A few days before his face-off with Arsenio Hall on the finale of Donald Trump’s “The Celebrity Apprentice” (Sunday night on NBC), Clay Aiken was confident and comfortable.
“I hope I’ll win,” said the openly gay singer and actor who shot to stardom as a contestant and first runner up on “American Idol” almost ten years ago. “We have different styles. [Arsenio Hall is] a little more laid back. I’m a little more hands-on. I think the effects of my efforts were superior. I think we’ll see on Sunday when Mr. Trump makes his decision.”
Aiken also weighed in on his new-found role as a gay activist, taking on North Carolina’s antigay Amendment One and appearing on CBS’ “Face the Nation” opposite the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins last week, an experience he laughingly still can’t believe happened.
“Wasn’t that crazy?” he asked, beaming with a smile, in an interview on my SiriusXM radio program. “So it did happen, you’re saying? Because I was thinking it was all a dream.”
Aiken never would have imagined in 2003, when he was on “American Idol” and not open about his sexual orientation amid the rumor mill that he was gay, that he would one day be out, let alone that he would be an activist speaking passionately about gay marriage and the politics of the state he grew up in, North Carolina, on national television.
“In 2003, [I] wasn’t even convinced [myself that I] was gay,” he chuckled. “Oh, no, no, no, no. You know, it’s a process for everyone. Even in 2008, when I came out publicly, I said, ‘I’m not going to be one of the activist people, who speak out publicly about it.’ That’s where I was in my own personal journey. I believed at that time that I was completely, perfectly out.”
But Aiken eventually felt a sense of responsibility to young people, he said, working with groups like the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network [GLSEN], becoming more aware of issues LGBT youth face today.
“It hasn’t been until the past two years that I really started realizing a part of this is going to be making sure other people don’t live through what I did,” he explained. “Making sure that people don’t have the same type of struggle that I did. I’ve realized now if I can be a a part of making it easier for a kid to be able to be comfortable with himself, then I have a responsibility to do it.”
Discussing his fan base, Aiken noted that the people to whom he appeals are the very people whose minds need to be changed in America.
"My fan base is very 'red state' typically,” he said. “I think a lot of people who are the most fervent supporters of mine are people who would have voted for a marriage amendment, but now might not. I speak more to people who are in the middle, sway-able area. I think some people, like Adam [Lambert] or maybe Rosie [O'Donnell], probably speak a little bit to a crowd where, it’s like, we already got them. But I think that Ellen [DeGeneres] and Neal Patrick Harris speak to that middle crowd too. I think you gotta have both. You gotta have people who stir the turd so that people can smell it. And you gotta have people who keep things as normalized as possible.You need to have Malcolm X so that Dr. King can be more effective.”
Regarding Donald Trump’s position against marriage equality and the controversy he stirred when he was flirting with running for president, speaking out on the issue, Aiken said it’s better for him and openly gay George Tekei to do the show and be able to talk with Trump.
“Avoiding people who disagree with you, unless they are the Tony Perkins’ of the world, who are never going to change their minds, is counter-productive,” he said. “I don’t see Mr. Trump as a Tony Perkins. He is a lot more gracious in person and down to earth and real than I think he wants people to know. This is how I have tried to do it. People who know a gay person are more likely to support a gay person.”
It’s with that calm sense of purpose that Aiken is heading into Sunday’s finale of “The Celebrity Apprentice, ” hoping to win the grand prize, $250,000, for the charity he co-founded, The National Inclusion Project.
“I try to avoid tension -- it’s impossible to avoid tension on a show like this, but I try my best,” he explained. “I think 85% of success in life is about paying attention, and I think 85 % of doing well on a show like this is [about] paying attention. And I think that’s why I’ve done well.”
Listen to the interview here: