The slender North Carolinian has been in constant motion since finishing as the runner-up in the second season of "American Idol" in May -- a near photo finish with Ruben Studdard, the soulful Mutt to Aiken's emotive Jeff. He's toured with the other "Idol" contestants and watched his first single, "This is the Night"/"Bridge Over Troubled Water," top the charts and become the best-selling single since Elton John's 1997 "Candle in the Wind" remake.
Rolling Stone magazine put Aiken on its cover -- even before Studdard -- and all manner of other media latched onto the former special education teacher from Raleigh, whom "Idol" made over from a bespectacled, self-declared geek to confident heartthrob with a lusty legion of fans -- Claymates -- and scores of fawning Internet sites hopping on the Clay train.
"I haven't exactly skimmed below any spotlights," Aiken, 24, says with a laugh, eyeballing a schedule that has him cruising the talk show circuit, singing the National Anthem at the first game of the World Series on Saturday and performing at the American Music Awards and Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in November.
The spotlights burn even brighter, of course, with Tuesday's release of Aiken's first full-length album, "Measure of a Man." Overseen by RCA Records chief Clive Davis and "Idol" creator Simon Fuller, the 12-song set marks the all-important Next Step for Aiken, the move that will either establish him as a durable talent independent of the show -- like inaugural "Idol" winner Kelly Clarkson -- or a one-hit bust like previous bridesmaid Justin Guarini.
"I don't want to be `American Idol' Runner-Up Clay Aiken the rest of my life, but I don't know necessarily feel like I have something to prove," says Aiken, whose fans have sworn to make "Measure of a Man" instantly platinum with a nationwide series of CD release parties on Monday night. We just want to make sure that there's growth and there's change, and you'll hear that on the album.
"But it's also important that we don't alienate the people that watched (`American Idol') and put me there. If it weren't for that show, I would not be in the place that I am now. It would be a mistake to forget that."
Raised by his mother and grandmothers after his parents divorced, Aiken -- who subsequently took his mother's maiden name -- never craved a career as a singer, though he did sing in his church choir and in school theater productions. Mostly he was happy to teach his grade school-aged students and even planned to get a master's degree in administration.
That all changed when some of his students' parents, who had heard him sing, encouraged Aiken to try out for "American Idol." He stumbled his way through the audition process, finally getting a spot on the show via a wild card round for those who had been previously axed. There, as his appearance morphed, Aiken quietly won the support of the voting fans and the "Idol" judges -- even acerbic Simon Crowell, who derisively dubbed Aiken's "This is the Night" as "American Idol: The Musical."
"Y'know," Aiken says, "in all honestly I came into this whole experience not really expecting to ever be a recording artist or to have an album. It's not like I had some kind of grand vision for how my big recording career would pan out."
He does, however, bristle at those who want to position he and Studdard as rivals -- and give Aiken the upper hand in the battle because of the Rolling Stone cover (the mag's best-selling issue of the year) and the fact that the "This is the Night" single far outsold Studdard's "Flying Without Wings"/"Superstar."
"Yeah, I sold more singles than Ruben did, but his single got more airplay than mine," Aiken notes. "It's not that either one of us beat the other on anything. He's great at what he's great at, and I'm good at what I'm good at. And we're not even competing in the marketplace `cause we have two completely different markets.
"So it's almost a moot point, this competition thing. He and I are not competing with each other at all. We're friends. We support each other."
More than that, even; Aiken would ask Studdard to knot his tie before going onstage during the "Idol" tour. "He can do that better than me, too," Aiken says.
Being the runner-up, however, did give Aiken a chance to finish "Measure of a Man" quicker than Studdard made his debut, "Soulful," which is due out November 25. Aiken says that "the basic feel is pretty much the same" as what he did on the "Idol" telecasts; "I like songs that need to be sung, that you have to emote on," he explains.
But, Aiken adds, "there's definitely been a progression. These songs are a little edgier. We've made them more radio friendly. They're definitely more modern types of songs than I sang on the show, more modern than `This is the Night.'"
Aiken -- who was raised a conservative Christian and still wears a WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) bracelet -- did have one condition for "Measure of a Man," however. "I came in and said `I'm not gonna sing about sex and that type of thing and really horrible, suggestive things," he says. "I came in with those standards, and I was not gonna compromise."
He didn't have to, and judging from the enthusiastic early response to the album's first single, a remake of the Irish group D-Side's "Invisible," that stance probably hasn't hurt Aiken's chances for success. Even Studdard, watching from afar with an obviously vested interest, is confident his fellow "Idol" has delivered the goods.
"He's a great singer, man; he can really sell you a song," Studdard says. "I think me and Clay, we'll both do well and sell a lot of copies. And everybody'll be happy."
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