When Clay Aiken appeared on America's Next Top Model this week, I initially rejoiced. American Idol and ANTM combining forces to become some sort of super-rad reality superpower? Huzzah! Was it Christmas already?
But then, as much as I enjoyed watching the newly out-and-proud Clay strutting his true stuff--portraying a flamboyant fashion show director during the models' acting-class challenge, as seen below...
...I then suddenly and sadly thought: Wow. A couple years ago, Clay wouldn't have had to do this.
See, there was a time when Clay Aiken was the ultimate Idol-underdog success story. He barely even survived on season 2, only making it to the finals as a result of the show's "wild card" policy--and he didn't even WIN, losing out by an extremely narrow voting margin to Ruben Studdard. And yet Clay made it onto the cover of Rolling Stone before Ruben did, and ultimately he became one of the show's biggest breakout stars.
In 2004, his debut disc, Measure Of A Man, racked up the highest first-week sales for any Idol album (a whopping 613,000), and as of this writing, Clay is still the third-top-selling Idol ever, behind only Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, with almost 5 million albums sold. He's also still the highest-selling male contestant ever and the highest-selling non-Idol-winner, closely trailed in both categories by Idol-losing male Chris Daughtry.
Ironically, Clay's career low comes at a time when his personal life seems to be hitting new highs. He recently became a father, a life-changing experience that he has often gushed about to the press. And he also finally came out of the closet--which surely must have been a relief to him after years of silently seething while his sexuality was the constant target of countless late-night-talk-show monologue jokes and nasty blogs.
I actually think Clay's decline is more symptomatic of the bigger Idol picture. With such an Idol-saturated market after seven seasons--seriously, it seems like anyone who ever so much as auditioned for the show has put an album out by now--it's getting harder and harder for A.I. alums to sell records and stay relevant. Along with Clay, other once-popular Idols who've been dropped by BMG include Ruben Studdard, Taylor Hicks, Bo Bice, Katharine McPhee, and Blake Lewis; and still-signed ldols like Fantasia haven't sold nearly as well as they used to, either. Even last season's tween-friendly frontrunner, David Archuleta, has failed to ignite the charts like he once ignited Fox's ratings.
So what's next for Clay? His metamorphosis from pencil-necked geek to unlikely pop superstar to Broadway baby has been one of AmIdol's greatest all-time transformations. (Remember the infamous night he surprised fanboy Michael Sandecki on that Idol finale show, looking like K.D. Lang?) But how can Clay reinvent himself once again?
Well, a lot of ex-Idols have returned to the reality-TV circuit, whether on lighter fare like CMT's Gone Country or, unfortunately, on heavy-duty stuff like VH1's Celebrity Rehab...and Clay's wonderfully swishy and scenery-chomping star turn on Top Model this week suggests that reality just might be the route for him to take now.
So, walk, NOW, Clay--straight to the MTV/VH1 programming office to pitch your own new Celebreality series!
- Clay Aiken
- Ruben Studdard
- American Idol