Out East End: Checking in with Clay Aiken

Clay Aiken is performing on stage July 15 at Calissa, a Mediterranean restaurant in Water Mill.
Clay Aiken

Clay Aiken says he will never forget “the moment backstage before the finale” of “American Idol” with his competitor, Ruben Studdard.

“We were standing back there waiting to walk out for the very last time and find out who won, and Ruben looked at me and said, “Look at us. Two of the least likely people to win this show — look at the two of us, right here,” recalls Aiken, with a laugh. “I was like, ‘Oh hell, you’re right. We did this.’ I think we both knew that in itself was kind of something special, too.”

That was 20 years ago, and though Studdard beat out Aiken by 134,000 votes out of the 24 million votes cast that night (the two have been good, close friends since), Aiken, who grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina, went on to international stardom, scoring a record deal with RCA, selling millions of records, topping the Billboard charts, touring for years, starring on Broadway in Spamalot, and making numerous concert and television appearances. In 2014 he made a run for office to be a US Representative of North Carolina (he won the Democratic primary and lost to the incumbent).

These days, Aiken says he doesn’t sing much publicly anymore — but on July 15 he will be performing at Calissa, the Mediterranean restaurant in Water Mill, when he kicks off a summer-long series Broadway Out East featuring a star-studded lineup of Broadway artists, musicians, and entertainers.

“It’s sort of rare, actually,” says Aiken, who notes that his “main job at the moment” is raising his 13-year-old son and “singing occasionally, depending on how I’m feeling.” [He also moderates a weekly political podcast called How the Heck We All Gonna Get Along?] When he takes the stage in the outdoor courtyard at Calissa, his fans will be witness to another least likely moment, and a first for Aiken.

“I have not done a public performance this intimate ever before,” Aiken says. The shows at Calissa seat 125 people, a far cry from the large venues and concert halls Aiken is used to. “I’ve done a few private events that have been sort of similar, but I’ve never done anything publicly with just me and piano that’s not been in a real theater,” he admits. “It’s kind of exciting to me and I’m honestly a little bit nervous.”

We checked in with Aiken via phone in Raleigh, North Carolina to talk with him about his upcoming gig at Calissa (only his second time in the Hamptons) and what life has been like since “Idol.”

When did you last sing in public, and what brings you out to the Hamptons?

I think I did a public performance in 2015 and not another one until Ruben and I did the show together on Broadway in 2018.

I certainly don’t dislike it — I did it for a long time, 11 years on the road. It lost the spark for me and so I don’t really have the personality to constantly want to live on the road and be doing it. I stop and after a while I’m like, “You know what, I want to sing,” and feel I miss it.

I actually was scheduled to do a theatrical show this summer in Pittsburgh. It was supposed to be last summer and it got canceled and postponed due to COVID and then it got postponed again this summer, and I was like, “crap.”

My musical director (Ben Cohn, also the musical director for ”Dear Evan Hansen” on Broadway) is friends with the people at Calissa and knew they were doing this series. They had gotten to the point where everyone is—how do we continue to have our business successful and how do we run and operate in this environment?

The fact that this business was trying to make it work with the restrictions that were in place and do these outdoors events and space people correctly — I empathize with that and wanted to be involved and help if I could.

It gave me a chance to do one of those things that people said you can’t do — and I said, “Let’s go do it.” It was an opportunity to finally come out of the house … I’ve been vaccinated for quite a while now so I’m getting back to life normally.

Do you know what you’ll be singing at Calissa? What do you love to sing?

Not song by song but I think a memory lane through some of the stuff I have recorded (that could mean “The Way,” “Invisible,” “This Is the Night”) and some of the stuff I did on “Idol” probably (his classic “Bridge Over Troubled Water” is a sure bet).

If I’m being completely honest, the truth is I always want to sing Christmas stuff [we laugh] but in a setting like this I really do love the Andy Williams kind of Perry Como, Johnny Matthis type stuff — “It’s Impossible” — those types of singers-songs that have always been my favorite to sing, not that I don’t like pop stuff but … there’s something about those crooners of the ’60s that I love so I imagine there will be several of those.

Do you watch “Idol” and how often are you in touch with Ruben?

I talk to Ruben at least every week … We did the Broadway show together in 2018 we toured together in 2010 … I cannot think of many people who I work better with.

I haven’t watched the show since maybe Season five … it’s a different show and it’s geared to a very young audience now … this year is the 20th year of “Idol” and next year will be 20 years since I did it.

After being competitors, why do you think you and Ruben stayed so close — what bonds you?

We both love where we’re from — we were so much more competitive over Raleigh versus Birmingham, or North Carolina barbecue versus Alabama barbecue than we ever were against each other … He would have been happy to have let me win “Idol” if he could prove that Birmingham was better than Raleigh. There was something about that sort of little brotherly competition that we had over our home towns that sort of made us bond.

Plus I was a gay guy who didn’t quite realize it yet and therefore I looked like I always had all the pretty girls around me. Ruben will tell you this … he said, “Whoever this boy is who can get all these hot girls, I want to be his friend.” He didn’t quite realize they were my fruit flies…

You came out in 2008 when your son was born — what was the fear about?

I hadn’t told my family. I went and told my grandmother a week before the “[People] Magazine” issue came out because I didn’t want her to read it there — for the same reason that I think every person even still today has struggles. It’s a very personal journey and I didn’t really even discover that I was or know and acknowledge that I was until I was on “Idol.” I joke with people all the time and say everyone in America knew I was gay before I did. [we laugh]

I was afraid to be out in 2004 and 2005. I was scared to death to come out in 2008 and when I did — honest to God — I don’t know if I’ve ever admitted this publicly before. I lost a whole sh-t ton of fans when I came out. A lot. I went from selling out a Broadway show — I was in “Spamalot” and it was sold every night I was in it — and then I came out and they literally had to close less than six months later. I don’t think it was all because of me, but I’ll tell you this, me being out certainly didn’t help it.

I don’t consider that public journey or the loss of the fans or any of the stuff I guess a lot of people would consider to be negative. I am not a victim of anything and I don’t want to be. I’m not one. I feel like, “Who am I to complain about anything?” … It’s a part of growing into a better human to go through trials and then get through them.

Are you seriously nervous about performing at Calissa?

I’m very awkwardly introverted in a lot of settings … I think this might be the first time I have really done a ticketed-type public performance with an audience that I could see face to face. Holy crap! Now I’m getting really nervous!

I’m going to have to be really careful not to talk too much — it’s two shows and they have to turn those tables so I’ve got to restrict myself. [pauses] I’ll figure it out by the second show. [laughs].