On Oct. 6, 2008, Clay Aiken appeared on the cover of People magazine, clutching his newborn son, Parker, just to the right of a massive headline: "Yes, I'm Gay."
Ever since Aiken, a kind-faced camp counselor and local theater aspirant from Raleigh, appeared on American Idol's second season in 2003, whispers and rumors about his sexuality constantly cycled through the press. Diane Sawyer asked him about it. A local radio host even insisted on the nickname "Gay Aiken." Thanks to his second-place finish in one of the most contested seasons of Idol ever and the magazine covers and No. 1 album that followed, he was still very much a household name.
Parker, his son, wasn't the result of some wild night or long relationship. Upon his birth, one entertainment news website plainly described Jaymes Foster, who was artificially inseminated, as "Clay's 50-year-old record producer BFF."
So by the time People broke the news, most of the Clay Nation and its resident ClayManiacs had simply assumed and accepted Aiken's sexuality. In the years since, Aiken has worked as an equality and education advocate and stumped for AIDS fundraising. At last, out of the closet, he's used his star power for a purpose beyond record sales.
But it wasn't always so easy: A little more than two years before, talk of Aiken's homosexuality peaked when a local man went to the press with a story about an erotic rendezvous with Aiken in a Garner hotel. There were webcam photographs, publicists with no comment and a lawsuit from a few sadly misguided Aiken fans claiming that he had misled them with a wholesome image. I wrote a news story about the hubbub for the Independent Weekly, which included quotes and complaints from the man who said he'd slept with Aiken. The story was rather simple, I thought, and I didn't anticipate much backlash.
For a few months, that theory held. But on a Saturday afternoon at the 2006 N.C. State Fair, I ran into the parents of my high school's quarterback, and Mama wasn't so happy. "You're the one that wrote that article about Clay, aren't you?" she asked, eyes narrow, jaw strong, voice dripping with disdain and disregard, as if Aiken were the one she'd known for years, not me. I meekly said yes and shuffled ahead.
Lesson learned: Don't mess with North Carolina's Idols.
In the first decade of American Idol, North Carolina has produced seven finalists, meaning that seven Carolinians have survived the thousands who annually audition for the competition to advance to the show's Top 12. North Carolina can claim the sixth-highest number of Idol finalists of any state, one behind Tennessee and its pools of Nashville and Memphis talent.
In Season 5, the state even yielded three closing combatants: Rockingham's Bucky Covington was the awkward, long-haired country boy who seemed plucked from a Marshall Tucker gig, while Albemarle's Kellie Pickler was our petite, broad-voiced siren. With his muscle shirts, angular approach to facial hair and various black leather bracelets, Chris Daughtry pushed his steely, central North Carolina machismo toward the Top 3. Another Southerner, Alabama's Taylor Hicks, eventually walked away as the Idol.
In fact, Alabama and North Carolina are both wells of potential idols. During the show's 10 seasons, only Alabama has also produced three contestants to make it to the show's last round; with Scotty McCreery's victory in May, North Carolina joins Alabama as the only other state responsible for two winners.
This year in North Carolina, McCreery was the pervasive entertainment story, even if you tried to avoid him. Local television and radio stations couldn't fit his gee-golly grin and prematurely leathery tone into enough segments. The News & Observer pulled out all of the stops for him, with front covers, interviews, profiles involving friends and family, online slide shows, blog posts and limited-edition T-shirts featuring the flag of The Old Reliable and the 18-year-old native son, for sale in Crabtree Valley Mall.
After his win, his debut album—a serviceable and often naively charming mix of polished country and honest-to-goodness old-school stuff, called Clear as Day—raced to the top of the Billboard chart and achieved gold-record status. The N.C. State Fair even capitalized on McCreery, selling out of tickets for his scheduled Dorton Arena date in October 2012 more than 10 months in advance. Once again, North Carolina was allegiant to its Idol.
The show's seeming Southern favoritism has long been a point of contention for enthusiasts. Historically, the only way a non-Southerner wins the competition is if every Southerner is eliminated before the finals. This situation was epitomized by the pedestrian Kris Allen's conquest over the memorable Adam Lambert in 2009, the same year UNC student Anoop Desai broke the Top 10. A subsequent MSNBC story explored this disparity, interviewing critics and contestants who capitalized on most every Southern platitude for explanation—pride, tradition, religion, roots, a sense of regionalism suggesting some 19th-century Confederate surge.
Days before McCreery brought the title to North Carolina for the first time since Fantasia Barrino in 2004, Charlotte's Fox affiliate, WCCB, also pondered the question of why Tar Heels do Idol so well. DJ Eric Tavares spoke of the state's charms and artistic versatility. R&B producer Richie Irby again referenced the region's church music as the key.
These regional generalizations don't really hold. South Carolina, for example, has only posted one finalist, the same number as Mississippi. Statistically, there's no one identifiable rule that seems to control how many finalists each state can claim. Sure, it at least has something to do with population: As one might expect, the country's most populous state, California, has produced the most contestants to make it into the Top 12, with a runaway tally, though it has never had a winner. The American states with the 10 lowest populations, including both Dakotas and a clutch of New England states, have never produced a finalist.
But lowly Hawaii has produced two finalists (during Season 3, Jasmine Trias even seemed poised to knock off North Carolina's Fantasia). That's one more than Michigan, which finally offered its first finalist in Season 8 despite being the eighth-most populous place in America. Although North Carolina boasts less than half the population of New York, the Tar Heel state can boast one more Idol finalist.
Given the faults in the regional logic, the question of "Why North Carolina?" remains evasive. I think it's a continuation, or at least a parallel, to the way local musicians and fans think about their own scenes here. Just as this state produces a high number of Idols given its population, so it produces a plethora of memorable bands with a limited pool of resources. In a state that's not New York or California or Illinois but has a persistent legacy of artists who matter, from jazz and bluegrass to Southern rock and hip-hop, this music is something to pull for, something to believe in, something to engender pride in a place that might not readily seem like a hotbed for talent.
Of course, that doesn't immediately explain why people outside of the state might look upon contestants from here with favor. But it does suggest the backbone of a place that will buy tickets to see you a year in advance or will publicly shame an old acquaintance to defend your honor. What unites Fantasia, Scotty and Clay also unites them with a lot of other artists in these parts, historically and now—it is an absolute belief in what they are doing.
That kind of confidence almost always translates and, in two of 10 Idol seasons, even wins.