Clay Aiken runs for Congress: A look back at ‘American Idol’s’ careful relationship with politics


Clay Aiken performs at the 31st annual American Music Award. (Jim Ruymen/Reuters/Files)

Like many reality shows, Fox’s “American Idol” has steered clear of politics over the years. Even the perception of a partisan affiliation, one way or the other, can bring the kind of publicity a show doesn’t necessarily crave. (See: The controversy over Bristol Palin’s run on “Dancing With the Stars.”)

Now, the “Idol” name is being thrust into the political spotlight, as Clay Aiken — one of the show’s most famous contestants  — announced that he’s running for Congress as a Democrat in North Carolina against Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.). In his announcement video, Aiken doesn’t explicitly mention how he became a star, and only alludes to his “golden ticket” (the kind that got him through the initial “Idol” auditions) and weaves it into his goals to help improve people’s lives.

“For most Americans, there are no golden tickets,” Aiken said in the video posted to his Web site Wednesday morning. “At least, not like the kind you see on TV.”

Will being famous because of a reality singing competition help Aiken? The verdict is still out — it could make him a punchline to some, or give him the advantage of being one of the show’s biggest success stories. The second season finale in 2003, where Aiken was named runner-up to Ruben Studdard, remains the most-watched finale in “Idol” history with 38 million viewers. Using a reality show to launch a political career worked for some, such as Rep. Sean Duffy (R-Wis.), formerly a “Real World” cast member.

Either way, “Idol” has always been very careful about approaching politics. (A show rep said the network has no comment on Aiken’s ambitions.) It doesn’t come up often, and when it does, the show tends to downplay any aspect of the political world. For example, the time in 2006 when Ayla Brown — the daughter of then-Republican state Sen. Scott Brown — moved on to the semi-finalists rounds, the politician was shown on camera with host Ryan Seacrest, waiting to hear about his daughter’s results. The senator was identified simply as “Ayla’s father.” Ayla, meanwhile, was known as the “basketball star.”

Back during the 2008 presidential primary season, “Idol” let Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain have some airtime, filming videos urging people to give to charity during its “Idol Gives Back” special in April. (In a minor controversy at the time, “Idol Gives Back” ran out of time for the candidates’ messages, and the clips ran during the next night’s results show.)

A year earlier, President George W. Bush and first lady Laura Bush also appeared via video during the 2007 “Idol Gives Back” to thank people for contributing, and give a shout-out to the contestants. That summer, while in D.C. for the “Idol” tour, the singers stopped at the White House to pay a visit.

Other than that, the show has mostly stayed out of the political realm — save for ex-producer Nigel Lythgoe cheekily tweeting an invite to President Obama in 2012 to duet with Al Green after Obama burst into song at an appearance at the Apollo Theater. (Later, Lythgoe tweeted after Mitt Romney tried singing a tune: “If it were an election based on vocal talent @barackobama would beat Romney hands down. Mitt was very flat singing ‘America the Beautiful.’”)

But the show reportedly urges contestants to also be careful about delving into politics as well. Two years ago, finalist Colton Dixon, who wanted to pursue Christian music as a career, told Today.com about what he had been told by producers: “When we first started the Twitter and Facebook stuff, they said beware of political and religious tweets…Just because it can turn off voters or whatever.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean that singers shy away from singing patriotic songs: In fact, Clay Aiken helped sing a touching rendition of “God Bless the USA” in the second season finale.

Emily Yahr covers pop culture and entertainment for the Post. Follow her on Twitter @EmilyYahr.
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