Becoming ... Clay Aiken
"I hate photo shoots," says Aiken (in 2003). "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." Why so embarrassed? "I know that I've got big ears and a big forehead and that my hair sticks up," he says, "but I'm happy with myself."
One of Aiken's favorite celebrity perks is hobnobbing with other stars like Beyoncé Knowles (at the Billboard Music Awards in December). His favorite famous encounter? Meeting Oprah Winfrey. "She was great. She looks right at you when she's talking to you. She's such a nice lady," he says.
After a busy summer tour, Aiken entered the studio to record his holiday album Merry Christmas with Love, which hits stores Nov. 16. His inspirational book, Learning to Sing: Hearing the Music in Your Life, is released the same day.
"Clay was always the entertainer," says mom Faye Parker of Aiken (left, at age 2). "Give him anything that looked like a microphone, and he'd perform." The singer (right, on the Today show in March) has come a long way away from his homespun gigs: He launches his Joyful Noise tour Nov. 21.
To purchase his prized border terrier, Raleigh, Aiken (with the pooch named for his North Carolina hometown in Beverly Hills in January) says he had to make a deal with housemate and former American Idol hopeful Kimberley Locke: "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."
Aiken (visiting a North Carolina summer camp affiliated with his charity foundation in July) recently joined other celebrities in narrating audio versions of the popular Arthur Adventure Series children's books for charity. "I can listen to myself sing, but to listen to myself talk makes me cringe," says Aiken. "I don't even like to hear myself on an answering machine."
"This is one of my best friends, Audra Brown," says Aiken of the 1998 snapshot from his high-school days. "We're at her prom. I hate those types of things, but we had fun together." Aiken admits that he wasn't Mr. Popular back then: "Was a nerd. Am a nerd. Will be a nerd. Forever."
Some of Aiken's fans – who have dubbed themselves "Claymates" – are a bit overzealous: "He has to drive around the block a while" to ensure that no one has followed him home, says Locke. But Aiken (in Hollywood in October) insists that the Claymates are "very motherly. They want to make sure I'm well and they want to tuck me in."
Family is first for Aiken (with his grandparents Alvis and Catherine at home in Raleigh in 2003), though he jokes that since he found fame on American Idol, "it's amazing how many people now have 'an extremely close relationship' to me."
LIKE MOTHER, LIKE SON
The former University of North Carolina at Charlotte student, who had planned to become a special-education teacher, lived with his mom (in December) in Raleigh until moving to Beverly Hills in September 2003. He now rents a five-bedroom home with platonic pal Locke in the L.A. area, complete with "two big master suites, so we each have a separate area."
Aiken starred in a high-school production of the musical Oklahoma! in 1995. "I didn't just go around dressed up like that all the time," he says. Ironically, Aiken says, "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.' "
Aiken and Jessica Simpson kid around at a McDonald's event for World Children's Day, which benefits Ronald McDonald House Charities (in L.A. in November). In 2003, Aiken established the Bubel/Aiken Foundation, to cultivate programs for autistic children. "Clay hasn't gone Hollywood," says Diane Bubel, his charity's cofounder and the mother of an autistic boy whom Aiken worked with during his special-ed studies.
THE FINAL THREE
Aiken laughs with fellow contestants Locke and Ruben Studdard on American Idol on May 13, 2003. "We're very supportive of each other," says Aiken of Idol winner Studdard. Despite Aiken's runner-up status, his first CD, Measure of a Man, debuted at No. 1 when it was released on Oct. 14 that year, and has since sold more than 2 million copies.
Aiken (at the Disneyland Teacher Awards gala in July) is unapologetic about his squeaky-clean image: "I don't want to sing about things that I feel are inappropriate," he says. "I'm not going to sing about sex and drugs because I don't feel like that's what my responsibility is."
THEN & NOW
"I looked like Opie," says Aiken of his appearance at his American Idol audition (left, in Atlanta in 2002). "I definitely look different now," admits the 6'1" singer (right, in 2004), who traded glasses for contacts and flat-irons his hair. "Sometimes I'll look in the mirror when I'm doing it and think about how much has changed."