LILLINGTON, N.C. — Clay Aiken was warned not to go into the pig barn.
“You won’t be able to get the stench off of you,” advised the farmer as the former “American Idol” runner-up squelched through the mud.
But Aiken, now a Democratic congressional candidate, was resolute. Earlier this year, he made the decision to trade whatever glamour remained from his singing days for the town halls and farm tours of the campaign trail.
Nearing the barn, Aiken gently kicks dirt off his laceless wingtips. “Oh, I’m smelling it now,” he says.
In 2003, more than 38 million people tuned in for the “Idol” finale, and 12 million of them voted for Aiken. That feels like a long time ago. Gone are the sold-out stadiums, performances at the World Series and a single atop the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Gone even are the following days of “Celebrity Apprentice” or guest spots as some version of himself on “Scrubs,” “30 Rock” and “Law and Order: SVU” (which he says he did two years ago to stay on his Screen Actors Guild health insurance).
After coming in second on two reality shows, Aiken, now 35, likes to say the third time’s the charm. But this contest may be the most difficult of the three. The 2nd District of North Carolina is an amorphous, gerrymandered blob of mostly Republican voters west of Raleigh that gave just 41 percent of the vote to President Obama in 2012. By all accounts, Aiken’s got an uphill climb.
The challenge is to figure out the best way to harness his famous name while also finding a way to be taken seriously as a congressional candidate. One of the great ironies in the life of Clay Aiken is that when he first auditioned for “American Idol,” the judges weren’t sure about sending him through because the beanpole with Coke-bottle glasses didn’t look like a pop star. And now that he’s running for Congress, he has to deal with the fact that for many people, a pop star is all they’ll ever see.
Fans unhappy with his political turn can blame Rosie O’Donnell.
“She told me we are all just waiting for obscurity, so I should do it while I can. I should do it when I can make a difference,” Aiken says. “I have this microphone, I should use it.”
He had been toying with the idea before that, had even chatted about it with Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), the head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. It was going to be a tough race, but obscurity waits for no one.
Naturally, this campaign comes as a shock both for people who haven’t thought about Aiken in a decade and those who were watching him on tour up until 2012. But Aiken says it’s “much more organic than a lot of people think it is.” It’s not like he fell off the “American Idol” stage into the political arena. In the past 11 years, he has traveled to places like Afghanistan and Somalia with UNICEF and was appointed to the President’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities by George W. Bush in 2006. And yet, the race has already been rockier than expected. Aiken won the Democratic primary by a vote of just 40.86 percent to 39.49 percent.
Aiken’s victory makes him the only current North Carolina candidate for Congress who has graced the cover of both People magazine and Rolling Stone. But it’s not clear that his celebrity gives him an edge. Yes, it means when there are a bunch of yard signs printed in Kansas, a “Claymate” will be willing to drive them to North Carolina for free, just to be helpful. Yes, it means that when he went to a Rotary Club meeting he was surprised with an award that he got seemingly just for showing up. And yes, it means he gets national press regardless of the status of the race. But what it hasn’t meant is instant credibility or money.
Though he has picked up the pace in the fundraising battle against two-term incumbent and former nurse Renee L. Ellmers, reporting in July had Aiken with about $209,000 cash on hand to Ellmers’s $405,000. One of Aiken’s consultants put it this way: “It’s tough because the people in the district all assume he has these big Hollywood connections so they don’t want to donate. But the truth is he isn’t that big a deal in Hollywood, so he can’t raise that much there.”
Fellow “Idol” alums Ruben Studdard (who defeated Aiken for the top prize) and Fantasia Barrino will be at a fundraiser for Aiken in Charlotte on Tuesday, and Studdard cut a radio ad for him. It hasn’t been easy, however, to turn those connections into money for a congressional coffer.
“I think Clay will tell you, it’s been a lot more difficult than I expected,” says Eric Cannon, who helps the campaign with fundraising.
When Clay Aiken was on “American Idol,” he avoided talking about his difficult upbringing. For his congressional campaign, he opens with it.
“I was 1 year old, and my mother knocked on that door with only a diaper bag, the clothes on our backs and me in her arms,” he says in a five-
minute, direct-to-camera ad shot in a one-bedroom house he and his mother once lived in. “She needed a place to stay where she could escape from my father.” His father was violent, racist and a drunk. To this day, Aiken doesn’t drink.
“We become the person we are not just because of the positive examples in our lives but by recognizing what we don’t want to be,” he tells me.
In addition to humanizing Aiken, the ad roots him in North Carolina. There have been plenty of celebrities, from lists A through C, who have made their way into elected politics. Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger went from acting careers into executive offices, Jim Bunning and Heath Shuler left behind a life in sports to serve in Congress, and today there is a congressman from Wisconsin who got his start in the public eye on MTV’s “The Real World.” But Aiken knows that to be successful means looking more Carolina and less Hollywood.
The fact is, Aiken has lived almost his entire life here. He was born in Raleigh, sang in the local boys’ choir and went to the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. As a student there, he took a part-time job working with a boy with autism. That boy’s mother persuaded Aiken to audition for “American Idol.” Judging by his estimated net worth, it was a $6 million decision.
Aiken says he has 92 percent name recognition in the district. But voters might not recognize the new Aiken. On the stump, there’s no talking about “Idol,” no reminiscing about famous friends and certainly no singing.
Aiken has spent dozens of hours driving his purple Lincoln around the district. He only listens to classical music these days, he says, because he can’t fill his head with any more words.
His hair, once blond, has returned to its natural ruddy state. He now sports a five-o’clock shadow with flecks of white, and, yes, he’s gained a little weight.
“Let’s see if you can write this whole story without mentioning how fat I’ve gotten,” Aiken says. When he was on “Idol,” he tried to do the same type of thing, making fun of his large ears before the judges could. Now, he spends a lot of time talking about his slowly growing gut.
It may not be the best quality in a performer or a politician, but Aiken has always been very sensitive. A fan of the Myers Briggs personality test (he has his employees take it after they’ve been hired), Aiken says his results have him as an introverted, sensitive person moved by people’s stories. (For those in the know, he’s an INFJ.)
This means that despite being in the public eye there are certain things he is very private about. If he were in a relationship, for example, he would not talk about it. (“It’s been a long time since I’ve been in one though,” he says. “I tell people I’m ‘in dry dock.’ ”) He also does not talk about his son, Parker. Aiken became a father in 2008 after he and his best friend, Jaymes Foster, conceived via in vitro fertilization. Parker lives with his mother in Los Angeles but recently spent the summer with Aiken.
“I chose a life in the public; he did not,” the candidate says. And whether it comes naturally or not, his choice to lead a public life has left Aiken well-prepared for retail politics.
During a steamy mid-September weekend two months before the election, Aiken stopped at a VFW, where he impressed volunteers at a car show with his knowledge of Veterans Affairs programs and which community colleges give credit for military involvement. He talked about the need to secure our borders with a woman at a street festival and name-checked the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation and Republican Sen. Richard Burr and former senator Jesse Helms in a local television interview (it’s important for Aiken to make clear that he is a moderate Democrat).
It’s not necessarily that Aiken has an encyclopedic knowledge of the issues — though the Cook Political Report, a hard-to-impress bunch, said he was “better-versed and more in-depth than plenty of state legislators we have met” — it’s that he’s an incredibly good listener.
“Oprah said something to me years ago, one of the first times I met her,” Aiken says, aware that stories like these don’t necessarily help his cause as just a regular Joe. “She said being a good talk show host isn’t about being a good talker, it’s about being good at listening. It’s a misnomer. I think a lot of politicians think being a good one is knowing the right thing to say. I think it’s knowing when to shut the hell up.”
On the drive over to a lupus charity walk on our second day together, Aiken told me that if he could have any X-Men superpower, it would be the ability to control the weather. Now, he might be willing to kill for it because just moments after we arrive it starts pouring, and we get under a small picnic tent with a rabid fan and a preacher’s wife.
“Can I get your vote in November?” Aiken asks the preacher’s wife.
“I’ll be voting in November,” she responds.
“That’s not what I asked,” Aiken says with a laugh.
“You were wonderful on ‘American Idol.’ You have a beautiful voice,” she says.
“Well tell me, what issues do you vote on? Why can’t I get your vote?” he says.
“I vote on morality,” she says while texting her friend. I’m standing behind her and catch a glimpse of her screen: “Because he’s gay! LOL,” she writes.
Aiken probably wouldn’t have been able to convince her anyway, but the entire process is made much more difficult by one of his fans, Sylvia, who is clinging to his arm, asking him repeatedly if he will get on stage and sing. She’s older, with short white hair, a fanny pack, and a heart painted on her cheek. Aiken isn’t singing these days; he’s trying to get out of that box in an effort to be taken seriously as a candidate.
“Please, just make some music,” she says.
“I’m actually a little afraid to be this close to you,” he says.
“Are we going to go somewhere together?” she asks, yanking at his arm. “I don’t care where.”
“We really should go so we can make our next event,” Aiken says, stepping out into the rain. He has no umbrella. He has plenty of time to dry off, however. The next event isn’t for three hours.
While Sylvia is an extreme case, Aiken’s experience as the country’s most famous congressional candidate is filled with these types of interactions. At a county fair, his name is announced over the PA, and a throng of fans gathers to take selfies in exchange for campaign stickers. Later, at a high school football game, cheerleaders break from their routine to pose with him.
The vast majority of his fans like him for his singing, not his politics. But Aiken wants them to know that that guy is gone.
“There is no going back to singing as a profession really,” Aiken says after his visit to the farm. “Most people think that politics is a crap hole. . . . Once you walk into the pig barn that is politics, it’s hard to get the smell out of your clothes.”