Although Clay Aiken is a multiplatinum-selling singer, he didn't plan to have a singing career. He originally wanted to become a teacher, and earned a degree in special education from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He planned to teach, get a master's degree in administration, then become a school principal when he hit the age of 50. He truly loved teaching children with developmental disabilities, and worked one-on-one with a boy who had autism, Mike Bubel. Bubel's mother, Diane, had seen the singing-contest television show American Idol, and knew that Aiken had a big voice. She encouraged him to audition for the show, and it changed his life forever.
"You Don't Look Like a Pop Star"
Aiken came to the attention of millions of TV viewers during the second season of the show in 2003, when he startled viewers with the contrast between his lanky, red-haired, big-eared looks and his large, resonant voice. The show's judge, Simon Cowell, remarked, "You don't look like a pop star." Not only did he not look like a pop star, he didn't act like one. Aiken, a Christian, spoke openly about his beliefs, didn't drink, smoke, or swear, did not sing sexual songs, and wore a bracelet with the letters WWJD (What Would Jesus Do). Despite his unlikely appearance, Aiken came in second by less than 1 percent of the viewer vote, launching his singing career.
Aiken's debut album, Measure of a Man, released in 2003, went double platinum. He was named Fan's Choice at the American Music Awards, was one of People's Top Entertainers of the Year, and was chosen as TV Guide's Fan's Favorite Reality Star. With the money he made from the album, Aiken surprised his mother by paying off the mortgage on her home.
In that same year Aiken founded the Bubel/Aiken Foundation, a nonprofit group that helps children with special needs. Many fans of his singing became supporters of the foundation. Aiken told Holly Vicente Robaina in Today's Christian, "Through [the fans] we have been able to do a great deal of work in spreading the word about the need for and the benefits of inclusion for children with disabilities."
In 2005 Aiken published an autobiographical book, Learning to Sing. In the book, he wrote about his life and faith. He commented, "Some people have argued that I'm too religious and that I talk about my faith too much. Other people have criticized me because I don't stand up for my beliefs enough. But my position is that there's a fine line that has to be walked. There are a lot of people who have given Christians a really bad name by being overly aggressive."
He also commented that although he won't talk about sex or sing songs that use sexual innuendo, he doesn't often sing songs with overtly Christian lyrics either. He told Robaino that although he enjoyed listening to Christian radio, he also knew people who did not listen to it, and those were the people he wanted to reach out to: "If I can put a secular love song on an album, and someone can interpret it in a way that makes them think of God's love for them or the power of Jesus' sacrifice, then I think I've fulfilled my purpose."
In a review of the book in Entertainment Weekly, Kris-ten Baldwin wrote, "Clay Aiken is far more interesting as a person than a pop star—and, God bless him, he's smart enough to know it." She praised Aiken for spending little time discussing his experiences on television and telling more about his working-class upbringing in North Carolina. "Behind the polite narration emerges a complex guy with a folksy sense of humor and an endearing ambivalence about his own insta-celebrity."
Aiken did not expect this "insta-celebrity," or the rush of publicity he would get as a result of his American Idol performances and his album, and he was startled to be mobbed by fans whenever he left his house. He began having panic attacks, and finally decided to ask his doctor for help. He began taking Paxil, an antianxiety medication, although he did not go to therapy for this problem. The medication helped him deal with publicity, but it also blunted some of his emotions. He told Michelle Tauber in People that when his stepbrother, Brett, left to fight with the Marines in Iraq in July of 2006, "I was trying to make myself cry and I couldn't. I started thinking, 'Do I not have emotions anymore?' It was kind of weird for me."
Aiken also found that as his fame grew, it became increasingly harder to maintain old friendships or to make new, true ones. Robaina noted, "There are plenty of 'friends' who've come out of the woodwork from every direction. Former classmates who never spoke to him in high school now ask him to sing at their weddings."
Like any celebrity, Aiken was often the target of tabloid gossip, and in 2006 he spoke up about persistent rumors that he was gay. He told Tauber, "It doesn't matter what I say. People are going to believe what they want." He added that his mother had always advised him that when faced with negativity, he could always "leave it alone." He added, "I think certain people and certain magazines have had enough publicity. I have always been told to let the negative stuff fall away." Aiken also told Tauber that he had matured and learned a lot over the past few years. "I learned this year that you can't make people like you or care about you or love you."
Aiken has spent increasing time on his work with charities, most notably the Buber/Aiken Foundation and UNICEF. With UNICEF, he traveled to Uganda and Indonesia, and he testified before Congress on UNICEF's behalf. He has considered adopting a child, or setting up a way to pay for an underprivileged child to go to college. He told Tauber, "I want to be a father so badly. I want [kids] one day. Not now." In addition to having children, Aiken is also thinking of going back to school to get a master's degree in education. About his life, Aiken told Robaina, "My life has been guided by Provident direction more than anything else. I was really in the place God wanted me to be, at the time He wanted me to be there."
Measure of a Man, RCA Records, 2003.
Merry Christmas With Love, RCA Records, 2004.
A Thousand Different Ways, RCA Records, 2006.
For the Record …
Born Clayton Holmes Grissom (later changed his name to Aiken, his mother's maiden name) on November 30, 1978, in Raleigh, NC; son of Faye Aiken and Vernon Grissom; stepson of Ray Parker, who raised him and his brother Brett. Education: University of North Carolina at Charlotte, degree in special education.
Won second place on TV talent show American Idol, 2003; released debut album, Measure of a Man, 2003; released Merry Christmas With Love, 2005; released A Thousand Different Ways, 2006.
Addresses: Record company—Sony BMG Music Entertainment, 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022.
Billboard, September 16, 2006, p. 56.
Entertainment Weekly, November 19, 2004, p. 87; September 16, 2005, p. 74; September 29, 2006, p. 80.
People, July 26, 2004, p. 24; December 3, 2004, p. 48; December 13, 2004, p. 36; August 8, 2005, p. 26; October 22, 2006, p. 122.
Today's Christian, November-December 2005, p. 18.
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