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The Catalyst interview: Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken

Bill DeYoung



Ruben Studdard, left, and Clay Aiken are touring together to mark 20 years since their record-breaking appearances on TV's "American Idol." Publicity photo.

On Wednesday night, May 21, 2003, an impressive 38 million television sets were tuned to Fox for the Season 2 finale of American Idol.

It remains the most-watched live, regularly scheduled, non-sports TV episode of this century so far.

Viewers cast 24 million votes and chose (by a narrow margin) Birmingham, Alabama vocalist Ruben Studdard as the winner – the Idol – with Clay Aiken, of Raleigh, North Carolina, the runner-up.

Buoyed by such massive ratings numbers, both singers went on to fairly successful careers as recording and performing artists.

They’ve remained good friends over the years, and have been touring the county together for several months. The show stops Sunday at 7 p.m. at the Central Park Performing Arts Center in Largo; find tickets here.

The stats: Studdard had a No. 2 single (“Flying Without Wings”), one platinum and one gold album, and earned rave reviews for his album-length salute to Luther Vandross (Studdard’s velvety-smooth voice has been compared to Vandross’ since the beginning). He lost a lot of weight on TV’s The Biggest Loser.

Aiken scored two platinum albums, and his first single (“Bridge Over Troubled Water/This is the Night”) went  to No. 1.

His personal life took center stage in 2008, when he came out (in People) as gay. Aiken said later that he “lost” nearly half of his fan base.

In 2014 and 2022, he ran , unsuccessfully, for the U.S. House of Representatives, representing his home state.

Both performers have appeared on major theater stages, and in 2018 brought Ruben & Clay’s First Annual Family Fun Pageant Spectacular Reunion Christmas Show to Broadway.


St. Pete Catalyst: Before the show, I understand, the audience as they walk in is hearing music from 2003. Is the ultimate goal here, in the broadest sense, to bring people back 20 years? To go back to that exact moment in time?

Ruben Studdard: I would think so. We want people to come out and remember the spirit that time held. I can only speak for the people that I’ve met, but a lot of them will come up to me and tell me how that brought their family together. I know several church groups that told me they watched it at their church, religiously – even though it was a secular show, it was something that brought the community together. At my little church in Birmingham there were people of all races that came together to have watch parties. And for us, it’s just reliving that energy, that moment.

Clay Aiken: Let me tell you, I’d be happy to live in any other time but this one! I was looking out into the audience recently, and I would argue that our show has probably the most eclectic, diverse crowds of any concert you’ll ever go to. Age, race, religion, socio-economic level, all of it. It’s beautiful to go out into the audience every night and see how everyone’s out there having fun, and dancing and singing along … one of Ruben’s philosophies is that this is their escape. This is our audience’s opportunity to escape from what’s going on in their lives, and their problems. Everyone’s enjoying the same thing – and I gotta tell you, I don’t see that happening much in the world these days. But like Ruben said, it happened in 2003. And so if we can re-create that, that’s what we’re here for.


In 2003, could either of you imagine that you’d still be out on the road 20 years later, much less together?

Studdard: I had no idea what the opportunity of American Idol would bring. I just knew that it would give us the opportunity to do things like we’re doing right now. I’ve done shows with other people who were on our season, and it just gives us the opportunity, for the rest of our lives, to be bonded with people that enjoy music in the same way that we do, and who want to perform it and bring joy to people’s lives.

Aiken: On that last night, we realized it was even bigger than we knew the first week. We didn’t know, throughout the process, that it was this huge show. But by the last two weeks we had been taught – or learned – that it was this national phenomenon. And I think we both knew that something was going to happen after the show ended. I don’t know that either of us could have predicted that it would still be happening 20 years later! But throughout that process, Ruben and I knew that we would know each other for the rest of our lives. We knew that we would stay close and be friends forever. Even if I went back to teaching, and Ruben was doing something else, we would still be friends.


A cynical journalist would hear that and go ‘He’s just saying that to plug this duo tour – friends all these years, really?’ But you guys really did bond back in those days?

Studdard: We did, and we also didn’t have a choice. I don’t think that anybody can live in such close proximity as the people that we lived with and not have a bond. I still talk to the guy that lived five doors down from me in my dorm room in college. That’s just me. And Clay, myself, Joshua (Gracin), all of us, we were in the same room, basically, for six months. So to think that we would go away from that and not talk to one another is just weird, to us. Because we really made a real family there. Like these wee my real live brothers and sisters.

Aiken: We both have friends from high school who we stay close with. They say you can’t make old friends, and there is something about the people who we grew up with that makes that connection stronger. And it’s because so few people know what we were like when we were in high school. And no one else except for the 10 people who were finalists with us know what we went through. I became really close with Kelly Clarkson when we toured together the next year – in large part because, at that point, no one else besides Ruben and Kelly, and Justin Guarini, knew what it was like to spend an entire season on a TV show like that. And have your lives changed overnight, almost. Because we all went through the fire together, we have that bond.


What does this concert consist of? Songs you sang on the show, songs from your solo albums, your favorite classics?

Studdard: We intentionally avoid singing songs that are on our albums, just because we wanted this to be The Ruben & Clay Show, not The Ruben Show and then, when Clay comes on, it’s The Clay Show. And what better way to do it than sing material that is based in the people that were a part of our American Idol journey. We sing songs from people like Gladys Knight, and Robin Gibb. We do Smokey Robinson  material. Burt Bacharach.

Aiken: This goes back to your first question, about trying to take people back to 2003. We do the songs in the same way we did them on Idol. There were a lot of medleys. They don’t do those any more. People have forgotten that for the first several years of the show, on Wednesday nights, all the finalists would do medleys together. We do a bunch of those. There aren’t too many songs that two guys can sing together, so we don’t sing right on top of each other all the time, but we’re onstage together the entire time.

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  1. Avatar

    Phyllis Solotoff

    January 25, 2024at11:36 am

    I saw the show in Millville, New Jersey. It was a great show. I wish I could see it again.

  2. Avatar

    Lori Finney

    January 24, 2024at5:38 pm

    I saw this show in Niagara Falls, and again in Indianapolis…and I’m dying to go again!! It’s that good. Go, if you can!

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