Clay Aiken Docuseries Premiering Tonight; 'Idol' Alum Promises "It's Not a Reality Show"

The series chronicling the singer's campaign for a North Carolina congressional seat debuts April 7 on Esquire Network.
Lightbox/Esquire Network

The political baptism of Clay Aiken will be explored with the premiere of the new docuseries The Runner-Up, premiering Tuesday night on Esquire Network.

Cameras followed the American Idol and Celebrity Apprentice alum as he campaigned for a North Carolina congressional seat in 2014 — from his initial days stumping door to door to the nail-biting drama leading to the results of the primary election.

Last month, Aiken — joined by producers Simon Chinn (Man on Wire, Searching for Sugar Man) and Jonathan Chinn (30 Days) — sat for a screening of the first episode at the Andaz hotel in New York City. The premiere, set for tonight at 10 p.m., showcases every step of the campaign — warts and all.

“This is our year,” Aiken told the town-hall audience. He joked that watching the show was like “going to summer camp and seeing the slide show at the end of the summer of all that you went through. This is probably the same, in a way, for us, but this is not anywhere near as fun as summer camp. I imagine the slide show will be a little less fun.”

Aiken promised everything the viewers will see is “real,” but it is not, in any way, “reality television.”

"It’s real, but it’s not a reality show in any way. Idol is its thing and I did Apprenticewhich is a reality show, but those are scripted,” he said. “The No. 1 rule for me when I agreed with them to do it was, 'Stay the hell out of my way. Don’t come asking me to do anything — if you missed it, you missed it. We are running a campaign, and you have got to get the heck away from us.' And they did that."

What the cameras did capture was Aiken, a Democrat, unfiltered. He curses like a sailor, micromanages his staff — a key example is when he obsesses over the proper way signs are displayed for oncoming traffic — and says some politically incorrect statements about his Democratic opponent, Keith Crisco, who attacked him in campaign advertisements, stating Aiken did not show up for meetings of a presidential committee for people with disabilities. Aiken also takes selfies on the campaign trail with unsuspecting voters who did not even realize he was running for office, records robocalls with his cellphone and stews over how publicity for his campaign is being run. All of this — and the tense moments awaiting primary results — is captured in four days' worth of footage. And that’s just the first episode.

“Clay is an engaging character. He swears a lot, he’s charming. He’s lots of things,” said Simon Chinn after the screening. “It was sort of an impossible journey with almost insurmountable odds. You know that is going to make high drama.”

Jonathan Chinn noted that shortly after Aiken announced his run for office, he thought, “This is not the Clay Aiken I imagined. He seemed sincere and quite articulate. His biggest concern was that having cameras around him would make it seem like he was capitalizing on his celebrity. He was clear if it felt like that at all, he had no interest in doing it.”

Aiken said that he decided to work with Jonathan and Simon because they framed the concept of the show in a way that appealed to him.

"Jonathan knew that the reason I ran in the first place was, I got a microphone and I could use it to speak up for people that don’t have a voice and talk about issues that were forgotten,” he said. “We made the point that this could be an extension of that, if I was going into places where people were being ignored, seeing how they lived and how ineffective government now is affecting them, we might be able to show something."

Also, he felt it was important for people to see that he really was serious about the campaign.

“I’m not naive at all. A lot of people heard I was running for Congress and said, ‘What the hell?’ We called it ‘What-the-F mountain' that we had to climb throughout this particular campaign. And I know we ran a serious campaign and a very good one in a very difficult, gerrymandered district."

What will surprise people, said Aiken, is that he really isn’t a competitive person, despite the fact that he's competed on two shows.

"I’m not a competitive person, which I think people will find incredibly ironic. It’s eye-opening. I think I learned more about myself this particular time than the other two things,” he said. “I [empathize] with any politician who is in it for what they believe is the right reason. I don’t always agree with them and their reasons, but those politicians that run — either Republican or Democrat — for positive reasons because they want to do better, I emphasize the pain that can come with it."

During the screening, Aiken covered his face while watching a scene where he said Crisco looked like he was at death’s door — a jarring statement, considering Aiken had no way of knowing Crisco would pass away from an accident shortly after the primary. As soon as Jonathan and Simon learned of Crisco’s passing, both hightailed it back to North Carolina and got Aiken’s reaction 24 hours after he found out.

“I learned about myself and human dynamics and what people will do when they are fighting for something. It was the first time I ever really felt competitive in my life, and I think it might have something to do with the fact that, when I was on Idol, I was competing for myself,” he said. “When I was on The Apprentice, I wasn’t competitive because I was competing, in a way, for myself. This time, to me, it was about competing for other people. I was trying to win, but I was winning for a purpose, and I found myself to be a lot more cutthroat when there was that kind of purpose."

That, however, is politics, and the remaining three episodes will have plenty of drama — Jonathan Chinn promised future episodes “get better” — as viewers get a fly-on-the-wall view of Aiken battling Republican incumbent Renee Ellmers.

“I hope that the things I am passionate about come through, and you get to see it,” said Aiken, who lists veterans' rights and income inequality as key issues.

Does Aiken have any plans to continue in politics, now that the election is over? "I don’t know if there is post-politics," answered Aiken. "We’ll see."