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Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard still share a bond like no other

38 million watched their ‘American Idol’ showdown in 2003. Now on a nostalgic concert tour, the two men reflect on the lasting prize of friendship

Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard pose for a photo at Phoenix’s Orpheum Theater before a show on their current concert tour, which celebrates the 20th anniversary of their “American Idol” showdown in 2003. (Cassidy Araiza for The Washington Post)

NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Think about the bond you share with a friend that you have known for two decades, and now imagine that you met when you were both 24, on a TV show that made each of you head-spinningly famous. There were record deals. Magazines with your faces on the cover. The tabloids tried to figure out who you were sleeping with. Ecstatic fans crashed your tables at restaurants. Through it all, a rude British man got paid to insult you.

It was 2003 — very specifically 2003, the year that Fox’s “American Idol” skyrocketed into ubiquity in its second season. Tens of millions of viewers gathered on Tuesday and Wednesday nights to watch the singing competition, vote for their favorites and gasp at stinging comments from the “mean” judge, British record executive Simon Cowell. And everyone started to realize that this new phenomenon called “reality TV” could really turn regular people into stars and would give us a whole new class of celebrities to obsessively follow.

May 21, 2003: It all came down to Ruben Studdard vs. Clay Aiken. Some 124 million votes were cast and a whopping 38 million viewers tuned in, one of the highest-rated TV broadcasts that year and the most-watched live regularly scheduled TV episode of this century so far (excluding sports). Studdard won and Aiken was named runner-up, and the two men became inextricably linked — and friends, forever.

“We like to round it up to 40 [million viewers], please,” Aiken joked, maybe only half kidding.

Aiken stopped touring a decade ago, but last spring, Studdard noted that the 20-year anniversary of their famed “Idol” season was on the horizon and hinted about a possible reunion for the milestone. “I know you’ll be in Congress next year,” Studdard told Aiken, who was in the throes of his second bid in eight years for a North Carolina congressional seat. (“He was being nice and optimistic,” Aiken said.)

Aiken lost the Democratic primary and decided he was sick of the political arena: “I’m done with all of this for the rest of my life,” he said. “I don’t like any of them, honestly, on either side.”

Studdard told him, “You’ll make more people happy singing than you will in politics, anyway.”

Aiken was sold, leading to “Twenty,” a 70-plus date concert trek across the United States and Canada that kicked off in April and continues through January and beyond. The set list is entirely cover songs, many of which they performed on “Idol,” and it makes people very, very happy as they are emotionally transported to what they remember as a simpler time, when everyone watched the same thing on TV and the internet was limited to the dial-up modem on the “family computer.”

The tour has pulled into North Little Rock on a warm October afternoon at the University of Arkansas Pulaski Technical College. Aiken and Studdard are dressed as casually as possible without actually wearing pajamas, several hours before they take the stage. Though they have separate busy lives — Aiken lives in Raleigh with his teen son; Studdard is based in Birmingham with his wife and preschool-age son – they have remained close friends all these years. And as other “Idol” stars fade from memory, America has never forgotten Clay and Ruben.

They refer to each other as brothers, and when they unite for these type of events, they are one entity. The merchandise involves both of them: One shirt reads “John & Paul & George & Ringo & Ruben&Clay.” The media played up their rivalry in 2003; even though it was a competition, they didn’t really feel like competitors. Their fans, especially the “Claymates,” bickered about Studdard’s small margin of victory in the finale and claimed conspiracies. The actual Ruben and Clay were never at odds.

“We occasionally will see somebody in the audience with an old Ruben shirt, like a lady last night … and I joked with her,” Aiken said. “But I don’t even like it when we do a meet-and-greet and someone says, ‘I voted for you’ when [Ruben] is in the room. It p—– me off! And if someone says that to him, then you better be p—– too.”

“It doesn’t make me mad,” Studdard countered. “Because we wouldn’t be here if somebody hadn’t voted for him, and vice versa, so he needs to calm down.”

“Okay, I don’t get upset when they say they voted for me. But there have been, once or twice, a few who have said it in a way that was not as empathetic. And I don’t like that at all,” Aiken protested as Studdard looks amused, like he’s heard this all before. “We are in this together.”

It’s like eavesdropping on a conversation that has been going on for 20 years. As they sat down for a scheduled hour-long interview, Aiken and Studdard bounced rapid-fire from topic to topic, cackling about old “Idol” memories, the minutiae of which they fear would bore anyone else. They get wistful expressions when they talk about a recent concert at which the venue had food delivered backstage from Buca di Beppo, the Italian chain where they used to get weekly cast dinners on “Idol.” Studdard had not thought about Buca di Beppo in 20 years.

“The most fulfilling part [of this tour] is having all these nostalgic moments, like the memories. I’m not sitting at home regularly thinking about the stuff that I did when I was on ‘American Idol,’” Studdard said. “It’s like … I’ve forgotten most things about high school, until I’m around people that went to high school with me.”

It reminds Aiken of the adage about how you can’t make old friends. “There are not many people who will always know what Ruben was like when he was 24, or what I was like when I was 24,” he said. Nearing his 45th birthday, Aiken sees real value in what he and Studdard, who turned 45 earlier this year, still have.

The back-and-forth continues until about the 58-minute mark. “I don’t think we’ve let you ask a single question, have we?” Aiken said. “That’s what I learned when I was in politics — filibuster, then they can’t ask you the tough s—. What do you think about the new speaker, Ruben? I’m kidding.”

Eight minutes later, after which they don’t discuss just-elected House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) but do mention temporary speaker Patrick T. McHenry’s (R-N.C.) bow tie and then wind up debating how to handle drunk fans who yell song requests, finally, a question: What was it like going from an everyday person to becoming a celebrity and having everyone care about everything that you do?

Studdard said the hardest part in the beginning was people interrupting meals out with his family. “Meanwhile, my grandma is loving this,” he said, because she was bursting with pride. Aiken remembered a few months after “Idol” in Los Angeles, he wound up at the same Melrose restaurant as Glenn Close. No one bothered Close, but he was bombarded by photo requests.

“They thought they could pull up a chair to our dinner table and they did pull up chairs to our dinner tables,” Aiken said. “Because they did put us there. They had a hand in it. And they felt like they knew us because we had told our stories on ‘Idol.’”

Allowing audience members to vote was one reason “Idol” caught on in the United States, adapted from the British hit “Pop Idol,” where Cowell first starred. The American version imported Cowell and added hitmaker-producer Randy Jackson and legendary singer-dancer Paula Abdul as his fellow judges. The first season was a success in the summer of 2002, and as winner Kelly Clarkson set off on soon-to-be superstardom, producers raced to find similarly captivating contestants.

Viewers tuned in for the classic terrible auditions and Cowell’s brutally honest commentary, but many fans loved front-runners Aiken and Studdard from the start. Aiken, in school studying special education, sang Heatwave’s “Always and Forever” at his first audition while wearing glasses and puka shells, and shocked the judges with his soaring vocals. “You don’t look like a pop star, but you’ve got a great voice,” Cowell said, a conundrum that Jackson pronounced “weird.”

Studdard, a former college football player who majored in music education, arrived in a yellow baseball hat and delivered a stunning rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Ribbon in the Sky.” The judges loved him. Aiken and Studdard were sent through to the Hollywood round and started to bond as the field narrowed.

“That was such a great season, Season 2 — and the best part is that two completely separate and distinct artists became the most unlikely duo,” Abdul said in a recent interview. “It’s almost like ‘The Odd Couple’ in the best way possible. Just major talent.”

The growing friendship between the bookish student and the jock endeared viewers, but Aiken and Studdard also came from similar backgrounds, growing up in the South and singing in church. Their makeovers over the season — Aiken got highlights, Studdard got a new selection of suits — were a major talking point.

“They were like the Cinderella story,” said Megan Michaels Wolflick, an “Idol” associate producer on Season 2 who is now the showrunner. (The show, set to kick off its 22nd season next year, moved from Fox to ABC in 2018.) “They were both kind of these guys next door who were accessible.”

The second season was an unusual time for “Idol.” No one really grasped its popularity yet, and the behind-the-scenes was more casual. The show was incredibly strict on the rules and fairness of the competition, but off set, all the finalists lived together in a mansion. Some producers stayed there as well. (“There were a few affairs between our contestants and people who worked on the show,” Aiken said, adding one staffer was his first boyfriend.) They would all have dinner at P.F. Chang’s not far from the studio in Television City. Living arrangements changed in later years and firmer boundaries were put in place, but back then, they quickly became a family.

“I think one of the reasons we became not only friends with each other, but friends with everyone in our group, is because we had no idea what we were getting into,” Aiken said. “In subsequent seasons, I happen to know for a fact … the winner and runner-up had not spoken since their season ended. And we were both like, ‘What?’”

It’s hard for them to imagine going through such a transformative time and not relying on the only other person in the world who understands what it’s like. Wolflick said producers referred to that time on the show as “the ‘Idol’ bubble,” and contestants were often in for a shock once they stepped off the set and found there was enormous interest in their lives.

“But that’s what makes them kind of relatable to America,” said Wolflick, as viewers saw the challenges as they adapted to fame but stayed down to earth. “They knew who they were and they felt confident in it.”

After the 2003 finale, they toured regularly — mostly separately, though together in 2010. They each sold millions of albums and appeared on TV shows and on Broadway. Studdard was nominated for a Grammy. Aiken ran for Congress. They returned to reality TV: Studdard was the first celebrity to appear on the weight-loss competition series “The Biggest Loser” in 2013 (he didn’t win the show, but he lost 119 pounds), and Aiken was again the runner-up on “The Celebrity Apprentice” in 2012, losing to Arsenio Hall.

“American Idol,” meanwhile, is not the ratings powerhouse it once was — Aiken admitted he’s frustrated when viewers don’t appreciate that winning or being the runner-up used to be “a huge deal.” Its winners, who must navigate a profoundly altered music industry, find that instant fame is more elusive than it used to be. What remains strong is the show’s legacy and the memories shared by viewers.

“To this day when we’re auditioning people, every day, I’m hearing singers who are like, ‘I grew up with the show, I watched with my grandma, my mom auditioned,’” Wolflick said. “It’s a happy memory, and like this kind of simpler time. It’s like a warm blanket, Clay and Ruben — it’s cozy and it feels safe.”

Aiken and Studdard wanted the 20-year tour to lean in heavily into that sense of time travel. The songs that play over the loudspeaker before the concert are exclusively ones released around 2003, such as Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter” and John Mayer’s “Your Body is a Wonderland.” (“We did have to get rid of quite a bit of R. Kelly, because he was very big then,” Aiken said.)

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The 2½-hour concert opened with the “Idol” theme music, and as Aiken and Studdard glided onstage dressed in sparkly jackets, they belted out hits they performed to become part of the Top 12: “Superstar,” “Open Arms,” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me.” They sang a Motown medley, a boy-band medley, and a medley of songs by “Idol” guest mentors, such as Gladys Knight, who famously nicknamed Studdard the “Velvet Teddy Bear.”

Between it all, they told “Idol” stories and poked fun at each other: Aiken noted that Studdard spent the previous day visiting the William J. Clinton Library and Museum, so that was all he was going to talk about for the next two weeks. Studdard told Aiken he was interrupting him too much. Aiken made self-deprecating digs about his second-place finish and cracked his knee into the microphone to prove how they had aged, and joked about how overworked they were on “Idol” when they spent hours filming Ford car commercials: “They exploited the crap out of us back then.”

Ashlee Wilson, 35, of Little Rock attended the VIP meet-and-greet earlier in the day, where Aiken and Studdard answered questions and posed for photos. When she was a teenager, she used to hang out in an online chatroom of Aiken fans and stayed in touch with one woman from New Zealand who recently sent her $300 to buy a VIP ticket to the Little Rock show.

Despite her fandom, Wilson had never seen Aiken in concert. “I went to college and I just kind of got on with life. It gets away from you,” she said. “But then before you know it, they’re doing a tour 20 years later.”

The early 2000s were a weird time to become famous — before social media chaos, but back when gossip blogs didn’t think twice about shamelessly speculating about anyone’s personal life. Writers were casually cruel about Studdard’s weight. Aiken was bombarded with questions about his sexuality until he came out in 2008 on a People magazine cover, posing with his baby son, conceived by in vitro fertilization with his close friend, music producer Jaymes Foster.

Because so many people treated Aiken terribly at the time (he said he lost about half his fan base), he will always remember those who were kind including Studdard, in whom he confided early on.

“He kept a secret better than anyone,” Aiken said. As he continued talking about the treatment he faced, he caught Studdard’s glance. “You wouldn’t know anything at all about being discriminated against,” Aiken deadpanned. “Let me enlighten you.”

“Please bring me in, what it feels like to be marginalized,” Studdard shot back, and they both laughed.

That’s just what it’s like in these kind of friendships — you just get each other. After Aiken lost his second congressional run and decided his political aspirations were over, Studdard was the only person who could have coaxed him to go on tour again so quickly.

“It’s very hard to find people onstage you have chemistry with … it’s magic when we go out onstage,” Studdard said. Plus, he said, after he supported Aiken at his campaign events, Aiken will owe him his support when Studdard, say, runs for governor of Alabama in 20 years.

Aiken agreed. No matter what happens, and wherever the future takes them, he will be there.

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