From ‘American Idol’ rivals to besties, Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken explain


They seemed an unlikely couple — the teddy bear from Alabama with the gospelly R&B voice and the geeky pop singer from North Carolina. But Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken hit it off on “American Idol” in 2003, finishing as winner and runner-up, respectively — and best friends.

Unlike any other “Idol” contestants, they’ve been forever linked. They toured together in 2010 and four years later they did a Christmas show on Broadway. They call it a brotherly relationship with divergent paths.

While Studdard has had a steady career of touring and recording R&B albums, Aiken twice ran unsuccessfully for Congress in North Carolina. He hasn’t released an album since 2010 or performed since 2014. Both singers ended up on reality TV: Aiken on “The Celebrity Apprentice” in 2012 and Studdard on “The Biggest Loser” in 2014.

Last year, Aiken finally returned to music to celebrate the 20th anniversary of his and Studdard’s “American Idol” run.

Headed to the Dakota in Minneapolis, Studdard and Aiken, both 45, started talking about the Twin Cities before they entertained questions in a joint phone interview last weekend. Aiken reminisced about opening the 2003 “American Idol” tour in St. Paul, where they rehearsed for a week. Studdard has been a regular Thanksgiving visitor because his best childhood friend lives in Mendota Heights.

Here are excerpts from an hourlong conversation.

Q: Ruben, how did you convince Clay to return to the road after all these years?
RS: We talked about it before, but I don’t think he really considered it until he came to see my Luther [Vandross] show a couple years ago.
CA: Ruben had been on the road for 20 years solid. I had stopped and taken an ill-advised detour into, should we call, “public service.” He stayed supportive during the whole time I did that. When you see Ruben perform, it just makes you happy. Not often do I see a show that makes me want to get back onstage.

Q: Why is the set list all covers? No solo hits like Clay’s “Invisible” or Ruben’s “Sorry 2004.”
RS: It’s the Ruben and Clay Show, not the Ruben Studdard or Clay Aiken show. We try to give people opportunity to have fun from the perspective of where they met us, which is on “American Idol.”
CA: It’s a celebration of that pivotal moment not only in our lives but in America’s lives. Season 2 was the year the show exploded. It’s not a co-headlining where we each do our own set. You still get a heavy dose of Ruben singing “Flying Without Wings” and me doing “Bridge Over Troubled Water.”

Q: Clay, what was your first impression of Ruben 20 years ago?
CA: Omigod, I was intimidated. My first impression of him onstage was that’s the dude I’ve got to beat. My first impression of him as a person is the same as it is today: He’ll talk to anybody, can talk to anybody, he is the most sociable, friendly. He walked up to me in the restaurant at the Hilton [Hotel] and we’ve been barely separated since.

Q: Ruben, what was your first impression of Clay?
RS: I thought he was hella cool. I saw him around a bunch of ladies that had been singing. The next day I got to hear how extremely talented he was. We had this spiritual thing. When they put us in that “Idol” house, we ended up being like the brother we never had. We ate cereal together, we played video games, anything you could think of.

Q: Ruben, how has Clay changed in 20 years?
RS: As far as personality, he’s become a lot more assertive. Which is something that concerned me at the beginning of our friendship. Because I used to not like the way he handled things.
CA: Now he’s concerned for the other reason. He’s like: “Damn, be less assertive, please.”
RS: Yeah, but he’s definitely come into who he is as an adult. I think we were still trying to find ourselves on that show. I think “Idol” really centered me in that vision [of who I am].

Q: Clay, how has Ruben changed in 20 years?
CA: Ruben has always been sort of — sage is the wrong word to use. When we’d sit in group meetings when the top 12 had to make a decision without the producers, Ruben would be the one that people would defer to. Now Ruben has that same sage ability to guide folks and mentor others. He’s a calming presence when I lose my temper. He’s a mentor to the band, to the crew, to the people in Alabama who line up to be his background singers.

Q: Do you share fatherhood tips?
RS: I just watch [Clay]. He is the prototypical Southern father. We’re different as it pertains to discipline down here. We’re “yes ma’am, no sir.” That stuff is paramount. The pleasantries that we have to exhibit that go a long way to get you places. I’ve seen him in his co-parenting role. I know he tripped and stumbled a couple of times but he does it with grace and good character. He has a good heart. I know his son appreciates that.
CA: He doesn’t like his dad at this moment. He’s 16. The tour came through Raleigh back in the spring and after the show I had friends and family milling around. Afterward I had four different people send me a photo of Ruben and Parker [Aiken’s son] together. Ruben had his hand on Parker’s shoulder. They had this really serious conversation. You can just see in Parker’s eyes that he was listening to what Uncle Ruben was telling him and he was taking it to heart. We have been less advisers to each other as far as parenting goes as opposed to Ruben has been an uncle figure who he can ask for advice. God help us one day Olivier [Ruben’s young son] will ask me for advice.

Q: How often do you text or talk when not working together?
RS: I would say as often as I would text my own brother. Once every two or three weeks.
CA: Ruben is better about that than I am. Sometimes we’ll hop on the phone.

Q: Clay, what’s your biggest pet peeve about Ruben?
CA: He’ll answer his phone — no matter who it is even if he doesn’t know who it is — in the middle of anything. It could be a blocked number and he could be in the middle of planning a funeral and he’d answer the phone and it’ll be someone from Birmingham asking if he’ll come to their Little League game.
Studdard laughed.

Q: Ruben, what’s your pet peeve about Clay?
RS: There’s so many.
Aiken laughed.
CA: You don’t have to be diplomatic. Just say it.
RS: Clay is a lot more serious in moments when I want him to enjoy the experience. A lot of times Clay is very meticulous and focused on the minor things. That is the producer in him and the person who has run his own campaign and has to be meticulous as opposed to enjoying the fact that he’s actually running for Congress.
CA: You can tell Ruben would be a great politician himself. What he’s saying is I’m anal and have a temper. He’s saying it so nicely. He’s always been extra nice.
RS: We are a team. We can argue internally but no one outside of us will know we argued.

Q: Why haven’t “Idol” contestants had more success in the record industry?
RS: We were on a television show, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the record industry. It gives you a platform to recognize your talent but it doesn’t give you a golden ticket to sell a million records. Truth of the matter is “Idol” doesn’t have the same record machine when [legendary record executive] Clive Davis was a part of the show. Different companies have different objectives.
CA: When Ruben and I and Kelly [Clarkson] and Fantasia and Carrie Underwood were on the show, “Idol” was produced by a record company, 19 Entertainment. Simon Fuller created it and the winner was signed to his label. So for the first four years, it was a motivation to make sure that each person on the show became a long-term artist. As years went on and the show became owned by Fox and later ABC and Disney, the motivation is to create a good TV show. What’s important is that the overnights [ratings] come in good. Now social media is important so a lot of the show needs to be produced so there are shareable moments. The way we measure success is different now. It’s followers and shares.

Q: Clay, what did you learn in politics that helps you in your performing career?
CA: Nothing. This tour is the first thing I’ve done since I finally bleached myself of that world that has made me realize how much more authentic entertainment is than politics. That’s a shame. That has a lot to do with why people hate politicians. Ruben and I go onstage and we’re just ourselves. We’re not guarded. People have fun and enjoy it. It’s so much easier.

Politics, even when you try to be yourself, you have 15, 20 people telling you not to. I pushed hard not to follow that stuff but there’s a constant pressure to do what the polls tell you to do. Or what your communications [staff] tell you to say. The only thing I want to learn from politics is what not to do and how not to be.

Q: How much do you pay attention to “Idol” these days?
RS: I watch. I’m not invested in the kids like I used to be in early seasons.
CA: Without watching this last season, I strayed for several years. Megan Wolflick used to drive us around when she was 24 as a producer on our season of “Idol,” now she’s the showrunner. Both of us have gotten a little more interested in it. She’s bringing back some of the elements that made “Idol” great 20 years ago.

Q: What’s next after this tour?
RS: Going out to perform my new record [released in October] — “The Way I Remember It.”
CA: I don’t know the answer. I’m enjoying performing so much that I’ll probably keep on. I’m certainly not going back to politics. But I think before our 25th anniversary, there will be a Ruben & Clay project of some kind because we enjoy working together so much.

By Star Tribune

JAN 5 • 6:30 + 9PM




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