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Feat of Clay

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The downside of fame has already reared its ugly head at Clay Aiken. “I’ve had people from high school who haven’t talked to me or thought about me in five years saying, I want you to sing at my wedding,’ ” he says. “Yeah, I bet you do! Does that sound cocky? It’s just that they wouldn’t have even remembered me last year, and now they want me.”

Call it revenge of the nerd. While Ruben Studdard received 130,000 more votes, there’s no mistaking that Aiken has emerged as the de facto winner of American Idol‘s second season. His summer hit, “This is the Night,” became the year’s biggest selling single, and there are about a million advance orders on his CD Measure of a Man, out Oct. 14. (“From what I’ve heard of the album, it’s very good,” says Idol‘s resident cynic Simon Cowell.) Plus he’s been nominated for an American Music Award, up against the likes of Justin Timberlake for favorite male artist. Aiken “has struck such a tremendous, responsive chord with the American public,” says RCA Music chairman Clive Davis, who discovered Bruce Springsteen and Carlos Santana, among others, and executive produced Aiken’s album. “He has a natural gift for pop music.”

As for pop life, he’s still adjusting. “I hate photo shoots,” says Aiken, 24. “Photographers will take a Polaroid first and ask what I think, and I’m like, ‘Get it away from me!’ I get all self-conscious and stop smiling.” Nor is he a fan of the party circuit: “I told Ruben I’d go with him to a club one time, but it has to be no smoking and it can’t be some kind of pickup bar.”

But with his album coming out, Hollywood beckoned. So a month ago Aiken left his hometown of Raleigh, N.C., where he was staying with mom Faye Parker, 57, a decorator (stepdad Ray died last year). He’s now renting a four-bedroom home in L.A. with Idol‘s second-runner-up Kimberly Locke. “It’s got two big master suites, so we each have a separate area,” says Aiken, who has only furnished so far with a bed, a 60-in. flat-screen TV, a lamp and a trash can. “Kim really wanted a pool, but I’m terrified of water, so to get the pool she had to agree to let me have a dog.” Now—cue violins—the sad part: “Nothing in my life is stable right now, so a dog would be something that’s always there. Something with a little loyalty,” says Aiken, adding with a grin, “Oh, wasn’t that sweet? I almost teared myself up there.”

Studdard, whose own CD is due in November, is a frequent visitor—not, says Clay, a rival. “We’re very much an odd couple, but we’re very supportive of each other,” says Aiken. “He’s a friend of mine, plain and simple.”

In addition to the new pad, Aiken has bought not one but two dream cars, a silver Volvo convertible and a white Volvo SUV. But in his typical self-deprecating, fish-out-of-water manner, Aiken says the convertible’s been nothing but trouble. After a recent lunch meeting at The Ivy he was hounded for autographs, then “attacked by paparazzi” while trying to get out of a tight parking spot. “The top was down, and these guys with cameras are so close to me, right there, and I have no cover at all,” he says in his southern drawl. “So I’m trying to pull the car out—and in Raleigh, is there a time when you have to parallel park? No, we just don’t do that, we have spaces to park in. I had to un-parallel park and it was like a six-point turn, and it’s all on-camera, all on video for that Celebrities Uncensored show.”

Not that you’ll catch this southern Baptist-who wears a WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?) wristband and reprimands anyone he hears cursing—acting anything but genteel. “His personality hasn’t changed at all,” says Diane Bubel, the mother of an autistic boy Aiken worked with when he was studying to be a special-ed teacher. (Together they recently founded the Bubel/Aiken Foundation to develop programs for autistic children.) “Clay hasn’t gone Hollywood.”

It just might appear that he has. “I definitely look different now,” agrees the 6′ singer, who traded in his wire rims for contacts and has become a pro at flat ironing his highlighted hair. Well, sort of. “I’ve never burned my fingers, but I have burned my ears occasionally,” he says. “Sometimes I’ll look in the mirror when I’m doing it and think about how much has changed. I don’t think I’d ever in my life even heard of a flat iron before.”

Coming off a hectic 39-city American Idol concert tour and due to start a North American solo tour early next year, Aiken does get sentimental for the days when all he had to worry about was what he’d fire up for dinner on his George Foreman Grill. “I miss that so much,” he says. “My schedule is not my own anymore, and the work is constant. Sleep is very elusive these days.” The beds are a lot more comfortable, though; as Aiken is quick to recall, the one thing about celebrity he does love is luxury hotels. “I used to stay at Motel 6,” he says. “Now if I go to a hotel room I expect there to be a mini-bar stocked with Sprite, or I just get upset. I feel like a diva!”


Lori Rozsa in Raleigh and Cynthia Wang in Los Angeles