Clay Aiken

Clay Aiken Headshot

Singer • Personality • Actor • Politician • Activist

Birth Name: Clayton Holmes Grissom

Birth Date: November 30, 1978

Age: 45 years old

Birth Place: Raleigh, North Carolina

The second season of "American Idol" (Fox, 2002-16) proved most noteworthy for the rise of Clay Aiken from nerdy country boy-next-door to unlikely heartthrob on the strength of his powerhouse vocals and charming personality. Overshadowing the season's winner, Ruben Studdard, Aiken enjoyed an enviable string of recording, tour and television success, striking multiplatinum with the album Measure of a Man and hitting No. 1 with "This Is the Night."

An easy target for his less-than-masculine demeanor and dramatically earnest performing style, Aiken's rise as a good-natured pop culture punch line only incited his fans, the self-proclaimed "Claymates," to defend and promote him all the more ferociously. Even his most passionate fans cooled, however, when he finally quelled career-long rumors by coming out of the closet and simultaneously announcing that he and a platonic female friend were new parents via artificial insemination. As his music industry success waned, Aiken appeared on Broadway in "Monty Python's Spamalot," but would always hold the distinction of being one of the all-time most successful "Idol" alums.

Born Nov. 30, 1978, in Raleigh, NC, Clayton Holmes Grissom was the son of Vernon Grissom and Faye Aiken Parker. Estranged from his birth father, he went on to change his last name legally to "Aiken" at age 19. A singer since childhood, Aiken performed in the Raleigh Boychoir as well as in local theater productions and school musicals. He recorded three independent albums courtesy of studio time his mother purchased for him as a birthday gift. Working with children was important to Aiken, and not only did the teenager volunteer at YMCA children's camps, but he worked as a substitute teacher in a special education elementary school classroom while attending the University of North Carolina at Charlotte as a special education major.

While a student, he took a part-time job as an assistant helping an autistic boy. That boy's mother, Diane Bubel, encouraged him to audition for the second season of the reality show "American Idol" (Fox, 2002-16), which would change his life forever.

The gawky, geeky Aiken seemed an unlikely candidate for superstardom, and producers framed his initial audition accordingly. Much like Susan Boyle, Aiken's physical ordinariness paired with his extraordinary voice wowed audiences and the judges. Aiken weathered the rocky road to the final 12, growing more confident and attractive with each appearance as producers helped groom him from "zero to hero," convincing him to rebrand himself as "Clay" instead of "Clayton" and helping him drop his glasses for contacts.

Kept alive by an ever-growing fanbase and his genuine likability that was evident during interviews and taped packages, Aiken delivered powerhouse vocal performances every week, singing everything from Neil Sedaka's "Solitaire" to Bobby Darin's "Mack the Knife." Aiken's country-boy-next-door charisma and goofy chemistry with his competitors, including his new best friend Kimberley Locke and ultimate rival Ruben Studdard, helped brand the season's main storyline. In fact, the unlikeliness of the pair - Studdard was a large African-American crooner dubbed "The Velvet Teddy Bear" while Aiken could not have been any skinnier or paler - made not only for a delightful visual joke, but also emphasized what nice guys both singers were, since they seemed to truly enjoy each other's company.

Although Aiken came in a close second to Studdard on the finale, his loss proved controversial. Many fans suspected dirty politicking from the producers, especially with revelations that Aiken had been the top vote-getter every single week of the show.

Despite his second-place finish on the show, Aiken was definitely the winner in the public eye and on the charts. His debut single "This Is the Night" not only became the best-selling single of 2003, but went to No. 1 on the Billboard charts, keeping Studdard's maiden offering, "Flying Without Wings" from achieving the expected summit. That same year, Aiken appeared on the cover of the July 2003 Rolling Stone, giving an interview in which he denied rumors that he was gay. His debut album that year, Measure of a Man, debuted at No. 1 and sold a record-setting 613,000 copies in its first week, eventually going double platinum. It also contained the minor hit "Invisible," with its video proving massively popular on "Total Request Live" (MTV, 1998-2008).

While many critics were quick to praise Aiken for his vocal chops, others were equally quick to slam his overly earnest style and the fervor of his fanbase, who dubbed themselves "Claymates" belonging to the "Clay Nation." Attending every concert, obsessively commenting on Aiken's attractiveness on message boards, and defending and publicizing their idol at every possible opportunity, the Claymates became legendary for their hive-mind mentality and outspokenness. Dismissed by some as desperate single women or hysterical teenage girls, the incredible organization and devotion they displayed in supporting even the smallest of Aiken's appearances was remarkable. When Aiken performed at the 2003 Jerry Lewis MDA telethon, the comedian noted that he had not seen such passionate fans since Frank Sinatra's bobbysoxers went crazy over him.

Aiken's career now in overdrive, 2003 found him singing the national anthem for opening night at the World Series. He co-headlined the "Independent Tour" with season one "American Idol" champ Kelly Clarkson, but demand for Aiken outstripped the itinerary, and he continued on solo, playing 50 additional dates across the country. His performance of the song "Proud of Your Boy," which was cut from the animated "Aladdin" (1992) appeared on the Special Edition DVD. His acting debut arrived with an episode of "Ed" (NBC, 2000-04), and he toplined his own old-fashioned holiday special, "A Clay Aiken Christmas" (2004), which became a hot seller on DVD. His album Merry Christmas with Love quickly went platinum and set sales records as he launched a third tour that year, "The Joyful Noise Tour."

In 2004, Aiken co-wrote his memoir Learning to Sing: Hearing the Music in Your Life, an inspirational, Christian-tinged work whose success was in great part due to the rampant vein of small-town religiosity that characterized the core Claymates. Onscreen, Aiken appeared as the musical guest and acted in several skits on "Saturday Night Live" (NBC, 1975- ) and popped up in a singing/acting cameo on "Scrubs" (NBC, 2001-08; ABC, 2009-2010). During the summer of 2005, Aiken launched the "Jukebox Tour" which gave way to the "2005 Joyful Noise Tour," the latter featuring several lavishly staged holiday vignettes written by Aiken. All in all, Aiken's first five tours grossed almost $30 million. His next studio album, 2006's A Thousand Different Ways debuted strongly on the charts at No. 2, but despite the devotion of Claymates around the world, the album was less successful than his previous recording. For the holidays that same year, Aiken released a Christmas EP, All Is Well.

A longtime supporter of multiple charities, Aiken was appointed to the Presidential Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities by then-president George W. Bush. Along with the mother of the autistic boy who first encouraged him to try out for "Idol," the singer founded the National Inclusion Project to integrate children with disabilities into the life environment of their non-disabled peers via summer camps, community service projects and a primary education curriculum. Aiken was also appointed a U.S. Fund for UNICEF National Ambassador and traveled to the tsunami-stricken Banda Aceh area, Uganda, Afghanistan, Mexico, Somalia and Kenya to promote programs for children's safety and relief.

Aiken repeatedly denied the gay rumors that dogged him ever since his first TV appearance. Gossip outlets and blogs, however, were relentless in publishing on the subject, and began to post revealing webcam photos reportedly of Aiken cruising for sex in gay chatrooms. Aiken's sexuality was widely viewed as an open secret outside of the "Clay Nation," but the strongest blow to the singer's reputation occurred when a man named John Paulus told The National Enquirer, Howard Stern and anyone else within earshot of graphic details of an alleged hotel-room tryst he shared with Aiken. Paulus later broke into the adult film industry and recanted his stories in 2007. Although Aiken remained many comics' go-to punching bag - particularly comedienne Kathy Griffin -to his credit, the singer took his lumps with good humor and displayed a refreshing lack of vanity when it came to his own image. Almost as famous for his celebrity appearances on talk and reality shows as he was for his singing, Aiken logged many hours hosting various programs. He memorably subbed for Regis Philbin on a 2006 installment of "Live with Regis and Kelly" and an incident where he covered Kelly Ripa's mouth with his hand became a minor scandal. Ripa's on-air response that she "didn't know where that hand had been" struck some viewers, most vocally then-moderator of "The View" (ABC, 1997- ) Rosie O'Donnell, as homophobic. Aiken and Tori Spelling lampooned the incident on the 2006 American Music Awards.

Musically, Aiken stumbled with the weak-selling release of On My Way Here, and RCA dropped the 30-year-old singer. The stress and strain of a demanding career began to show in Aiken's often-changing physical appearance, and he polarized fans in 2008, when he announced that he and his platonic friend and producer Jaymes Foster had conceived a baby via artificial insemination. When their son, Parker Foster Aiken was born, the singer took the additional step of appearing on the cover of People magazine to announce that he was gay. The general public was unsurprised, but response among the Claymates ranged from devastated acceptance to denial to furious calls-to-arms. Many of the Claymates who had so loudly lusted after Aiken channeled their considerable rage online, offering more fodder for comedians. While the newly out Aiken lent his support to several LGBT projects, he chose not to make that community his sole focus.

Not taken seriously as a true artist outside of Claymate circles and having to face the fact that his once-devoted fanbase was in disarray, Aiken debuted on Broadway as Sir Robin in "Monty Python's Spamalot," a role he would maintain through the following year. After his greatest hits package, The Very Best of Clay Aiken, flopped, Aiken signed with Decca Records. To promote his upcoming album, he filmed a music special featuring Linda Eder and old pal Ruben Studdard. The album, 2010's Tried and True, was comprised of 1950s and 1960s covers in the style that had made Aiken beloved by millions, but the project bombed. Nevertheless, Aiken and Studdard joined forces for the "Timeless" tour, which made use of the comedy inherent in their unique chemistry by utilizing a variety show format. In February 2011, Decca announced they had dropped Aiken. Following a guest turn in an episode of the comedy "Drop Dead Diva" (Lifetime, 2009-14), the performer returned to the world of reality TV competition when it was announced that Aiken would be joining the fifth season cast for the celebrity iteration of Donald Trump's "The Apprentice" (NBC, 2004- ). On the show, Aiken surprised many skeptics when he continuously impressed as a team player and leader, standing up to Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller and making friends with comedian Arsenio Hall. In the end, Aiken and Hall were named the two finalists, with both going after the title and money prize for their individual charities.

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