When thousands of aspiring vocalists lined up for their last chance at becoming the 15th and final American Idol in Philadelphia, they got encouragement from one of the franchise’s biggest stars: Season 2 runner-up Clay Aiken.
Aiken was on hand to work at one of the judges’ table and lend his ears to the process of discovering the last ever Idol winner. Singers selected at the Sunday, Aug. 2, auditions will get the opportunity to advance and perform in front of Idol judges Jennifer Lopez, Harry Connick Jr. and Keith Urban at a later round.
“It is very full in here,” Aiken told Billboard. “I’m a little nervous. This is a big deal in the life of everybody in this room.”
Aiken tried to put everyone at ease, but gave them a good pep talk. “You have to be yourself,” he told the crowd.
He said the more successful people off the show did not come in “pretending they knew what a pop star was.”
“None of them came in fabricating a personae,” he said. “I certainly didn’t. Ruben Studdard didn’t. Kelly Clarkson didn’t. Carrie Underwood didn’t. They all came in and were themselves. A lot of people walk up to these tables dressed up and think they know what a pop star is, and that’s the death knell in some ways.”
Surveying the faces in the room at Philadelphia’s Liacouras Center brought back memories of his audition 13 years ago, he said.
“I didn’t know then how big of a deal it would be for me,” he said. “I didn’t know 13 years ago on the streets of Atlanta how life changing it would be. The people in this room have seen this show for 15 years. They know how big of a deal it is, and I think that’s a big difference.”
Aiken — who recently ran for Congress in North Carolina and chronicled the whole process in the Esquire series, The Runner-Up — said that hopefuls having seen Clarkson, Season 3 winner Fantasia Barrino and Underwood come off the show and having something “really big happen to them on the back of this show” heightens anxiety.
“I was nervous myself, but these folks are going to be even more nervous because they know what at stake,” Aiken said.
He added that the stakes are high for the producers on the floor, too.
“One producer every year can claim that they are the one that is the first person who puts the winner through,” the 36-year old alum said. “The person who put me through still works on the show. The person who put Fantasia through still works on the show. And they get to have bragging rights.”
That said: Aiken said he wants to be the one to have that honor, and is in a friendly competition with Season 2 winner Studdard, who was on hand putting talent through on the floor at the auditions in Savannah, Georgia.
“As if we hadn’t competed enough already,” he laughed. “He and I are competing with each other. We are both insistent that we are going to be the ones that find the next American Idol. I am looking forward to finding that 15th Idol at my table this year.”
And what would it take to catch Aiken’s ear?
“I like all different kinds of voices,” he said. “There is a little bit of a spark in people who have great talent and don’t realize it. They have a little bit of quiet confidence within them, but aren’t trying. That is what is attractive to me. I personally gravitate and audiences gravitate towards people who are slightly more humble with their talent. I am hoping for someone who is great and doesn’t really know it.”
When asked if the ending of American Idol is bittersweet, the Broadway star couldn’t help quoting the show Pippin, saying “everything has its season.”
“In 15 years they have discovered people who are going to be around far longer than the show will, and no other show on television can say that,” he said. “I don’t believe that The Voice can say that. I don’t believe America’s Got Talent can say that. I don’t believe The Last Comic Standing can’t say that. But you certainly have Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood who are going to carry the mantle of American Idol for decades. The fact that the show is going off the air will not diminish its power in American history.”