Last year Clay Aiken, the former “American Idol” runner-up, ran for Congress. He never had much of a chance of winning, running as a Democrat in a heavily Republican district against incumbent Rep. Renee Ellmers — especially since voters still couldn’t help but see a 24-year old spiky-haired reality-show singer when they looked at the now 36-year old politician.
Those who got to see Aiken in action may have been surprised by just how candid, foul-mouthed and well-versed on the issues he had become. But those who didn’t get to see him in action then will get to see him now: On Tuesday, the Esquire network aired the first of four installments of “Runner Up,” its documentary on Aiken’s congressional run. When Esquire first announced the series (made by Simon Chinn, the Oscar-winning producer of “Man on Wire” and “Searching for Sugar Man”) it was met with derision: Of course Aiken had a reality series in development; perhaps this was what this whole congressional run was all about?
Below, Aiken responds to that charge and other questions (edited and condensed for clarity):
When Esquire announced the filming of the show right after the election, the reaction wasn’t great. Were you surprised people felt hustled, like you were after another reality show the whole time?
I would have thought the same f—ing thing. I thought Esquire and the network did a horrible job of announcing this. I fought with them and was angry with them. Until that point we had had nine moths of a good relationship. I was more p—ed off than other people were.
So how did this project come to be in the first place?
The filmmakers came to me. They were the third or fourth group that tried. I had said no to all of them, I had even said no to them. But they came back and were pretty persuasive and persistentt. . . I knew my chance of winning was a small one, but there was a large percentage of a chance that I could bring attention to issues like how much time is spent raising money in politics. . . It’s f—ing b——-.
Was everyone on your team aware that this movie was being made?
I said I’ll be okay with the movie only once [the filmmakers] personally get everyone else on the campaign to agree. They had to specifically get their buy-in.
There were reports that people at fundraisers felt like they had the rug pulled out from under them when they heard about the film. How do you respond to them?
I don’t know what to say about that specifically. I was very separated from whatever the producers and what they were doing. I don’t know. . . . But I will say that for nine months of working with these folks, I never saw them do something that upset or offended anyone. I know what they told every group that they went in front of. The person who complained was well aware that they would be there and what they were doing. He spent a lot of energy trying to get himself attention so I would take his concerns with a huge grain of salt.
Are you worried that having a movie like this reinforces the idea that you are nothing more than a reality star?
No. I think the only reason I was willing to let me do this was because I felt comfortable that it wasn’t going to be reality TV-ish. And I’ve only seen 20 minutes, but what I’ve seen and what I’ve heard is that it’s clearly not a reality show.
Do you think, and do you hope, that people will watch this and learn to no longer see you as just a singer?
That was always our biggest challenge and our biggest problem; to get people to see me as not just a singer. . . Admittedly I hope that people who see it recognize that I was serious and not just a 24 year old from “Idol.” If I told you that I wasn’t nervous about how it came across I’d be lying.
Will this be part of a process that helps you run again?
Will I run again? For that seat, not likely. In its current gerrymandered state we know what to expect of it. But that doesn’t mean I wont run for something if I see a need. It won’t be 2016, and it won’t be 2018. Probably.