Last August, in between performances of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at a summer-stock theater in Maine, Clay Aiken studied the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s demographic breakdown of North Carolina’s second district. He concluded that, although challenging, the race was winnable. By the time he returned to his 9,000-square-foot mansion outside Raleigh that fall, the flame-haired former “American Idol” star was ready to run.
The first person Aiken called upon making his candidacy official was Jim Hunt, the former North Carolina governor and grand old man of Democratic politics in the state. One of his next calls was to Donald Trump. Aiken got to know The Donald a couple years earlier when he was a contestant on “The Celebrity Apprentice.” “He’s very political,” Aiken explains, “and if he had any disagreements with me, I wanted him to air them with me instead of on ‘Fox and Friends.’” So far, Trump, whom Aiken likens to his Tea Party–supporting uncle (“I love him and he loves me and we don’t agree on a whole lot”), has held his tongue.
Other famous friends of Aiken’s have been more proactive in their support of his campaign. Arsenio Hall, who beat Aiken on “Celebrity Apprentice,” got Paula Abdul, who once judged Aiken on “American Idol,” to tweet her support. Ruben Studdard, who bested Aiken on “Idol,” cut a radio ad for him during the Democratic primary. And Kathy Griffin, the comedian who for years made Aiken the butt of her jokes—calling him “Miss Gayken” before he came out, then feigning disappointment about never getting to sleep with him once he did—co-hosted a Los Angeles fund-raiser. “I told her, ‘You owe me commission, so it’s time to pay up,’” Aiken says. Even the magician Penn Jillette, who after competing against Aiken on “Celebrity Apprentice” suggested that he’d prefer waterboarding to talking to the singer, chipped in $500 to the campaign.
It’s fair to say, then, that Aiken has the battle for C-list celebrity endorsements locked up. And, fortunately for him, his opponent, Renee Ellmers, is not overburdened with raw political talent. Since arriving in Congress in 2010, the former nurse has distinguished herself mostly by sticking her foot in her mouth: Just last month, she advised her male colleagues in the House to quit it already with the pie charts and graphs in budget debates and “bring it down to a woman’s level.” But Ellmers does have one big thing going for her. She’s a Republican incumbent in a Republican district facing off against a Democratic challenger who’s a gay former reality TV star—or, as Ellmers’s spokesperson has unsubtly described Aiken, “a performer whose political views more closely resemble those of San Francisco than Sanford.” She is favored to win.
That has left Aiken working hard to convince voters he’s more than just a piece of pop-cultural ephemera and, in fact, a legitimate product of the second district. Earlier this summer, I met Aiken for lunch at a dairy bar in the aforementioned Sanford after he’d spent the morning meeting with the mayor and reporters at the local newspaper. He was dressed for the occasion in a rough approximation of political casual, wearing a pink-and-green checked Oxford shirt and unlaced wingtips over white ankle socks. Now 35, Aiken has tamer hair and a thicker midsection than he did when he was one of People’s “Sexiest Men Alive” a decade ago. He says he has gained ten pounds in just the last few months. “Do you see how fat I’m getting?” he objected when the waitress asked whether he wanted dessert. Then he ordered the banana pudding.
Aiken is still easily recognizable, though, and his meal was continuously interrupted by autograph seekers.
“DON”T FORGET TO VOTE NOV 4TH,” he wrote above his signature every time. It was a message, he conceded, that people were still getting used to. “The first reaction from everybody is ‘What the’”—Aiken paused and theatrically mouthed the word fuck. He continued, “We call it the ‘What the Heck’ mountain, except we may not call it that. That’s the mountain we have to climb.”
To that end, Aiken strives to be serious and sober while campaigning, even boring. He’s not a “Duck Dynasty”–style quote machine. Nor is he running a hopeless race just for the cameras, like Thomas Ravenel on “Southern Charm.” Aiken spends much of his time on the stump talking about his trips to Afghanistan and South Sudan as a goodwill ambassador for UNICEF and his experiences as a special-education teacher—the career path he was on before he auditioned for “Idol” on a lark. In fact, it can be hard to shut him up about education policy, a topic he seems to understand better than probably 400 of the 435 people in the House of Representatives.
In a profession where even losers are increasingly winners—where longshots launch hopeless bids for the White House with the goal of landing a TV talk show and incumbent congressmen go down in defeat secure in the knowledge that a huge lobbying payday awaits them—Aiken is the rare politician who’s actually risking something. When he revealed in 2008 that he’s gay, Aiken estimates that he lost about 5 to 10 percent of his fans. Running for Congress, he believes, has taken a far greater toll. “The minute you go into politics, the minute you put an R or a D behind your name, you cut your fan base in half,” he says. Aiken is concerned enough about money that, shortly before declaring his candidacy, he sold his mansion, at a substantial loss, and moved into a smaller rental house. “I’m not working right now, so I’m not going to pay a mortgage,” he says. (On the plus side, he has been able to store the furniture that doesn’t fit in his new place at campaign headquarters.)
Aiken’s gamble seems even more profound when you consider the particulars of his race. To the extent national Democrats are paying attention to North Carolina this year, it’s to help keep Senator Kay Hagan in office. And by choosing to run from his current address rather than district-shop, he has consigned himself to inhospitable political terrain. Aiken acknowledges that parts of his home district are so red that Democrats “learn to put their campaign signs deep in the yard so that when someone shoots at them they don’t hit the house.” To compensate, he has staked out moderate—and sometimes vague—positions on everything from Obamacare to gun control to immigration. There’s almost no issue he doesn’t look at through the prism of how conservatives might object. During a recent lunch meeting at a greasy spoon in Moore County, Aiken ate a ham and cheese omelet while he listened to a local Democrat pitch him on a more robust spay-and-neuter policy. Aiken was skeptical. “What about the people who say, ‘Keep your damn hands off my dog—and his nuts’?” he asked.
Of course, there’s one thing about Aiken that might not sit that well with some conservatives, which is why, although Aiken is no longer in the closet, he doesn’t talk about his sexuality unless asked—and then reluctantly. “Certainly from a political standpoint it’s not going to make it easier for me to run here,” he told me. “But it’s just not why I’m running. There are few if any LGBT issues which can be affected by a congressman from a federal level.”
Instead, Aiken is focusing on local concerns, like trying to prevent the Pentagon from moving the 440th Air Wing from Fort Bragg to Arkansas. In true challenger fashion, he argues that Ellmers has “gone Washington” and forgotten about her district. “Jesse Helms spoiled this state when it came to being attentive, and people are used to a certain level of constituent services,” Aiken says. “Renee just doesn’t pay attention or show up, and people see that.” Where Helms’s constituent-services operation once converted Democrats into “Jessecrats,” Aiken is hoping he can pull a similar trick by turning Republicans into what he calls “RepublAikens.”
But What the Heck Mountain looms. When Aiken embarked on his campaign, he made a promise. It was as much to himself as to the voters, and he still feels it’s the key to his political success and to starting the next stage of his life. He promised not to sing.
Keeping that pledge hasn’t always been easy. When he appeared on “The Colbert Report” earlier this year, he declined the host’s offer to do a duet of the “The Star Spangled Banner.” (To which Colbert replied, “Headline: CLAY AIKEN REFUSES TO SING NATIONAL ANTHEM.”) In July, Aiken participated in a women’s issues forum at a restaurant and nightclub in Pinehurst. After the event, I watched him gently turn down an invitation from the establishment’s heavily tattooed assistant manager to come back and do a gig some time. “I’m not singing anymore,” Aiken explained. “You gotta change the dynamic.”
Even Penn Jillette, who after competing against Aiken on “Celebrity Apprentice” suggested that he’d prefer waterboarding to talking to the singer, chipped in $500 to the campaign.
But on a recent afternoon, as he sat in his campaign office in a plush red chair that once graced the game room in his old house, Aiken told me he had a confession to make. He had transgressed. It happened on a Friday night a few months earlier. He was stumping for votes at a senior-citizens center that was hosting a dance party. There was a live band. As he walked in, he was mobbed by septuagenarian women. He realized that, if he didn’t sing for them, he’d “look like such a jerk.”
So Aiken turned to the musicians and asked them to play “Unchained Melody,” the Righteous Brothers classic he’d performed to great success on “Idol.” As soon as he started up with Ohhhh my love, “It was complete pandemonium.” When the song was over, he tried to slip out the door, but one of the elderly women abandoned her date and asked Aiken to dance. Soon, other women were jockeying to cut in. “There were more fights on the dance floor than there are in Iraq right now,” he recalled. Eventually, Aiken managed to oblige every request, sometimes dancing with two women at a time, their male companions standing by themselves against the wall. In the parking lot afterward, Aiken considered what his broken promise had wrought. “Well, I’ve got the vote of every woman in there,” he told a campaign aide, “and every man in there wants to burn me in effigy.”
Jason Zengerle is a senior editor at The New Republic.