On May 21, 2003, 38.1 million viewers watched Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken battle it out to become the winner of season two of “American Idol.” When Ryan Seacrest opened the envelope, he proclaimed, “After 24 million votes, the winner of ‘American Idol’ 2003 is… Ruben Studdard!” Aiken was not surprised — he saw the name on the card before Seacrest read it out loud.
Studdard and Aiken went on to have successful careers, starting with their debut albums, which both topped the Billboard album chart.
Twenty years to the day of the season two finale, Studdard and Aiken will return to the “Idol” stage for the season 21 finale to perform one of the songs they are singing every night on stage for their 20th anniversary tour. The two “Idol” stars sat down backstage while on tour to talk to Variety about their time on the series, their enduring friendship and this shared milestone.
Do you remember the very first time that you met?
Clay Aiken: We remember; just differently.
Ruben Studdard: My memory is that we were at the Glendale Hilton. It was Hollywood Week and we were going through the process and every day people were getting cut and the second day my fraternity brother who made it to Hollywood got cut and I was really bummed about it. I thought, “I need to go get me a drink.” I go to the bar and there’s Clay holding court with like 10 girls and so I went over and introduced myself because he clearly needed some help.
Aiken: He thought I was a player.
Studdard: But after that day, I don’t remember seeing him again until we were all in that room together where we found out we made the top 32 and we got our phones back. We all exchanged numbers and Clay kept up with everybody.
Aiken: Well, I did then.
And Clay, what’s your side of the story?
Aiken: That’s the story. I just always tell people he wanted some pointers from me on how to talk to all the ladies. He doesn’t enjoy my version.
What were your first impressions of each other?
Aiken: Ruben’s was not accurate of me.
Studdard: I do remember hearing him sing when we all had to wait in the venue. This was like the worst part of the process – sitting in the theater all day long. I remember distinctly thinking about everyone who made the top 20, “Wow, they can sing.”
Aiken: When we sang in groups, Ruben’s trio and my duo were the only ones who sang “Superstar” and we the only ones who didn’t mess up our words. Ruben always had and still has an energy that people wanted to come and be around him. Everybody knew on day one that he was someone who was going to be formidable in the contest. Ruben was in the courtyard of the Alex Theater [in Glendale]. People were hanging out and talking to him, so when he came over and talked to me, I was very excited that the guy who everybody was watching came over.
Back then, your fan bases were at odds with each other. What is it like today?
Aiken: Completely different, I think.
Studdard: I think people finally recognized that we weren’t just putting it on and we really don’t care that they’re mad at each other.
Aiken: The ones who have been loyal to him from day one and have followed him for 20 years and the ones who were loyal to me from day one and then followed me, they know better. The folks who are loyal understand that and we don’t play up the competition between us. When we did the Broadway show, we opened it with this fake competition as a joke. At the very end of this show, just in the very last note, we kind of pretend that we’re competing against each other and as I was doing it last night, I thought, “I wonder if people even get this anymore? Do they understand?” It’s so natural that we’re together.
Studdard: My real brother and I competed with everything. So to me, it brings out the brotherly spirit because that’s the type of thing that I did with my actual brother. If we’re going to fight, we’re going to fight. If we’re going to play video games, we’re going to play video. We just happen to sing, so we’re going to give it our best every night and that’s what we do.
Aiken: I don’t see a bit of that animosity between people coming to the show anymore.
Who came up with the idea to do the 20th anniversary tour?
Studdard: I would say that…
Aiken: Before you say anything, real quick, I would not want to suggest that Ruben called me out of the blue, because we stay in touch. Ruben helped me with my [congressional] campaign less than a year ago. He was in Durham helping me. So we constantly stay in touch.
Studdard: We both knew that it was our 20th anniversary coming up. Even if we didn’t do a tour, we would’ve had to do something. But I enjoy being on the road. He does not. So I thought it would be cool to go out and give the people who put us where we are an opportunity to see us. Are we as physically limber? It’s so funny because I was big as hell when we were on the road the first time and those dance moves felt like I was gliding onstage and now I’m way smaller and my joints hurt.
Aiken: We do a medley of songs that were performed or written by the mentors that we had on the show. Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical” is in there and we do some jumping jacks and then at the end of the song, we joke “Okay, I’m going to need a rest,” but it’s totally true that after the jumping jacks and how high one of Diane Warren’s song is, I’m out of breath. We stand there for a good 45 seconds saying, “Okay, Ruben, you go.” “You go Clay. You go.”
Wait until the 40th anniversary tour.
Aiken: The 40th is going to have to be me sitting still if you want me to do it.
Clay, what was your initial reaction when talking about the tour?
Aiken: The last time we did something together, he came to my turf and we stayed in New York, so it was his turn. What he said was true. We knew that it was the 20th anniversary. There’s only one year when you can celebrate that. So we couldn’t think about it for a while. I had finished that last [political] campaign and told Ruben that will be the last time I do that crap and so he pounced. He picked his time right.
What is it like spending lots of time together again?
Studdard: Just like it always is. Like you would with any other family member. We are great and then we get on each other’s nerves.
Aiken: Sometimes after a show, we’ll say, “See you tomorrow afternoon.” He gets on his bus. I go on mine. It’s a fun show, but it’s also really easy to work together. Maybe not always, but it’s easy onstage. We trust each other. I went crazy a few nights ago and all of a sudden jumped off the stage and ran into the audience, which I won’t ever do again. When I got there and I was essentially stuck because I couldn’t figure out how to get back onstage, I thought, “Ruben will take care of it.”
How does this tour compare to your “Timeless” tour in 2010?
Aiken: “Timeless” was a great show in its structure and we went through the decades, but there’s much more looseness in this show. Ruben will think of a story that he has not told me before and he’ll just tell it right in the middle of the show and we have that freedom to do that, so I think that’s made it even more fun for me and I think probably for you too.
Studdard: I think it’s cool that the fans kind of give us leeway to tell those stories and let us have our pre-singer moments. It’s really cool to explore, because every night I’ll remember something new. So I’ll say, “Do you remember the day we had Fatburger for the first time?” “You know what? I do remember that.” Because we got sick of Koo Koo Roo.
Aiken: The fun part is we make each other laugh on stage, which we didn’t have the ability to do in the last two shows. “Timeless” was with so much music, there weren’t as many talking moments. The Broadway show [in 2018] had a lot of talking moments, but it was heavily scripted. This one has opportunities for us to talk but there’s no hard script, so Ruben will come up with something and it will genuinely make me laugh or I’ll do the same and that I think makes it more fun for us. I don’t worry about this show getting boring ever, because if it does, we’ll just tell another stupid story that we didn’t tell last night.
What kind of energy are you feeling from the fans during the show?
Studdard: They’re having a good time. Like I tell them, treat this like a party. Don’t come in thinking it’s a concert. We want you to sing along. We want you to have a good time. We want you to leave feeling like you were in the room with your friend that you watched grow up on “American Idol.”
Aiken: What made “Idol” so wonderful back in the early, early days is that the music we did was something everyone could sing along to. I don’t think we had a single theme night on our season that was not really timeless great music that everyone sang to and that’s what this show is also. The audiences are dancing. They are singing along. It really is a party atmosphere.
Studdard: We want people to enjoy themselves. It’s not about the music we put out. This is just about nostalgia. We want to reminisce, We want to talk about a few of the stories because even us sitting here having this interview with you, you laugh, but you’re kind of a big deal.
Aiken: We talk about you in the show.
Studdard: We talk about you in the show and we’ve had so many wonderful experiences. For us not to be able to talk about those things in addition to singing a couple songs would be tragic. I think people are coming for that.
Twenty years ago, you both went from being unknown to being globally known. Did you realize that 20 years later, everybody would know who you are still to this day?
Studdard: I had no expectation of how it would be after the show., Even the next week. We were a part of Kelly Clarkson’s ascent as well, so everything that was happening for her was kind of happening while we were going through the process. So we didn’t have a blueprint as to how things would go for us. We absolutely had no idea that people would even care about this stuff five years after.
Aiken: I still claim that that’s what made the show good because Kelly’s season and our season are really the only ones where people auditioned without having any idea what the stakes were, without having any idea of what could happen next. Season 3 and beyond, they knew. They signed up for the show because they saw what was going on with Kelly and with Ruben and myself. People are always surprised by our friendship and I was surprised when we went to the Fox finale [in 2016] that we were really the only two people who actually kept in touch with their finale friend and we were shocked by that. I think that had to do with the fact that neither one of us ever really saw each other as competitors. We didn’t know what was at stake, what was behind the finish line and so we were just there to do our very best not to get sent home that week if possible and I imagine that might’ve been different in later years.
Studdard: I remember having a conversation with my [label] at the time. Our deal was structured where my album was supposed to come out first and I remember them asking, “Do you mind if Clay’s album comes out before yours?” And I said, “Is he done? Because I’m clearly not. So yeah, go ahead.” Our goals were not encumbered by our friendship. Like we were both able to have the goals and honestly I think it would have hindered the longevity of the things that we’ve been able to do had we went into the situation absorbing the level of animosity that people wanted us to have.
Aiken: I’m not trying to kiss our own butts here, but I think people liked that we were nice people. I cheered for Ruben, he cheered for me and it’s always been real. How many times do you see in the press that this celebrity is feuding with that one? I think it turns folks off.
What can you say about the Season 21 finale you’ll be appearing on?
Aiken: To the day. Isn’t’ that crazy? They knew the day we were on and it landed perfectly.
Studdard: The only thing I’m going to be thinking about when we are there is that my brother [Kevin, who died in 2018] is not there. Still, it’s going to be a wonderful time to celebrate. I’m so excited to be there with Clay. And for me, it’s even more than that. I love going back to talk with [senior supervising producer] Patrick Lynn and [executive in charge of production] Wylleen [May]. That is the thing that warms my heart the most. It’s really not about the performance. It’s about being in the building and talking to the people that without them, I would not have this job and I have to say that over and over again. I get emotional about it, because people never give these people who work behind the scenes their due. Wylleen always made sure that we were okay. I wouldn’t have been on that show had they never given me any money to eat every week, had they never put us up at five-star accommodations. Everything about the “American Idol” experience was first class and I am so appreciative that my entrée into the music business came in that way. To be able to come back and perform with and for those people that gave us that opportunity and made it run [is perfect].
Aiken: Everything he said about going back and seeing Wylleen and Patrick and [executive producer and showrunner] Megan [Michaels-Wolflick] is 100% true. Patrick put me through in Atlanta when he probably shouldn’t have, but I appreciate that he gave me a second chance. “What is that dumbass song you were singing?” “‘Perfect Strangers’ theme song.” He let me sing something else. That was nice.