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The return of an American idol 

His old principal at Leesville Road, the current students there and his former teachers answer the question: Clay who?

A little touch of fame can make a man weary. Good Morning America, MTV and a slew of other media giants have been after him to tell his side of the American Idol story, but he's turned them all down. Richard Murphy is Clay Aiken's high school principal, but he's been besieged by the media like he was the Idol millions of people have made their favorite son. Principal Murphy says that he has refused offers not because he doesn't think Clay's worthy but because the timing was bad. "I tell them Clayton Grissom, whom we knew him as, [Aiken is Clay's mother's maiden name] had his day here, and we certainly support him, but the other kids, they won't do Good Morning America in the middle of AP exams. Then they wanted to do an MTV special during final exams, so basically I've kept below the radar screen because this is not about us or not about me, it's about Clay."

The Leesville Road High School principal is a bit wary of the media after his Rolling Stone experience. He says that the interviewer didn't take notes and that he was misquoted. The Stone had Murphy saying that Aiken "was absolutely a gift. A gift." The principal says that what he actually said was that Aiken had a gift. "Any child is a gift to us; I don't mean to put him in a category other than any other person who entrusts us to look after our kids. They are gifts to us. But he had a very special gift, and he's choosing to develop it."

By now, most of the country knows about Clay Aiken's gifts, thanks to his exposure on American Idol. Aiken went from being one of 234 applicants chosen in an Atlanta contest in October 2002 to becoming the second-place finisher seven months later in a contest viewed by an audience estimated at 24 million.

Ironically, Aiken's second-place finish has gotten him more publicity than winner Ruben Studdard. Aiken's poise and graciousness have earned him as many points with fans as his looks and singing style have.

The Idol-to-be also glowed from without as well as within. Before his makeover, the future pop star's wardrobe made him a high school standout. "You don't see too many yellow, high-top Converses," Murphy says of Aiken's shoe selection. "And he used to wear madras pants as well."

Though Aiken has downplayed his prior performing experience, it's obvious from his onstage demeanor that he's comfortable in front of people. On his Web site, www.claytonaiken.com, his "official questionnaire" lists his past performances as being limited to "school functions in high school."

"There's nothing shy about Clayton," says Murphy. "Clayton was very at home in front of a school of 2,000 kids and at pep rallies, singing or onstage in front of a packed audience for our musicals. There are people who glow or develop in the limelight, and he was one of 'em."

The principal says that Aiken's gift was constantly on display in the musicals and school assemblies. "Anybody who's ever heard Clayton sing knows that he's been blessed. He was not only very talented vocally, but he was quite the young actor, too, as I'm sure that a lot of people can surmise from watching him. And he's worked hard to develop it."

The 24-year-old stirs up quite a reaction when he returns to his old haunts. When Aiken stopped by his old high school recently, even though it was the last day of school and most of the student body had already left, the principal was roused from his office by a commotion in the building. "I saw these young kids, these young-looking girls running down the hall," the principal chuckles. But it was the reaction of another, older group of women's reaction to the Idol's return that really amused Murphy. "He was visiting his teachers, and it was kind of ironic to me that the teachers that were here when he was here were able to chat with him as if he had a brain instead of being some heartthrob--it was as if he had never left. But the teachers who were not here when he was here, I'm talking about middle-aged women, were acting like the Beatles had just come to town."

Aiken may not be as big as the Beatles, but his fame has made an entourage and a bodyguard necessary. Still the singer doesn't seem to be affected by the trappings of fame. Murphy says he's still "just as accommodating as he could be--just a nice kid who was brought up working at the local YMCA."

And although the principal says Clayton was not a disciplinary problem, his acerbic wit noted by teachers and the principal during school days is still in place. "We were just sitting around chatting, and I began carrying on a conversation with his bodyguard," Murphy recalls, "and his bodyguard was from the same town out in Southern California where I spent some time. And Clay looked over at me at one point and said, 'That's good, Mr. Murphy, that's so typical. I come back to visit you and you find more things to talk about with bodyguard than you do with me.' "

But rather than be put off by it, Murphy, like the others who have come in contact with Aiken in person or on TV, is an admirer of his wit, along with his personality and his talent. "He was different, but he wasn't one of these on-the-edge kids," Murphy says fondly. "There are a lot of people, who, walking down the hall, what you see is what you get. It wasn't a kind of, 'Hey look at me--I'll do anything I can to capture your attention.' It was just who he was." EndBlock

More by Grant Britt

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