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Flashback to 2003 with Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken at Northern Quest on Sunday

Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard, who once competed head to head in the finals of “American Idol,” are now on tour together. The friends will perform Sunday night at Northern Quest Resort and Casino.  (Courtesy photo)
By Ed Condran The Spokesman-Review

Intense competition doesn’t often turn into friendship. However, Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard, who battled to win the “American Idol” competition in 2003, are so close that they refer to each other as brothers and are on tour belting out the songs they covered 20 years ago on the music reality program.

“We’re very good friends,” Aiken said while on the same line with Studdard in Kansas City. “We always have been. We enjoy each other’s company.”

It doesn’t matter that Studdard won the competition and Aiken placed second. “That’s just the way it went,” Aiken said.

The tandem are music’s odd couple. Studdard is a Black former college football player, who is straight. Aiken is a white, gay father of a young son.

“We became good friends and we’re still good friends with those who competed on ‘American Idol’ from 2003,” Aiken said. “We still have a text thread with everyone from ‘Idol’ 2003 but I was surprised that the singers from other years aren’t as close.”

Asked whether Aiken and Studdard knew of “Idol” reunions from other years, the latter laughed.

“Absolutely not,” Studdard said. “It was different for us than it was for those who competed in different years.”

Communal living was the reality for contestants during the first two seasons of “American Idol.” “We had our meals together and hung out since we lived in the same quarters,” Aiken explained. “There was simply no budget for it at the time.”

However, much changed in 2004 thanks to Season 2’s popularity. From 2004 on, “American Idol” competitors resided in apartments during their run.

Aiken, Studdard and the rest of the 2003 competitors were living all over each other. It’s surprising that cameras failed to capture their interaction under one roof a la MTV’s “Real World.”

“I think we would have been too boring for that,” Aiken said while giggling. “They worked us so hard that when we came back after a long day, we would eat and either play video games or sleep. But 2003 was a magical time for us.”

Aiken and Studdard have so much affection for what they experienced 20 years ago that they’re trying to replicate that period for their concert, which is slated for Sunday at Northern Quest Resort and Casino.

“We want people to go back in time and revel in nostalgia,” Aiken said. “We made a conscious effort to make the show as reminiscent of 2003 as possible. We chose not to sing songs we recorded after we left ‘American Idol.’ We hope to transfer fans back to those 16 weeks from 2003.”

Aiken and Studdard will share a stage and belt out duets but they will each perform songs solo which propelled them to the “American Idol” finals. Studdard will sing “Flying Without Wings” and “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” and Aiken will deliver “To Love Somebody” and “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down On Me.”

The duo will render “Boy Band” medleys and “Idol Mentor” medleys. “The best part of this show is that Ruben and I will be sharing a stage together,” Aiken said. “There’s no other singers who competed in the finals of American Idol doing a tour like this.”

Aiken and Studdard toured together in 2010 and had a Broadway run in 2018. “Playing Broadway was a lifelong dream for both of us,” Aiken said. “I’m just glad we can do this again. We both jumped at the chance to tour again. I know the fans love going back and reliving the past with us.”

The same goes for Aiken and Studdard, who enjoy reminiscing about the “American Idol” experience. “People always go on about how mean Simon (Cowell) was but he wasn’t mean,” Studdard said. “Simon was just honest and he was helpful. When the cameras were off, we all know how doting Paula (Abdul) was. She was so maternal but Simon was very nice.”

And there were the performance highlights. “I love looking back at the icons we got to learn and work with such as Gladys Knight, Lionel Richie and Diane Warren,” AIken said.

Both Aiken and Studdard both watch “American Idol,” which airs on ABC. However, the latest version of the show, is different than the program which aired on Fox during the 2000s. “That’s the way it is since America is not the same place as it was in 2003,” Aikeen said. “The world is always changing and the show has changed but that’s fine. We’re just trying to allow fans to go back to 2003 and relive some of those memories.”

An earlier version of this story misstated who won “American Idol” in 2003.