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Friendship trumps any Aiken-Studdard rivalry

American Idol stars bringing reunion tour to Honeywell on May 13

Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken will be at Honeywell Center on May 13.
Anthony Gadson

Anthony Gadson

Whatzup Editor

Published May 3, 2023

American Idol is in the midst of its 21st season, but it will never be the phenomenon it was in the beginning.

Original judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, and Randy Jackson would skewer early round contestants as talented singers worked their way up until there was just one standing. And there was no better competition than when Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard were the final two standing in Season 2 back in 2003.

“Season One was a 9-million-viewer-a-week show,” Aiken told Whatzup in a recent interview. “Back then, that was good enough to get renewed, but not a huge hit. Our season, immediately went to 25 million, up to 40 million viewers a week. Neither of us knew how big it was while we were on the show until they sent us home during the Top 3. Both of us showed up to our hometowns as kind of royalty.”

Studdard won that season, but the two will forever be linked. 

That bond, which includes a genuine friendship, has been renewed with the Twenty, The Tour that will stop by Honeywell Center in Wabash on Saturday, May 13.

“It makes you feel old,” Studdard said about the 20-year reunion tour via the conference call. “I did not go to my 20-year high school reunion for that reason. Now I have to go to my 20-year Idol reunion because I want to get paid.”

“This reunion will be far more fun, Ruben,” Aiken responded.

“It absolutely, positively will be,” Studdard said. “Although, I should have gone back to see that girl who wouldn’t give me her number in high school.”

no competition

Speaking with the pair by phone, it’s clear that their time on American Idol created a friendship that has gone on for years.

“It’s so weird to both of us that right after Idol … for years, people would come up to me and him and feel like they had to dislike the other, just because we were in competition, but we never were,” Aiken said. “I don’t think we ever were, even in that last moment on stage. We both found out about an hour earlier that we were both getting record contracts, so it didn’t matter who won because we were both going to make an album. We are in competition in some ways. I will stand by the fact that North Carolina is better than Alabama at barbecue.”

“This child, Lord, he needs help, Jesus,” Studdard said in response as Aiken cackles. “He does. I’ll pray for you.”

Life after idol

Following their season, Studdard, a Birmingham, Alabama native, released Soulful that featured “Superstar,” which was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Male R&B Vocal Performance category. He has released seven albums, his latest being the Luther Vandross tribute Ruben Sings Luther in 2018. 

As he continues to perform, he is a professor at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga and works with his foundation, The Ruben Studdard Foundation for the Advancement of Children in the Music Arts in Birmingham.

“(Appearing on American Idol) definitely gave me an opportunity to do a lot of the things that I thought were missing in my community, as far as help with young people and music and education,” Studdard said. “It also allowed me to do all the things that I had desired to do (in the music industry). I got a really great education from the people that run the show. They were really helpful at showing us how to do things the right way.”

The life of Raleigh, North Carolina, native Aiken after the show has included the 2003 record Measure of Man that was followed by five more, his most recent being 2012’s Steadfast.

Working as a special education teacher with an eye on obtaining his masters degree before joining American Idol, Aiken was appointed to the Presidential Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities by President George W. Bush in 2006. He has also advocated for the LGBTQ+ community, founded the National Inclusion Project, been a UNICEF ambassador, and dabbled in politics.

“Well, I won’t be doing that again,” he said, referring to two failed runs.

According to Aiken, it’s hard to imagine what he or Studdard would be doing if it were not for American Idol.

“Had it not happened to both of us, we’d be living very different lives,” he said.


This will actually be the second time Aiken and Studdard have reunited for a tour. In 2010, they went on their Timeless Tour, which included a stop in Hammond. However, 13 years removed from that tour, they say Twenty is much different. 

“The Timeless Tour was very structured,” Aiken said. “We took a musical journey from the ’60s to the ’90s. This show sort of was built around our friendship. It was built around us reminiscing. We sat down together and it was really kind of easy and magical. We sat down in a room together along with John Jackson, our music director, and just started talking about, ‘Oh, do you remember such and such from Idol?’ And, yes, there were songs that Ruben sang on Idol that I remember loving and he’s like, ‘Oh, I forgot singing that.’ And there’s things he remembered that I had totally forgotten. The show came together in the most organic and natural way.”

“We’re older. We have a lot more interesting things to talk about,” Studdard added. “I think the music is going to be even better because our music director is one of the best in the business. We’re going to have a great time. People are really going to enjoy it.”

The tour also seems to be a good reason for old friends to reconnect and hit the road together.

“It’ll be just enough time for us to get on each other’s nerves,” Studdard joked.

And do they still watch Idol after all this time?

“I watch,” Studdard said. “I don’t keep up with it like I used to. I used to know everything that was going on with the show and would keep up. Now, I just don’t have time to keep up with it.”

Aiken is in the same boat.

“I do not watch any of the other (reality competition shows) at all, but I’ll catch up with Idol as much as Ruben,” he said. “Ruben’s been asked to come back quite a few times. I just did this year for the first time in decades.

“It is surreal,” he said of how time has passed. “It doesn’t feel like 20 years until you start looking at Idol now and realizing that the kids on there now weren’t even born when we were on the show.”

Just because time has passed, that does not mean these two have been forgotten.

“I just hope we can rekindle some of that fire,” Studdard said. “I hope people think back to how much fun they had when they watched us and think, ‘Hey, I want to do that again!’ ”


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