Last January, I sat down for an interview with Clay Aiken as he was rehearsing for his Broadway debut in "Spamalot." Aiken, at 29, looked like he'd put on some weight, and he was wearing sweats and pair of mismatched socks. He said he cared so little about fashion, he didn't even pay attention anymore. Aiken was chatty in a dorky kind of way, until you brought up questions about his past, which of course I did. I asked him about the scuffle he had with a lady on an airplane over an armrest, which resulted in an FBI investigation. "I'm not going to talk about it," Aiken said. Then I asked him about his scuffle with Kelly Ripa—when Aiken was a guest host on her show, he covered Ripa's mouth with his hand and Ripa said, "I don't know where that hand's been, honey," and an hour later, Rosie O'Donnell was on "The View" calling Ripa homophobic. "I'm not going to discuss it," Aiken said to me. But did he think Ripa was homophobic? "I'm not going to discuss it," he said again, his voice growing louder. Then he threatened to end the interview, but he uncomfortably went on for a few more rounds, comparing NEWSWEEK to the National Enquirer.
Aiken is finally ready to talk about "it" now—the "it" being his sexuality. In a People magazine cover story this week, Aiken confesses what the rest of the country has suspected since he debuted on "American Idol" in 2003, when he claimed, "I don't really hide much." Clay Aiken is gay. He tells the magazine a touching story about coming out to his mom in a car four years ago. And he says he made the decision to be honest now because of his son, who was conceived via in-vitro fertilization earlier this year (the mother is a record producer /friend). "It was the first decision I made as a father," Aiken said. "I cannot raise a child to lie or hide things. I wasn't raised that way."
Aiken's coming out was met with widespread applause—GLAAD was among the first to congratulate him this morning. But why should Aiken deserve to be praised for coming out at the age of 29? You could say that a person's sexuality is nobody's business. But unlike other gay celebrities who have come out recently, like Neil Patrick Harris or Lance Bass, Aiken denied that he was gay long beyond the point of ridiculousness, and he did it in a way that bordered on homophobic. When the Advocate asked him if he was gay during an "American Idol" press conference, he simply turned the other way, as if he never heard the question. In 2006, a sexually suggestive video of Aiken leaked from a gay dating Web site, but that same year, he gave a big interview to People where he implied he was straight. He even offered a cover-up for the video: it wasn't him, it was just somebody who looked exactly like him.
The denials only made Aiken a bigger target in interviews, and it was mostly his own fault. He told New York magazine that he'd never had a relationship, prompting ABC News to run a story called: "Could Clay Aiken Be Asexual?" When I brought up his sexuality, his face turned into a mask of scorn, but I could tell it was a performance he'd given before. By the time I reached my last question, about "American Idol," he seemed friendly again, though clearly uncomfortable, talking fast about nothing, in an effort to prevent any more questions about his personal life. The next week, my interview went viral, landing on a number of blogs, including Perez Hilton. The Associated Press and Entertainment Tonight even picked it up. When Aiken himself appeared on the show, he alleged that he'd been misquoted in NEWSWEEK, though misquoted over what he didn't exactly say.
This week, Aiken told People he hoped he didn't let his fans down—the conservative, panty-tossing Claymates who scooped up his albums by the millions. If anything, though, the idea that being gay could ruin your career in Hollywood is more old school than reruns of "Will & Grace." Ellen DeGeneres has the biggest talk show on TV after "Oprah," and it's been a long decade since she broke down the closet door as the first openly gay sitcom star ("Ugly Betty," "Gossip Girl," even "The Sopranos" had a gay character). Plus, Aiken got his start on what's arguably the gayest show on TV—"American Idol." Aiken's announcement almost overshadowed the other gay news of the week. Lindsay Lohan confirmed she's been dating a 31-year-old woman named Samantha Ronson for "a very long time." She's never seemed happier or more normal in her post rehab days, and honestly, her career will probably benefit from the stability in her life. Which just goes to show that Aiken shouldn't have been scared of letting his Claymates down. He was probably more scared of letting Clay Aiken down—a shame, because when he tries to teach his son about honesty, he'll have to come up with a reason for why he lied for so long.