Raleigh native and current Durham resident Clay Aiken, a runner-up on the second season of "American Idol," is currently a favorite (at least by the way I call it!) to win the top spot in this season's "Celebrity Apprentice" show on NBC.
Clay's time on the show has served him -- and his charity -- well (he is playing to earn money for The National Inclusion Project, a charity he helped form). Viewers this season have discovered that Clay is pretty proficient at a lot of things besides singing and acting. For many of the tasks he and his teammates have been charged with, Clay has written, produced, directed, managed and designed. And he wowed us during one project with his puppetry skills -- skills he said he learned attending Vacation Bible School while growing up in Raleigh.
Earlier this week I got a chance to talk to Clay by phone about his experiences on the show. The interview is below. "Celebrity Apprentice" airs this Sunday night at 9 on NBC, and the season finale will air next Sunday at 9.
Warm TV: How do you compare your experiences on "American Idol" to "The Celebrity Apprentice"?
Clay: It's almost apples and oranges. "American Idol" was stressful in its own way because, of course, I didn't want to be insulted on national live TV, and I had to perform and could get voted off every week. That's about the only similarity. The differences are that "American Idol" is something I knew how to do. I'm comfortable with singing. It is my wheelhouse. And "American Idol" is very much an isolated competition. I never really competed against Ruben [Studdard], against Kim Locke, against anybody on that show. I was always competing with myself. I knew I needed to do the best that I could do that week and I needed to pick a song and sing it as well as I could, and choose a song that was going to show me off for the week. And I never needed to know what Ruben was doing to try to beat him.
"Celebrity Apprentice" is completely different. It is the opposite of isolated. Because in addition to having to work as a team, I worked with Arsenio [Hall], I worked with Aubrey [O'Day], I worked with Lisa [Lampanelli] and Paul Teutul and everyone, and you have to work together as a team. And you have to succeed at something together as a group, which is obviously different than "Idol." At the same time, you have to do better than the other person. At times you have to say that this person didn't do as well as me because of this, that and the other.
We saw a few weeks ago where I was project manager and lost the Success by Trump display challenge. In that task after we lost I had to turn around and say that Dayana [Mendoza] and Penn [Jillette] should be fired instead of me. That's not really in my nature. I mean, obviously, we all have moments on the show where we lose our temper and we just can't put up with crap anymore, and I'm happy to snap at somebody. But it's not in my nature to have to talk bad about someone. And one of the things you didn't see in that particular boardroom -- the boardrooms last for hours -- Dayana and Penn and I were in there for about an hour, and 50 minutes of that was spent with me trying to get Dayana fired, believing Dayana should be the one to go home versus Penn. And it wasn't until I sort of realized, 'Okay, there's no way he's going to fire Dayana, I can just tell,' that I needed to change my target and I had to pick Penn. Which, I have a lot of respect for Penn and I think he's great at this and I think he's very intelligent, but I had to kind of put that aside and think 'You know what, even though I think he's smart and I think he's an asset to the team, I don't want to go home.' And I didn't have to do that on "Idol."
So in addition to the obvious, which is, this is not something I'm necessarily known for being good at -- not singing -- it was a lot more competitive than "Idol" was and I'm not, despite my track record of being on two nationally-televised competition shows, I'm not a very competitive person. It's not in my nature to really have to go after somebody.
Warm TV: When doing tasks, did you get a lot of help behind the scenes from assistants or did you have to do all that work yourselves?
Clay: Oh no, you have to do it all. The only help we get, if there's any help whatsoever, is right when we get our task there's about 20 minutes not filmed where we're given sort of a dossier and told what the task will entail and what benchmarks we need to hit. We don't get any help hitting those benchmarks, we don't get any help with ideas, we don't get any help with anything. The only reason I say that's help is that on the dossier it might say, 'You have to have any printed materials in by 7.' Which in some instances should clue us in, 'Okay, we really need to print something -- what could it be?' We really had to fly blind for everything. . . . But 99.9% of all of those tasks are done by us. And you're not really even supposed to call out for help for anything. So we really have to do it internally. Once in awhile there will be a task where they'll say, 'Okay, you can call out and call your friends to come and model inside your windows if you want to.' When we did that window, I called a friend in New York to get some twins -- I knew some people from doing Broadway -- have a few people call and say 'Can you find me some twins?' But almost all the time you are on your own in that room. In that war room, sort of trapped in.
Warm TV: How many hours a day did you work?
Clay: There were short days that lasted 13 hours. And then there were longer and more average days that lasted up to 17-18 hours. Call times were usually around 5:30 a.m. and we'd prepare ourselves mentally not to be home until 10 or 11.
Warm TV: So, exhausting.
Clay: Especially that first week or two. Then you really sort of get used to no sleep. And it was six days a week so we had Sundays to hibernate. Sunday I would sleep till 3 and Arsenio and I would buddy up and walk over to Whole Foods to get something to eat, bring it back to the hotel and fall asleep again.
Warm TV: We know you formed a tight bond with Arsenio Hall, but tell me about some of the other friendships you made on the show.
Clay: I think most of the people on the show I'd be able to call a friend. Most of them, we won't say all of them. I've stayed friendly with everyone. I knew Debbie Gibson beforehand and so we became closer and I think that's a friendship I'll keep forever. Lisa Lampanelli, surprisingly to a lot of people, I really bonded with her and doing last week's task just the two of us togethe,r really made it even better for us, because it was really just a breeze working with her. And she's a brilliantly smart woman who just played the game in a way that most people probably wouldn't have chosen to play it. But she played the game the whole time. So I became friends with her.
I live here in the Triangle so I don't get the chance to hang out with folks that often, but when I go to New York I'll certainly call Lisa, and when I'm in L.A., Arsenio and I try to get together. And Debbie and I will try to get together. So I think I'll try to maintain friendships. Dee Snider, another great person who I was extremely surprised I've become friends with, but pleasantly surprised. I will say that this was an experience that brought people together more than "Idol" in many ways. Even though you see the fighting and screaming, we're all working toward a common goal most of the time. With "Idol" it was very isolated. I became friends with Ruben because we lived together for so long, but there were people who were on my season of "Idol" who I haven't spoken to in ten years. And I don't know that that would be the case with this show.
Warm TV: Did things continue to be awkward between you and Penn Jillette after your confrontation on the show, or did that blow over?
Clay: I think things will always be awkward between myself and Penn Jillette. I have to say I like him, but Penn and I are very different people. I used to say I think we didn't get along because we were too much alike. And since the show I have realized, we are not alike! He is a brilliant brilliant brilliant mind. I think he's very intelligent, he is very personable, he is a very nice guy. He doesn't have a malicious bone in his body. He really does not. I believe that now. But you know, sometimes water can be good for you and olive oil can be good for you, but they are not good for each other! And I think we have that sort of personality sometimes. And Penn is a person I've talked to outside of the show more than many others. We do make an effort, both of us, to try to remain friendly with each other. And I think we both would like to stay friendly with each other. But it's just one of those relationships where you really like the other person, but there's no love connection.
Warm TV: Is there anything you can say about Aubrey O'Day that would convince me she's not evil?
Clay: [Long pause. Deep breath].
Warm TV: Long pause?
Clay: You are welcome to type "long pause" there! Aubrey plays the game in the way she believes it is necessary to win. And she is very successful with it. It is a TV show. And although Penn will say over and over that I came from a reality show, I didn't come from a reality show. "Idol" is not a reality show, "Apprentice" is. And Aubrey has come from reality shows -- Aubrey, Teresa [Guidice] and Paul have come from reality shows, very different from "Idol." And they know if you want to be successful, you've got to make the producers need you to some extent. And so Aubrey realized that part of this show is arbitrary. Mr. [Donald] Trump gets to choose who he wants. And since he is the executive producer of the show, a lot of times he's gonna side with -- in a tie -- he might side with the person who is going to give him better TV. No one can say Aubrey O'Day does not give good TV.
I think the difference between Aubrey and myself, and where she may have miscalculated -- and granted, Aubrey isn't fired yet so she hasn't miscalculated too much -- the difference between the way she played it and the way I played it, was I understood the producers needed something salacious every once in awhile. I didn't want to be boring, you know what I mean? So every once in awhile I'd make a comment that was a little bit funny or a little bit salacious or maybe mean. But I'd do it about once a week, figuring I can give them one and they can use it or not. I think Aubrey gave them a selection, and she gave them so many, thinking probably, 'Oh, they'll never use them all.' They did. And I say that sort of for Lisa too, because for a task that lasts 50-some hours sometimes, Lisa yelled at somebody only five minutes out of 50 hours. But when the show was edited down and for one team's task you're only going to see 25 minutes, they use all five minutes of it and it looks like Lisa's yelling all the time. But Lisa doesn't yell all the time.
Warm TV: Five minutes of yelling and five minutes of crying?
Clay: Yes, five minutes of yelling and five minutes of crying out of 50 hours is not that bad, but out of 25 minutes, that's pretty bad. And out of a task that has three interviews that last an hour each, out of three hours of interviews, if I only give them one thing that's funny -- like talking about Aubrey popping out of her mama's chotch and grabbing a stripper pole, which I didn't think they'd use, by the way -- I give them one thing, they use it, and I've got a little funny quip in there. But Aubrey gives them 15 and they use all of them and all you ever hear is Aubrey saying mean things. I don't believe, honestly, it's Aubrey's nature, but I don't know that, to be honest with you. And I have to say this, I wrote in my blog for NBC this week, that one of the things I appreciated and respected about Lisa is that you always know where Lisa stands. She never said anything mean about someone that she didn't also say to their face. And I don't know that Aubrey always does that.
Warm TV: Yeah, you can't trust Aubrey.
Clay: [Laughs] That I will not say, but I will give you another long pause.
Warm TV: What is your favorite Classy Clay Moment of the season so far?
Clay: Oh God. I have to say I think the funniest one is probably the chotch comment mainly because, as you saw, I looked at the camera and said, 'Can you use that? Try to use that.' Because I did not believe they would use it. The whole Classy Clay Moment came about because in several episodes it looks like I'm picking my nose and I'm not! So I was trying to hang a lantern on that and make it look like, 'I know I did it, so you can't make fun of me first!' And I certainly don't think it was classy for me to yell at Dayana, necessarily. But I have to say that that task was by far the most frustrating for me. So, sometimes things come out of my mouth and I don't necessarily mean for them to come out of my mouth, and I didn't know they were going to come out of my mouth. And there have been times while I've been watching the show that I've heard myself say something and laughed because I don't remember saying it. And when I said that Dayana was like 'the blind leading the seeing,' I don't remember saying that. But I was pretty proud of myself for coming up with it!
Warm TV: How much money have you raised for The National Inclusion Project with Classy Clay Moment texts? [Note: During "Celebrity Apprentice" episodes, Clay asks viewers on Twitter to text a special number when they see the 'Classy Clay Moment' and that text means a donation to his charity.]
Clay: I haven't followed up with it, but I know that the first week or so it was about $8,000 [each week], so I'm hoping we've stuck with that. If that's the case, through ten episodes, if we've been able to do that, that's $80,000.
Warm TV: What has the "Celebrity Apprentice" exposure meant for The National Inclusion Project?
Clay: It really has been pretty great for us. I think a lot of challenges we had when we were called the Bubel/Aiken Foundation is nobody knew what we did. So we changed the name to The National Inclusion Project to try to get our purpose into the name, and that helped us a little. But by the time we changed the name, a lot of those "Idol" followers and a lot of the horribly blinding spotlight of the press had kind of faded away for me, so being able to have the name, explain what it means, and have an audience of millions of people get to hear about it every week, it's great for us. Being able to go on a show where I can have multiple opportunities in the press and on the show to talk about it has great for us because it has given us the opportunity not just to get our name out there, but sort of explain what it is that we do.
Warm TV: Did you pick out your own clothes for the show or did you guys have stylists? What we're really asking is, who picked out the funky overcoat with the fur collar?
Clay: We don't have stylists. There is a wardrobe department there but they are really there just to make sure everything is steamed and given to you on time. They don't help us out with the tasks at all, but they do help us out extensively with the rest of our lives so that we can focus on the show. All of our clothes are pressed and transported for us, food is always provided. Clothes we have to do for ourselves. I did not pick my own stuff out. My assistant went over to Saks at Triangle Town Center and a few other places, and had someone help her find some clothes. Other contestants on the show would make fun of me because she laid out every outfit I would need. We calculated how many I would need if I lasted to the end. So she put out an outfit for every single time I'd need an outfit, and she'd take a picture of it and describe it, and she hung them together and wrapped them together and she shipped them up to New York day by day by day, and they just showed up for me like that. So I had my own assistant here in Raleigh do the hard work for me!
That said, after I won the Crystal Light task, I saw a suit I really liked in the Hugo Boss store in Columbus Circle -- we were staying at Trump International in Columbus Circle -- and I told myself if I win this task, I'm gonna go buy that suit for myself. So I went and bought it and Arsenio went with me that day and he saw that jacket and he said, 'Dude, you gotta get that jacket. That jacket's hot.' So Arsenio picked the jacket out for me. And I don't care what people say, they can all kiss my #*!, I love that jacket!
Warm TV: What are your summer plans?
Clay: The goal is to go out and do a tour in the fall and the winter. I'm going to try to stay home this summer. I know people think I'm crazy, but I love a North Carolina summer. The humidity is like a warm hug to me and I love it. I spent so many years working summer camps at the Y that I would spend all day outside, from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day, and I just got so used to it. I can't deal with the sun because I burn like crazy, but I'm so used to it that I miss the summers. I've so often not been home during the summer so I'm sort of looking forward to being at home more and enjoying the heat and the humidity. Isn't that crazy sounding? But I love it!
"Celebrity Apprentice" airs Sunday night at 9 on NBC.