Cameras follow the American Idol and Celebrity Apprentice alum as he campaigns for a North Carolina Congressional seat in 2014, from his initial days stumping door-to-door to the nail-biting drama leading to the results of the primary election.
Last month, Aiken — joined by producers Simon Chinn (Man on Wire, Searching for Sugarman) and Jonathan Chinn (30 Days) — sat for a screening of the very first episode at The Andaz Hotel in New York City. The premiere, set for tonight at 10 p.m., showcases every step of the campaign — warts and all.
“This is our year,” Aiken told the town hall audience, adding that watching the show was like “going to summer camp and seeing the slide show at the end of the summer of all that you went through. This is probably the same in a way for us but this is not anywhere near as fun as summer camp. I imagine the slide show will be a little less fun.”
Aiken promised everything the viewers will see is “real,” but not in any way “reality television.”
“It’s real but it’s not a reality show in any way. Idol is its thing and I did Apprentice which is a reality show, but those are scripted, this isn’t” he said. “The number one rule for me when I agreed with them to do it was, ‘Stay the hell out of my way. Don’t come asking me to do anything — if you missed it, you missed it.’ We are running a campaign, and you have got to get the heck away from us, and they did that.”
What the cameras did capture was Aiken, a Democrat, unfiltered. He curses like a sailor, micro-manages his staff — a key example is when he obsesses over the proper way signs are displayed for oncoming traffic — and says some politically incorrect statements about his Democratic opponent, Keith Crisco, who attacked him in campaign advertisements stating he did not show up for meetings of a presidential committee for people with disabilities. He also takes selfies on the campaign trail with unsuspecting voters who did not even realize he was running for office, records robo-calls with his cell phone, and stews over how publicity for his campaign is being run. All of this — and the tense moments awaiting primary results — is captured in four days worth of footage. And that’s just the first episode.
“Clay is an engaging character. He swears a lot, he’s charming. He’s lots of things,” said Simon Chinn after the screening. “It was sort of an impossible journey with almost insurmountable odds. You know that is going to make high drama.”
Jonathan Chinn noted that shortly after Aiken announced his run for office, he thought, “This is not the Clay Aiken I imagined. He seemed sincere, and quite articulate. His biggest concern was that having cameras around him would make it seem like he was capitalizing on his celebrity. He was clear if it felt like that at all he had no interest in doing it.”
Aiken said that he decided to work with Jonathan and Simon because they framed the concept of the show in a way that appealed to him.
“Jonathan knew that the reason I ran in the first place was I got a microphone and I could use it to speak up for people that don’t have a voice and talk about issues that were forgotten,” he said. “We made the point that this could be an extension of that if I was going into places where people were being ignored, seeing how they lived and how ineffective government now is affecting them, we might be able to show something.”
Also, he felt it was important for people to see that he really was serious about the campaign.
“I’m not naive at all. A lot of people heard I was running for congress and said, ‘What the hell?’ We called it ‘What-the-F mountain?’ that we had to climb throughout this particular campaign. And I know we ran a serious campaign and a very good one in a very difficult, gerrymandered district.”
What will surprise people, Aiken said, is that he really isn’t a competitive person, despite the fact he competed on two shows.
“I’m not a competitive person which I think people will find incredibly ironic. It’s eye opening. I think I learned more about myself this particular time than the other two things,” he said. “I emphasize with any politician who is in it for what they believe is the right reason. I don’t always agree with them and their reasons, but those politicians that run-either Republican or Democrat — for positive reasons because they want to do better, I emphasize the pain that can come with it.”
During the screening, Aiken covered his face while watching a scene where he said Crisco looked like he was at death’s door — a jarring statement considering Aiken had no way of knowing Crisco would pass away from an accident shortly after the primary. As soon as Jonathan and Simon learned of Crisco’s passing, both high-tailed it back to North Carolina and got Aiken’s reaction-24-hours after he found out.
“I learned about myself and human dynamics and what people will do when they are fighting for something. It was the first time I ever really felt competitive in my life, and I think it might have something to do with the fact that when I was on Idol I was competing for myself,” he said. “When I was on The Apprentice I wasn’t competitive because I was competing in a way for myself. This time to me it was about competing for other people. I was trying to win, but I was winning for a purpose and I found myself to be a lot more cutthroat when there was that kind of purpose.”
That, however, is politics, and the remaining three episodes will have plenty of drama — Jonathan Chinn promises future episodes “get better” — as viewers get a fly-on-the-wall view of Aiken battling Republican incumbent Renee Elmers.
“I hope that the things I am passionate about come through and you get to see it,” said Aiken, who lists veterans’ rights and income inequality as key issues.
Does Aiken have any plans to continue in politics now that the election is over? “I don’t know if there is post-politics,” he added. “We’ll see.