Clay Reveals Ongoing Battle With Anxiety
But for Clay Aiken, who opened up to ABC's Diane Sawyer in the first part of an ongoing interview this week, fame came with a price.
"Clay, don't take this the wrong way, but I prefer you when I shut my eyes," said Idol judge Simon Cowell to Aiken after one performance.
It was one thing to smile through the brutal verbal barbs fired off by Cowell, but yet another to be Clay Aiken this past year.
The tabloids have taken aim at everything from his sexual orientation to his mental equilibrium. The late-night comedians have launched a non-stop assault, making jokes that were initially funny to Aiken, but eventually took their toll.
This year, Aiken moved back home to Raleigh, N.C..
"I need to get out of Hollywood," he said.
The geeky, skinny kid who was bullied by his classmates is no stranger to tough times. He experienced the trauma of his sister's suicide and has worried about his brother, a Marine currently fighting in Iraq.
"I always prided myself on the fact that I was able to handle this on my own, pray about it, talk to my family, talk to my friends, and just get through it, you know, being tough," Aiken said.
But eventually the fame and ferocity of public inspection started to take a physical toll when he walked into a public room. He often felt like he was going to have a heart attack when he would make public appearances. So Clay decided to talk to his doctor.
"I said, 'Listen, here's the, here's the thing. I don't understand why I feel like I'm gonna have a heart attack when I go into these rooms. I don't get it," he said.
"When I am in the room, the walls are closing in on me and my heart races, and I didn't understand it. I would look back and say, 'Why are your, why are your palms sweaty? What's the problem?'" he said.
Clay never had stage fright or nervousness when performing, though. He tried a series of medications, but the one that worked was a drug for depression and anxiety, Paxil.
"I've probably been bullied on a far larger scale since I've done this [American Idol]," he said.
Doctors say panic attacks are often complex and a bit mysterious. Aiken said he had his first panic attack when his stepfather, Ray Parker, died several years ago.
"Clayton had a really hard time with that," Aiken's mother, Faye Parker, said in 2003. "And [Aiken] was in emergency for about three hours before we could back to the room and get things settled. He took that very hard."
Aiken was taken to the hospital after his first panic attack. His family told emergency-room doctors that he had a strained relationship with his stepfather.
"[The doctor] said, 'That's interesting.' He said, 'I could tell because a lot of times people who don't have a great relationship with, with the deceased, tend to take it harder.' I think that had a lot to do with regret. â¦ I never got a chance to tell him that I loved him," Clay said.
Aiken, who said he was not a fan of medicine, is not worried about getting addicted to Paxil, as he had been in the past about anti-anxiety drugs.
"Some of these other things where I would, I would try something and then it would work and then the next time, I'd go back and OK, I think I need to take two," he said, adding that despite taking the drug, he is not in therapy.
"Nobody who I know, first of all, in North Carolina goes to see anybody. Everybody who I know in L.A. goes to see somebody. I mean, I don't want to do that."
But the kid who everybody back home still calls Clayton says he won't run and hide. He's got a new album, A Thousand Different Ways, comprised of love songs.
As his adoring fans know, he's also a giving, self-deprecating humanitarian. He has recently made pleas for Middle East relief, and as an ambassador for UNICEF, he's traveled to Uganda to see children who have to flee from guerrillas every night.
"They sang for me [at one camp] in Gulu in Uganda and it was really impressive," he said. "Then they asked me to sing, and I looked around like well, I don't know what to sing. And someone said sing 'Bridge Over Troubled Water.' I sang it, and they just laughed. I was a comedy act for them that day."
Aiken is also a self-described news junkie who said his ultimate dream was to have a talk show. He got a taste of his dream on Good Morning America today.
"I can ask you, 'Well have you, have you seen a therapist, Diane, recently?'" he jokingly asked Sawyer in a mock interview.
Aiken went on to tell Sawyer what her issues were.
"You obviously have a very busy schedule, you know. You get up at three o'clock in the morning right and you don't go home until nine o'clock at night," he said. "Why? Why would you continue to do it?"
Still, while Aiken is laughing one minute, he is vulnerable the next. He thinks of himself as "pretty durable," but he says that bullies in middle school had nothing on the tabloids.
One thing's for sure: You're always going to be our man, Clay.