In the fast paced world of here and gone celebrities who are famous for being famous, it's rare to find a household name with iconic status based on actual talent. Yet, nearly ten years after he penetrated the national consciousness, Clay Aiken is associated with more than just singing, acting and philanthropy. It's hard to know which path to take when describing this success. His versatile reach as a performer spans recording and television studios, the concert stage, the Broadway stage and the world stage.
The best place to start is in 2003 when the 24 year-old unassuming young man with an earnest face and unruly hair stepped in front of the camera on the second season of American Idol, where his talents were exposed to millions of viewers over sixteen weeks. A whirlwind of television appearances on every major network culminated in the release of Measure of a Man which sold more copies in its first week than the debut albums of Madonna and Beyonce, combined. Even more impressive is that he also managed to earn a degree in special education from the University of North Carolina-Charlotte later that year.
As Clay hit the road with Kelly Clarkson in early 2004 for a sold out, 30-city Independent Tour; something astonishing dawned on the thousands of concertgoers around the country. He sounded even better live than he did on his records! He had an easy rapport with his audiences, often motivating people to stand in appreciation one minute and double over with laughter the next. While touring and recording his second album, Clay managed to complete his memoir, Learning to Sing: Hearing the Music in Your Life. The book and the album, Merry Christmas with Love, were released in the same week to critical and commercial success. Learning to Sing landed at #2 on the New York Times bestseller list while the album smashed the record for first week sales of holiday releases.
Those whose strongest memory is the soaring final note of "Bridge over Troubled Water" on American Idol would be surprised at the number of successful albums and tours that followed. With the release of A Thousand Different Ways in 2006 and fan favorite On My Way Here in 2008, Clay became only the eighth artist in Billboard history to have their first four albums debut in the top 5. His most recent album, 2010's Tried and True made him the first Idol contestant to have five albums reach the top 10 for first week sales.
A versatile entertainer, Clay parlayed his name recognition into a series of acting and hosting opportunities. Although he has deftly played himself (or a version of himself) on many popular TV shows, his real acting range was shown by playing an unscrupulous character on Lifetime's Drop Dead Diva in 2011. His crowning acting achievement to date came in 2008 when he stepped on stage as Sir Robin in the Tony award winning production of Monty Python's Spamalot, garnering broad critical approval. He continues to support Broadway-based charities to this day.
Many who were introduced to Clay in 2003 will recall his determination to make a difference in the lives of others, most especially children. Clay became a UNICEF Ambassador in 2004 and has traveled the world ensuring that children in countries ravaged by natural disaster, war or political unrest still have a chance at an education. His trips have taken him to Indonesia, Mexico, Uganda, and Afghanistan and even into the anarchy of Somalia. His work in the United States hits closer to home. Frustrated with the lack of interest or ability for local camps to accommodate children with special needs, he used his new fame and platform to begin the National Inclusion Project (formerly the Bubel/Aiken Foundation) a nationally recognized project to bridge the gap that exists between young people with disabilities and the world around them. We should all be so lucky to channel our frustrations toward that kind of solution. Clay lends his support to a number of different causes, most recently for GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) where he spoke on behalf of anti bullying legislation in front of a Congressional Committee in 2010.
What's next for the once bright-eyed guy from Raleigh, North Carolina? Platinum and gold records align his walls alongside the American Music and Billboard Music Awards on his shelves. He's made a lasting difference with his music, his work with children and his role as father to three-year-old Parker. With a world of possibilities and an array of talents, who knows what Clay Aiken will decide to accomplish next?
- Cori R. (aka Corabeth)