Perhaps it was his boyish charm or his boy-next-door smile. Maybe it was his kind demeanor or his enthusiasm for singing. But somehow in 2003, Clay Aiken—a Raleigh native, a graduate of UNC-Charlotte, a special education major before entering the entertainment business—surpassed thousands of hopeful, young singers to become the runner-up on American Idol 2, a show that works to demonstrate the process of the entertainment industry in sharply edited, one-hour segments.
In weeks, Aiken morphed from a bespectacled guy with red hair to a blonde-frosted, second-generation Manilow that made eager voters swoon with his eyes and his voice. He landed on the cover of Rolling Stone, scored a multi-million dollar record deal and became an overnight household name.
Three years after Aiken left the nest of American Idol 2, the same media frenzy that helped create his star status is now threatening his career.
After weeks of Internet buzz and speculation, the National Enquirer published on Feb. 6 the tale of John Paulus, 38, a Dunn native and former Green Beret who says he had a one-time sexual rendezvous with Aiken, 27, at the Quality Inn & Suites in Garner.
Since then, the story has spread as Paulus, gossip columnists and drive-time radio shows have kept the story alive. Bob Dumas, a host of G105's popular Showgram morning show, continues to heckle Aiken for being gay. Paulus has appeared on the Howard Stern Show and been quoted in the New York Post, the New York Daily News and in an explicit column written by Michael Musto in the Village Voice.
And last month a group of nine fans—who say they won't use their names for fear of retribution from loyal Claymates, as they are called—issued a press release saying they would sue Aiken, RCA and its parent company, Sony/BMG, for reimbursement of money spent on Aiken merchandise and concert tickets. They also said they would file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission concerning RCA's marketing practices—promoting Aiken as something he may not be: a homegrown, North Carolina heterosexual. The San Francisco Examiner reports that such a complaint has been filed, though FTC complaints are not public record.
"As consumers, we feel ripped off," the nine fans said in a release sent through the World Entertainment News Network, which calls itself a London-based entertainment news service. "It is obvious now that the private Clay is very different from the manufactured packaged public Clay that was marketed to us."
Aiken's publicist, Roger Widynowski, declined to address the story, and e-mails sent by the Independent to Aiken at the address supplied by Paulus asking for response were not returned.
But so far there apparently have been no professional repercussions. Widynowski says Aiken is in the studio recording now and that RCA—the label that released Aiken's debut Measure of a Man in 2003 and his Christmas album, Merry Christmas with Love in 2004—hopes to release the as-yet-untitled disc in May or June as planned.
On Feb. 1, The Gospel Music Association announced that Aiken had been nominated for the Special Event Album of the Year Award for WoW Christmas Green, and association President John W. Styll says stories about Aiken's sexuality will not be a factor in determining if Aiken wins one of the association's Dove Awards. And online message boards and fansites devoted to Aiken still suffer no dearth of well-wishers or devotees.
Discussions about whether Aiken is gay aren't new—columnists and commentators have speculated about his sexuality for years. But Aiken has denied or evaded the question. When Diane Sawyer asked him about his sexuality in a PrimeTime interview in October 2003, he replied, "Somebody asked it right after the finale of the show in the press conference with Ruben [Studdard, American Idol winner] and I ... I think the problem is, people don't know who—what to do with me! They don't know anything about me!"
The current uproar started when Paulus fired off an e-mail to American Media Inc., the National Enquirer's parent company, on Jan. 5 telling the story of a motel meeting with Aiken. He said in an interview with the Independent that he sent the e-mail because he was a jealous lover seeking revenge.
Paulus says he found Aiken through an online meeting site, though it wasn't immediately apparent that it was Aiken. They exchanged e-mails, and Paulus says Aiken said he wanted a discreet boyfriend but, in person, it seemed he only wanted quick, rough sex and an even quicker exit with no mention of a relationship.
Days later, Paulus says, Aiken was surfing the Web site on which they met, manhunt.net, looking for another connection. He says he was furious and went to the Enquirer with the story. Paulus says he soon balked at the story's publication but, when exaggerated forms of the story broke on the Internet in late January, he decided to tell all.
By then, he says he had taken a polygraph examination given by an agency hired by the National Enquirer. He says he has logs of e-mails and Yahoo instant message conversations between the two—as well as a towel covered with Aiken's semen.
Meanwhile, Paulus continues to live in Dunn. Since the story surfaced in January, he has lost his job as an independent contractor real estate agent for Re/Max United in Fuquay-Varina. Paulus says his employers fired him because Aiken fans began harassing the company, claiming they would not continue to do business with Re/Max as long as Paulus was an employee. Kim Harris, his boss at Re/Max, would not comment other than to confirm Paulus' past employment.
Paulus, who says he's been a born-again Christian since 1991, says he was not open about his homosexuality at work or in his community and that he's now surrounded by neighbors who won't speak to him. He says Aiken fans continue to harass him, his sister and his niece, but he maintains that the thing he regrets most is the effects it may have on Aiken's fans.
"I feel even worse because his fans are hurting," he says. "When you get messages from a 13- or 14-year-old girl saying that her parents were going through a divorce and his music really helped her when she was hurting and how that has all changed because of me, that makes you feel like crap," he says.
Paulus says that he continues to speak publicly about his encounter with Aiken for fear that if he remains quiet, his version of the story wouldn't be heard.
"Most people have the impression that I am this evil person whose sole purpose is to ruin Clay's career," says Paulus, who says he received no payment for his Enquirer story or his Stern appearance but was paid for an appearance in a Michael Lucas pornographic film last month. "People say stuff like, I tricked Clay into hooking up and then I outed him, and one person says I got paid $800,000 for the story. People start believing false rumors if you let them fly."
And the story's not over yet.
In their editions coming out Thursday, The National Enquirer and its sister paper, the Star, will have another Aiken installment. Assistant Executive Editor Barry Levine says they will publish erotic photos Aiken took of himself to attract another partner through a dating Web site.