Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken recall historic ‘American Idol’ season: ‘We went through hell… and we survived’

Published On May 1, 2024 » By »
Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken at the Season 2 'American Idol' finale in 2003.
(Photo : Vince Bucci/Getty Image) Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken at the Season 2 ‘American Idol’ finale in 2003.

When American Idol Season 2 winner Ruben Studdard and runner-up Clay Aiken returned to the Fox network this spring to compete as the Beets on The Masked Singer, it was must-see reality TV. But nothing could compare to their first television run, 21 years ago, when American Idol was a game-changing pop-culture phenomenon.

The Ruben/Clay American Idol finale, when the two were separated by only 134,000 out of 24 million votes, still ranks as the series’ all-time highest-rated episode, with an astounding 38.1 viewers. Studdard and Aiken’s Idol season premiered just four months after Season 1, which had been a surprise summer smash, ended. So, they were the contestants who first experienced true Idol madness.

“Kelly [Clarkson] and Justin [Guarini] of course did it first,” Aiken tells Lyndsanity. “But I think I would argue that Ruben and I sort of did it first, because 30 percent — I checked this the other day… we got a 30 share that night on the finale. So, 30 percent of all TVs in America that were turned on were watching the finale. Which is unheard-of now! And so, we kind of got thrown out of this bubble… and into a fire.”

When Season 2 launched in January 2003, Studdard and Aiken had no idea what to expect, and they stayed in their “bubble” for months, unaware of the show’s growing momentum. “It was so unscripted. I mean, we were on a season where we didn’t have a real [band]; we sang to track. Our set was made, no joke, out of papier-mâché,” Aiken chuckles. “We were in the very rudimentary, early, primitive version of Idol, and so there weren’t any stakes. We went into this show not realizing that it was going to be this enormous behemoth that would change our lives forever. We all kind of thought it was going to be this fun experience. We’d get to be on TV, maybe we meet some people. None of us expected it to be such a big deal.”

Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard at the 2003 American Music Awards, six months after their 'Idol' season.
(Photo : Kevin Winter/Getty Images) Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard at the 2003 American Music Awards, six months after their ‘Idol’ season.

Studdard was content to stay in the bubble, because that let him focus on competing. (“I did not want it to be a tie. I wanted to win!” he laughs.) The eventual champ had no idea just how massive his season had become until it was was almost over. “A lot of the things that that the general public is privy to, we didn’t get to see,” he explains. “We didn’t get see the People magazine articles and all this kind of stuff. We were literally there to do a specific job. And most of the time that we had that was downtime, we were either talking to one of our family members downstairs, trying to watch a movie together, playing on the PlayStation, or eating — which, even though we all gained weight, we didn’t have a lot of time to do that much either! I just think that they had us so laser-focused on the task at hand that it really wasn’t any time for us to hear the chatter.”

Studdard laughingly remembers his first experience with the “chatter,” when the show’s producers finally gave the contestants a shared computer — “a huge Apple, the iMac, the very first one” — and he, Clay, and their castmates curiously browsed an Idol message board during their limited downtime. “We finally found out what ‘message boards’ were. We were like, ‘Hey, people are actually talking about us!””

“Yeah, it’s crazy for people to think now, 20 years later, that there was no social media. It didn’t exist — Facebook, Twitter, none of that existed at all,” Aiken marvels. “There were these little message boards buried into the Fox website that people went on. There were cell phones, but there was not really texting. … It was so different back then.”

Clay and Ruben in 2003, at the start of a special friendship that endures today.
(Photo : Matthew Peyton/Getty Images) Clay and Ruben in 2003, at the start of a special friendship that endures today.

Aiken says it wasn’t until the week after the Season 2 American Idol finale, when he and Studdard went to see their castmate Frenchie Davis perform in a Broadway production of Rent, that it sank in that they’d become overnight superstars. “We showed up to the show. We sat down in our seats. They started the show. And then they stopped it to move Ruben and I up to the balcony, because nobody was watching the show! [Fans] were trying to take pictures with us, so they had to move us.”

Idol-mania continued in full force from that season on. Studdard’s debut album, Soulful, debuted at No. 1 (selling more than 400,000 copies it its first week), went platinum, and earned the “Velvet Teddy Bear” a Grammy nomination. Aiken became Idol’s first non-winner — paving the way for the likes of Chris Daughtry, Jennifer Hudson, and Adam Lambert — going double-platinum with his own chart-topping debut and even landing on the cover of Rolling Stone. The “Claymate” craze continued three years later when, looking almost recognizable with his flat-ironed black hair, a glowed-up Aiken surprised superfan Michael Sandecki on the Season 5 finale — which, Aiken happily points out, was the second-highest-rated finale in Idol history.

However, Studdard speculates that Season 2 “felt more like family” than other seasons, possibly because of its historic timing. “It’s weird even now, when we’ve both gone back to the show several times, to see how the contestants interact with each other, which is completely different than how we were as a group,” he says. “We were literally a real family. … When one of our castmates left, we really cared. It wasn’t like, ‘Such-and-such is going home; we’ll never talk to them again.’ As soon as somebody went home, we were trying to figure out how we can get them to come back to the house and hang out! We really were a unit like that.”

And that familial friendship continues two decades later for Studdard and Aiken, whether they’re on the road together (they just finished their 20th anniversary joint tour), co-starring in holiday Broadway revues… or dressing up as purple root vegetables.

“We kind of got thrown into the fire — separately, but at the same time, together. A lot of what happened to us right after the show, for that first summer, we shared. And there’s a bond that comes out of that. We went through hell, in a way, and we survived,” Aiken says, adding with the chuckle: “And we went through hell on The Masked Singer wearing those costumes.”

Watch Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken’s full interview above, in which Studdard does a spontaneous William Hung impression and Aiken shares thoughts about late Idol contestant Mandisa.

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