Shortly after the November polls revealed that democratic congressional hopeful Clay Aiken failed to dethrone Republican incumbent Renee Ellmers (he lost by 18 points) in North Carolina’s second district, Esquire Network announced plans to air a four-part docuseries on the American Idol alum’s campaign. Controversy ensued.
As reported by Karen Ocamb in Los Angeles’s LGBT magazine Frontiers, the donors of one particular L.A. fundraiser felt duped, wondering whether Aiken’s whole political enterprise was a mere publicity stunt. One person in particular, actor Steve Tyler, who spearheaded the fundraising, felt betrayed.
Aiken neglected to inform them that his documentarians (Academy Award winner Simon Chinn and his Emmy Award-winning cousin, Jonathan Chinn) would be showing up to film the extravaganza, and the film crew allegedly lied to the attendees in an effort to secure releases from them so the Chinns could have free rein with the footage. They reportedly told Aiken’s supporters that the documentary was for a BBC program that would exclusively air in the United Kingdom. Ocamb tells The Advocate, “Steve was angry because he thought Clay had deceived him and the donors into participating in another one of his reality shows.”
“This is not a reality series,” says Matt Hanna, head of original programming at Esquire Network. “It’s a documentary. And from two acclaimed and award-winning filmmakers.” Hanna also contests the claim that the film team fibbed to partygoers. “The Lightbox crew identified themselves as being a U.K. production company, got releases from everyone who participated, and were available for comment throughout. And they kept a low profile because they wanted to make a documentary that captured the inner workings of a modern American political campaign, not become the story and affect any part of that campaign.”
For five years, following his Idol success, Aiken skirted questions about his sexual orientation and lied to music industry bible Rolling Stone in 2003. “One thing I’ve found of people in the public eye,” he told the magazine, “either you’re a womanizer or you’ve got to be gay. Since I’m neither one of those, people are completely concerned about me.” He famously backpedaled on that assertion by coming out on the cover of People magazine in 2008.
He was restrained on the topic of LGBT rights during his congressional campaign, which he explained in a New Republic interview: “There are few if any LGBT issues which can be affected by a congressman from a federal level.” Ocamb points to the irony of his rallying for “at-risk kids, while de-gaying his campaign.”
And yet it’s too reductive to suggest that Aiken’s run against Ellmers was merely an attempt to lasso the limelight — or that it was divorced from a genuine commitment to social and political change. Since Idol, he’s advocated on behalf of special education and children. He co-founded the National Inclusion Project, which works to remove the stigma from kids with disabilities and integrate them into the larger world and educational contexts. In 2006, President George W. Bush appointed him to the Presidential Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities. He’s also served as a UNICEF national ambassador, where he’s crusaded for every child’s right to education in war-torn countries like Afghanistan and Uganda.
Ocamb, who enthusiastically followed and reported on Aiken’s run, thinks he has the political chops. “The fact that Clay is smart and knows his stuff is not in dispute,” she says. Hanna noted that when audiences tune in to the as-yet untitled docuseries, which will air sometime in early 2015, “People will see that Aiken is highly intelligent and deeply motivated and also politically savvy in a way you wouldn’t expect.”
Correction: A previous version of this article erroneously attributed feelings to fundraising event host Michael Corbett. He was not interviewed.