Clay Aiken, who changed his last name from Grissom to his
mother's maiden name, was born and raised in Raleigh, North
Carolina. As a young boy he trained with the Raleigh Boychoir,
and later performed with a local Raleigh band, "Just By Chance".
He attended Raleigh's Leesville Road High School before
enrolling at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Although his American Idol activities temporarily delayed his
academic pursuits, Aiken graduated with a bachelor's degree in
special education in December of 2003. He found his interest in
special education while directing YMCA children's camps as a
teenager; at age 19 he served as a substitute teacher for a
classroom of students with autism at Brentwood Elementary
School. While attending college in Charlotte he took a part-time
job as an assistant to a boy with autism, and it was this
child's mother, Diane Bubel, who urged him to audition for
Television viewers' first glimpse of Clay came during the audition episodes at the beginning of American Idol's second season. The show's judges first saw Aiken as a nerdy type unlikely to be any kind of idol, but they were immediately impressed once he began singing Heatwave's "Always and Forever." The clip of the judges' surprise during this audition performance was replayed many times over the course of the competition.
Clay Aiken made it to the round-of-32, but was cut from the show on his first try, a performance of Journey's "Open Arms." He finished third in his semifinal group of eight behind eventual winner Ruben Studdard and eventual third-place finisher Kimberley Locke. However, during the "wild card" round, Aiken's well-received performance of Elton John's "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me" propelled him into the final 12. Within the first few weeks (aided by a makeover from the show's producers), Aiken and Studdard emerged as the clear favorites of both the judges and the fans. While Aiken was especially noted for his performance of ballads, such as the dramatically-lit rendition of Neil Sedaka's "Solitaire," his upbeat performances, including The Foundations' "Build Me Up Buttercup," were also met with considerable enthusiasm from the voters.
On 21 May 2003, Aiken came in a close second in the contest, with Studdard winning by a narrow margin--just over 130,000 votes out of more than 24,000,000 votes cast. The result was somewhat controversial as some hypothesized that Idol's voting system was incapable of handling the number of attempted calls, thereby possibly yielding a random result. In an interview prior to the start of the fifth season of American Idol, Executive Producer Nigel Lythgoe revealed for the first time that Aiken had led the fan voting every week from the Wild Card week onward until the finale, when the possibly-random voting result gave Studdard the win. Though officially Aiken was the show's "first runner-up," he has since gone on to be the second season's best-selling star.
The single "Bridge Over Troubled Water"/This Is the Night," released June 10, 2003, was RIAA certified platinum July 15, 2003. Debuting at #1 on both the "Billboard Hot 100" and the Hot 100 Single Sales Chart, it was the fastest-selling single since Elton John's "Candle in the Wind 1997" and the best-selling single of 2003. It was the first CD single to go platinum since 2002, when Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance" sold a million copies after being out for over a year.
On October 13, 2003, Aiken released his first solo album, Measure of a Man, which debuted at #1 on the "Billboard 200" and was, with 613,000 copies sold in its first week, the highest-selling debut for a solo artist in 10 years. The album received RIAA Double Platinum certification November 17, 2003 and has sold more than 2,750,000 units to date. The album spawned both the hit single "Invisible" and his first hit song, "This Is the Night". Later that year, Aiken won the Fan's Choice Award at the American Music Awards ceremony, and his CD single "This Is the Night/Bridge Over Troubled Water" won the Billboard award for the Best-selling Single of 2003.
Aiken appeared in numerous television specials during the winter of 2003, including Disney's Christmas Day Parade and The Nick At Nite Holiday Special, where he sang a duet with Bing Crosby via special effects. The song was "Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth," which was originally sung by Crosby and David Bowie on a 1977 Christmas special.
Clay Aiken has been the subject of gay jokes by Conan O'Brien, Kathy Griffin, and Mad TV, among others. While a few communities among his internet fan sites speculate about his s--ual orientation, many do not. In an interview with Rolling Stone in June 2003 Aiken stated that he is not gay. When he appeared as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live on February 7, 2004, he lampooned such speculation in the opening monologue, which featured him as a member of a gay men's chorus. Aiken has also been the subject of tabloid speculation and in early 2006, The National Enquirer launched a new series of tabloid stories alleging proof of a liaison with another man. Aiken describes the jokes and gossip as "...like having a gnat in your nose. You just want to kill it. It becomes unfortunately a negative part of what you do, and you need to kind of live with it. But if you could get up your nose and kill it, you would do it."
From February to April 2004, Clay Aiken embarked on the "Independent Tour" with Kelly Clarkson, winner of the first American Idol contest. He was also scheduled for only a few summer tour dates, but high demand ultimately led to the booking of fifty dates across the United States, culminating in what many fans called the "Not-a-Tour." Disney's Aladdin Special Edition 2-Disc DVD was the exclusive sponsor of Clay's Summer Concert Tour. Each concert previewed Aiken's rendition of "Proud of Your Boy," a song originally intended for the first release of the film but cut when the Aladdin storyline changed during production. A music video, featuring Aiken, is presented on the Aladdin Special Edition 2-Disc DVD. He also performed a duet on Kimberley Locke's debut album released in May 2004, titled "Without You".
In November 2004, Clay Aiken launched his third tour of the year, which revolved around a Christmas theme. "The Joyful Noise Tour", sponsored by Ronald McDonald House Charities, featured a conductor and a 30-piece orchestra. In some cities, Aiken was supported by the local philharmonic or symphony, such as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. Local choirs from high schools and elementary schools participated at each concert. "The Joyful Noise Tour" was well attended, with sellouts or near-sellouts at every venue.
That same month, Clay Aiken also released a holiday album entitled Merry Christmas With Love, which set a new record for fastest-selling holiday album in the Soundscan era (since 1991). The album debuted at #4 on the "Billboard 200" and tied Céline Dion's record for the highest debut by a holiday album in the history of Billboard magazine. "Merry Christmas With Love" sold over 1,000,000 copies retail in 6 weeks and was the best-selling holiday album of 2004, receiving RIAA Platinum certification on Jan. 6, 2005. At the same time Aiken made the New York Times Best Seller List, debuting at #2, with his "inspirational memoir" entitled Learning to Sing: Hearing the Music in Your Life, written with Allison Glock, published by Random House. In December 2004, Aiken starred in his first TV special, titled A Clay Aiken Christmas, with special guests Barry Manilow, Yolanda Adams, and Megan Mullally. He was also Executive Producer for the Christmas special, which was released on DVD later that month.
In February 2005, Aiken played the role of Kenny, a cafeteria worker whose job was in jeopardy, on the sitcom Scrubs. In May, he helped Oprah Winfrey fulfill the "Wildest Dreams" of Nebraska twins with learning disabilities headed for college and appeared on an episode of Dr. Phil concerning bullying among teens. During the summer of 2005, Aiken, along with a seven-piece band and three back-up singers, toured part of North America with the "Jukebox Tour," performing songs of the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, as well as a few favorites from Measure of a Man. He also tested a few songs which may appear on the next album.
In September 2005, Clay Aiken was a celebrity guest of designer Kenneth Cole during the Fashion Week shows in New York City. Cole provided a tuxedo and accessories for Aiken to wear during his appearance as a guest reporter for The Insider later that month at the 2005 Emmy Awards. The outfit was then donated, along with a number of other items worn by celebrities at the Emmys, to the Clothes Off Our Back charity auction, where the tuxedo, cufflinks, and shoes sold for a combined total of $27,250. The Emmy appearance with The Insider was followed by several more guest reporting stints on the show.
In early November 2005, Aiken launched his second Christmas tour. The 2005 Joyful Noise tour featured a series of vignettes, written by Aiken, which told the story of an older woman who has lost the Christmas spirit and a young boy who helps her find it again. A cast of actors, dancers and back-up singers traveled with the tour, and members of local theatre groups were added in each venue for smaller, non-speaking roles and crowd scenes. The tour opened in Vancouver, Canada, on November 2, and ended in Clearwater, Florida on December 30.
Aiken's next album is scheduled for release in the spring of 2006. He has been working on the album under the guidance of Canadian producer and A&R executive Jaymes Foster-Levy.
Apart from his music career, Clay Aiken has been dedicated to advocating for education and for children's causes. His interest in autism issues led him, along with Diane Bubel (whose son Michael is autistic and was tutored by Aiken), to found the Bubel/Aiken Foundation, which supports the integration of children with disabilities into the life environment of their non-disabled peers. The BAF runs summer camps which reflect this mission, and also presents Able to Serve awards to support the volunteer efforts of children with physical and mental disabilities. The BAF was presented with a $500,000 grant from the US government to develop a curriculum for inclusion to be used in schools across the country. In addition State Farm has granted $1.5 million dollars to The Bubel/Aiken Foundation to help develop a primary education curriculum focused on teaching social and life skills through service to children of all levels of ability.
Aiken has donated his time and his voice to multiple benefit events and concerts, including the 2004 Rosalynn Carter Benefit, the America's Promise Benefit, and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS (where he sung a duet with Heather Headley). He was one of the celebrity readers for the "Arthur Celebrity Audiobook (Stories for Heroes Series)," which benefits the BAF and other charities, and served as spokesperson for the series. He was also a spokesperson for the 2004 Toys for Tots drive, and is an ambassador for the Ronald McDonald House Charities® (RMHC®). In addition, Aiken donated his clothes from his American Idol March 11, 2003 "I Can't Help Myself" performance to the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh.
In 2004, Clay was appointed United States Fund for UNICEF National Ambassador, with a mission to help ensure that children everywhere are afforded a primary education. Through his work with UNICEF, he participated in the NBC4 telethon, which raised over $10 million, and recorded public service announcements in support of South Asian tsunami relief. He later recorded a video, featuring the song "Give a Little Bit," to be used as a public service announcement (PSA) to raise money for tsunami victims.
In March 2005, UNICEF sent Clay Aiken to tsunami-stricken Banda Aceh area to raise awareness for the need to restore education quickly to the children who survived this disaster, in order to provide stability in a time of great loss. In April 2005, on behalf of UNICEF, he appeared before the United States House of Representatives Subcommittee on Foreign Operations, Export Financing and Related Programs of the Committee on Appropriations. In May 2005, UNICEF sent Aiken on another mission, to northern Uganda, to witness the plight of children called "night commuters," who flee the villages each night to sleep in streets and shelters in hopes of avoiding being kidnapped by the Lord's Resistance Army.
Aiken was the 2005 spokesperson for the Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF drive.
Some of Clay Aiken's fans have been fondly referred to as "Claymates," a name that originated on the message boards during the second season of American Idol. However, the term is not embraced by all within the fandom and some portion of the group has been criticized at times as being obsessive, both in the media and by Aiken himself. In most cases, however, Aiken defends his fans as just being "enthusiastic". Another variation for Canadian fans is "Claynadians" and for Asian Clay fans, "Claysians." Male fans began their own group and call themselves "The ClayDawgs". The umbrella name including all of his many fan groups is "The Clay Nation." The fandom includes a wide range of ages.
Aiken was voted the Favorite Reality Star of 2003 by TV Guide readers, and “the most-loved reality star of all time” in a TV Guide poll conducted in the summer of 2005.
In February 2006 Clay Aiken was voted "Favorite American Idol" by People Magazine with 69% of the vote.
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