It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed since Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken stood side-by-side on the American Idol stage, anxiously waiting for Ryan Seacrest to crown the winner of the competition’s second season.
Two decades later, Studdard and Aiken are a little older and a little wiser, yet ultimately, not much has changed. These unlikely buddies have not only maintained the friendship formed during the grueling Hollywood Week, but they’re still sharing the stage together.
On Friday, April 28, at 8 p.m., they’re bringing “Twenty | The Tour” to Parx Casino’s Xcite Center for an evening of nostalgia and celebration of their American Idol season’s 20th anniversary. Ahead of the show, The Times caught up with Studdard and Aiken, who are thrilled to reunite for this momentous occasion.
“I feel absolutely and extremely blessed to have reached this milestone,” said Studdard. “To have the opportunity to celebrate one another, to celebrate with the fans that gave us the opportunity to do this, it’s just great.”
“It’s surreal to realize that it’s been 20 years,” said Aiken. “There are not many people, period, that get to keep performing and having people buy tickets 10 years after their first album or hit. To be able to continue to do it 20 years later, it’s surreal.”
After coming out victorious on American Idol, Studdard has been on the road consistently, including on the “Ruben Sings Luther Tour.” Aiken, on the other hand, isn’t a big fan of tour life … unless he’s able to do it with his friend. The two embarked on the “Timeless Tour” to celebrate their Idol season’s 10th anniversary, and also had their own Broadway show in December 2018. Once COVID calmed down, Studdard knew they had to partner up again.
“Maybe it’s just God’s will that every 10 years, we say, ‘Hey, here we are.’ So be on the lookout for the 30th anniversary,” said Studdard.
“If I’m still around,” joked Aiken. “There’s only one person who’s been able to get me on a stage in the past decade, and it’s been Ruben both times. It’s very easy to work on stage with Rube. We’ve known each other for 20 years. We do finish each other’s sentences sometimes. Performing together, you have to trust somebody because when you’re up on stage, if I drop a line — which I never do *laughs* — but if I were to, Ruben would pick it up and vice versa. There’s something nice about going out and performing with a friend, so this was an easy thing, to celebrate 20 years and do it with my brother Ruben.”
So how did this pair — an R&B singer from Birmingham, Alabama and a nerdy vocal powerhouse from Raleigh, North Carolina — become so close? According to Aiken, they remember the story a little differently.
“We met in Hollywood Week during the first round where everyone came after they got their Golden Ticket. We stayed at the Glendale Hilton and on our evenings off, sometimes the contestants would socialize and get to know each other. And being the ‘ladies man’ that I am, I had a whole bunch of girls hanging out with me at the bar. And Ruben being the real ladies man that he is, noticed that I had all these ladies hanging out around me and he was impressed by my skills,” said Aiken, unable to keep a straight face. “OK, fix it, Ruben.”
“I was intrigued by the young person that had so many young women around him at the bar and I decided to go speak to them, to the table,” said Studdard.
While it’s unknown if any numbers were exchanged with the female contestants, Aiken and Studdard found in each other a friend for life. There was no cutthroat-ness regarding American Idol, but they did — and still do — often battle about who hails from the better state.
“We became strangely competitive over that, not over singing,” said Aiken. “I don’t wanna make Ruben feel bad, but Alabama’s got two American Idol winners, and North Carolina has three American Idol winners. But it’s OK, Rube, you’ll get there eventually.”
This sort of banter — along with some memorable songs from their Idol days and respective careers — is exactly what people can look forward to at the upcoming Xcite Center show.
“Just come expecting to have a good time,” said Studdard.
“We built this show in so many ways to recapture that 2003 energy and excitement. It was not just instrumental and a turning point in both of our lives, but I think in a lot of viewers’ lives,” said Aiken. “It was so exciting for people to gather around the TV with their family on Tuesday and Wednesday and see who was gonna sing what and who was going home. We want to return to those simpler times. It’s the kind of show that you can and should bring your grandparents to, your mothers, fathers and children. It’s going to be full of nostalgia and stories, and hopefully a lot of magic that people loved back then.”
While both Studdard and Aiken admitted to not being regular viewers of American Idol (it’s far too stressful to watch the show since they know the inner workings of it), they provided some advice for the next generation. Above all, they highlighted the importance of staying true to oneself.
“Just be authentic. I think the one thing that’s really cool about Clay and I is that we were able to be our absolute selves on American Idol,” said Studdard. “Just be you. It’s good enough.”
“We all came in exactly as we were,” agreed Aiken. “I walked into my audition with my puka shell necklace and Ruben walked in with his jersey T-shirt. People, I think, were attracted to the authenticity of Idol and especially the authenticity of our season. Neither one of us were the types of people who were being put on TV as singers prior to that show. I like to believe that people could see themselves in this guy from Birmingham and this kid from North Carolina. I think that’s why it was a hit. Our friendship developed because of that, too. We were both excited to be there, a little bit dumbstruck and pleasantly surprised that we were able to be accessible and stick around as long as we did.”
“First of all, my shirts were cool, just to be clear…,” responded Studdard.
If you go: Catch Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken’s “Twenty | The Tour” on Friday, April 28, at 8 p.m. at Parx Casino’s Xcite Center, 2999 Street Road, Bensalem. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are still available at parxcasino.com/bensalem/xcitecenter.
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org