N.C. happy for, if bemused by, its 'Idol'

Charlotte cheers loudly for returning college boy Clay Aiken, but classmates are a little puzzled by the fuss

A little less than 12 hours before Clay Aiken will take the stage with the rest of his "American Idol" colleagues at the sold-out Charlotte Coliseum, he stands in a nondescript radio-station conference room surrounded by adoring female fans and the city's mayor.

"What a great role model for Charlotte, for North Carolina, and for the whole country," says Mayor Patrick McCrory, after declaring Aug. 8 as Clay Aiken Day. McCrory reads a proclamation and then gets down to business. He snares an autograph and a photo of his niece, Molly, with Aiken, the unlikely, gawky heartthrob known for his carrot-top coiffure and Broadway-meets-pop crooning.

The nine Idol alums touring arenas this summer - led by Ruben Studdard, who beat runner-up Aiken by less than 1 percent out of 24 million votes - now find themselves in the role of conquering heroes in their hometowns of Birmingham and Raleigh, N.C., respectively. Charlotte, the largest city in the state, staked claims of its own because Aiken attended the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.

Somehow, Fox TV's blend of glorified karaoke and high-school talent show entranced millions of viewers. Studdard and Aiken have scored hit singles, though airplay has plummeted precipitously for each since the second "Idol" show left the air in May. Both have albums coming out later this year: Studdard with Clive Davis's J Records and Aiken with RCA Records.

The 39-city "American Idols Live!" tour, wrapping up on Aug. 31, scored sellouts in Raleigh and Charlotte this month.

The Idol tour is sponsored by Pop-Tarts, but no one, save Rolling Stone, seems cognizant of the joke. Ninety minutes before show time, Aiken runs around the side of the arena to wave hello at a line of fans snaked halfway around the building. A mob of veteran Pop-Tart shoppers surges forward before Clay makes his getaway.

Backstage, several of the female Idols - Trenyce, Carmen Rasmusen, Kimberly Caldwell, and Julie DeMato - are kibitzing in sweats and T-shirts.

Nearly a year of media saturation has left them not quite jaded, but not quite wide-eyed, either. They swiftly dispense with a variety of queries, but grow weary when the topic of Clay arises. "[When we talk to fans], it's 'How has the whole experience been? Are you tired? And where's Clay?" Ms. DeMato says. Ms. Caldwell quickly corrects her: " 'Where's Clay' is always first, then the other two."

No one seems resentful, but Aiken, despite finishing second, has become the most popular Idol, even surpassing Studdard, the rotund teddy-bear champ.

Aiken's routine now includes regular meet-and-greets with fans and the media. He's accompanied by a bodyguard who resembles an NFL linebacker and a petite publicist who is a cross between Bridget Jones and Lucky Star-era Madonna. Both keep Aiken on a strict schedule, and both serve as caddies for the array of stuffed animals, colognes, and other gifts that fans bestow on him.

Angela Coachman and Amy Pusey, a pair of 22-year-old UNC-Charlotte graduates, were among the Clay admirers, wearing form-fitting red shirts to the show. They both majored in special education, like Aiken, and attended class with him every day for several years. "He was always the class clown," Ms. Pusey says, grinning. "He was the only guy in every class - it's a small major and it's all girls - and Clay was always joking around."

Did last month's Rolling Stone cover boy have many admirers in college? "He had lots of friends," Ms. Coachman says. "I'm sure he's not having any trouble with girlfriends ... now."

Even so, Aiken resonates much more with the Sela Ward-Lifetime gang than the Reese Witherspoon-"Friends" set. Judging by the arena crowd, the combination of geeky chutzpah and hammy showman is a winner among middle-aged moms.

Kimberley Locke, a 25-year-old administrative assistant from Nashville who became an Idol alongside Aiken, knew where matters stood in Charlotte.

"We're in Clay Town, obviously," Locke says onstage, eliciting an overwhelming, and sustained roar as she introduced him. Aiken emerged from beneath the stage, sporting a natty black suit, purple tie, and a grin reminiscent of Alfred E. Neuman. He launched into "This Is the Night," a soaring pop ballad that melds Barry Manilow with Andrew Lloyd Webber. With dry ice flowing over the stage, Aiken's by-the-numbers moves - arms spread wide, hands clasped over his heart - produced thunderous squeals. "There's no place like home, that's for sure," he said after several minutes of applause. "I am amazed."

For his former classmates, the $30 Clay T-shirts and $10 Clay posters (to say nothing of the throngs of self-proclaimed Claymates) seem just as hard to fathom.

"It's weird to think that all these people are here to see Clay," says Pusey. "I'm happy for him, but he still seems like the same old Clay, y'know?"

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