ears. I knew that everybody must be thinking, ‘That kid looks weird, but what is it about him?’ And then I thought, ‘Let me give them something to fixate on, because then they won’t start picking me apart.’ So on one show I made fun of my ears, and you know what? It worked. They fell for it.”

Chuckling, he says, “Oh, I’m so sly. But where I learned to think like that, I just don’t know.”

TOMORROW, HE GOES INTO A Santa Monica studio to work on songs for his upcoming full-length CD. Afterward, he will fly on a private RCA jet to Chicago for an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show that will also feature his pal Ruben Studdard and first-Season American Idol runner-up Justin Guarini, all of it timed to the official release of tunes by each of them. In pre-Orders, Aiken’s first single, “This Is the Night,” had outsold Studdard’s by a four-to-one margin. But Aiken firmly believes that the only reason Oprah has invited him on the program is either because his management company did a lot of begging or, he says, laughing, because the show needs “a token white boy.” Nonetheless, he’s thrilled to go. His mom will be there. Diane Bubel will be there. Fans will hold up placards saying HOLD ME, THRILL ME, KISS ME, CLAY and CLAY BRIDGES MY TROUBLED WATERS. In the meantime, out on the patio at the Sunset Marquis Hotel, some pest is asking him what he sees when he looks in the mirror.

“What an interesting question,” he says brightly. “Today I see a blue shirt and jeans, and hair that’s only done in the front because I can’t do the back by myself. I have gotten a little more vain recently. I look in the mirror and say, ‘I am who I am, God made me and, yeah, I could have done my hair a little bit better,’ But I’m getting good at that flatiron thing. I just need to figure out how to do the back, and I’m set. What do I see when I look in the mirror? I see me.”


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