Role model duty serious business for Aiken

Allison Corneau

If you asked Clay Aiken a year and a half ago what he hoped to be doing in 2004, he would have told you there was no place else he would rather be than in a classroom, teaching special education classes. His career focus has since changed dramatically over the past 18 months and he now has a much more public persona, but no one can deny that Aiken is not still teaching. This time around, America is his classroom and millions of fans are his students.

“I think every single person in the entertainment industry whether they want to be or not is going to be a role model,” Aiken said. “They’re going to have kids who look up to them and it’s a privilege to be in that position but it’s a responsibility. I think anyone who’s in my position and doesn’t take that seriously is not only missing out on an opportunity to do a lot of good but they’re doing a disservice as well by not using that opportunity.”

The former teacher, most notably remembered for his singing talents as the second place finisher on the 2003 installment of Fox’s hit reality program “American Idol,” returns to the hearts and homes of many this holiday season with a newly-released inspirational memoir, NBC network television special, holiday album and a supporting nationwide concert tour. Forget having fifteen minutes of fame, because Aiken’s not going anywhere, at least not anytime soon.

The Raleigh, N.C., native conducted a teleconference with The Chronicle and members of the national media last week while on the road in Salt Lake City as part of his 21-city “Joyful Noise Tour,” a holiday concert tour that makes its way to Wallingford’s Oakdale Theater this Friday.

Although he is keeping busy with the tour to promote his new holiday album, “Merry Christmas with Love,” Aiken, 26, is constantly reminded of the importance of giving back to others. The singer, who graduated with a degree in special education from the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, chatted with The Chronicle about his responsibility as a celebrity to serve as a role model and encouraged others to follow his lead.

Recently appointed a UNICEF Ambassador for Education, Aiken will work to promote the importance of worldwide education for all children. In addition to his UNICEF work, the performer continues his efforts with the Bubel/Aiken Foundation, a year-old organization he founded to encourage the inclusion of children with disabilities by offering grants and other services to help those affected. The foundation is named for Michael Bubel, a Charlotte teen with autism with whom Aiken worked closely during his studies at UNC. It was at the urging of Michael’s mother, Diane, that Aiken auditioned for the second season of “American Idol.”

However, even after his considerable success on the reality program, Aiken realizes that while his vocal talents have already impacted many, his charity work has the potential to serve many more people.

Aiken explains that his new UNICEF duties will provide him the opportunity to travel to developing countries beginning in February, to voice the need for education throughout the world. He realizes that his hectic performance calendar may restrict his worldwide travel, but vows to personally contribute to the organization as much as his schedule will allow. Aiken said he also plans to continue his foundation’s partnership with Youth Service America, an organization encouraging youth volunteerism for service projects across the country.

In addition to his charity outreach activities, Aiken has penned an inspirational memoir, “Learning to Sing: Hearing the Music in Your Life,” (Random House) co-written with Allison Glock. Opting to forgo a traditional autobiography, he instead articulates the ups and downs of his journey to fame, in hopes of encouraging readers and fans to learn from his life experiences.

The singer uses candid honesty coupled with humor to chronicle his 26 years, including a childhood with his birth father from whom he later became estranged and years of torment in middle school, where Aiken was deemed a “nerd.” It is through his own personal experiences that he hopes others will feel empowered and inspired to act.

“Most of the time you learn much more from negative experiences that you go through, the stuff that you sure wish hadn’t happened, you look back and realize that because it happened, you learned to be a stronger person,” Aiken said.

Ultimately Aiken hopes that by letting fans understand his personal life and charity work, he will become an entertainment personality suitable for all audiences. His goal, he says, is that parents can feel comfortable allowing their children to hear his material on the radio and television, making his work family-friendly.

“I hope that I can put myself in a position always (in which) kids are able to look up to me and I really never want to do anything that I wouldn’t be able to let my own kids watch and listen to,” Aiken said.

Aiken says even after “Idol,” he continues to miss working in his traditional classroom setting, but is optimistic that his celebrity status will be a platform for him to still teach.

“I oftentimes say that I don’t get to teach anymore and I miss being in a classroom, but it’s great to feel like I’m able to teach on a bigger level hopefully and have a larger classroom and I think that’s the best gift I’ve been able to get in this entire experience,” Aiken said.