Few American Idols have gone on to single-name recognition, but Ruben Studdard remains, well, the only Ruben you probably know the name of.
After his victory over Clay Aiken on the 2003 season of Idol in its formative second year, Studdard never quite strayed from the show’s brand, particularly in the early years of its development as a cultural phenomenon. As the reality competition heads towards its long-awaited series finale on Thursday, Studdard looked back on his fondest — and perhaps not — memories of life at the center of the Idol firestorm.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You auditioned in season 2 when the show was still nascent in pop culture. What did you know about the show going in, and why did you audition?
RUBEN STUDDARD: I watched maybe two episodes the season prior and I only watched because my mom was really into this little girl from Georgia named Tamyra Grey who she fell in love with and [said] I needed to watch. But I was in a jazz band and I thought we were too cool for stuff like that. It was almost like anti what we were doing at home, and we just didn’t really dig it. We weren’t into the mainstream scene. But one of my background singers decided she wanted to audition for the show, and this is maybe months after Kelly [Clarkson] has won and everybody in America is in love with Kelly. So she asked me if I would go with her to the Atlanta auditions, and I kept telling her no. But she kept asking, so [I went] but I still didn’t decide whether it was going to be my scene or whether I would audition. We slept outside on the ground like everybody else did back in those first couple of years, and I remember deciding to audition when the producer kicked me, like, basically shook me in the morning and said, “Hey, are you auditioning?” And I was like, “Yeah. Why not?”
Wow. That was it?
Yeah, and it was one of those situations where I could tell this was a part of my destiny even though I didn’t want to participate. I mean, there was never any resistance from me in the process. As soon as I was auditioning, I was never nervous. It was all just fun for me. I sang Luther Vandross for the associate producer and I didn’t even think about it. I was just having fun. There were 20 of us in the room, and I’m the only one that gets picked out of those 20. When I met Nigel [Lythgoe] the first time, maybe two days after that, when he used to do the second round of auditions, I walked into the room and the first thing he said to me was, “Well, you don’t look like an American Idol.” And I didn’t think anything of it. I sang like five seconds, and he was like, “Oh, you’re through.” It was like that every step of the process — I knew I was in the right place.
What do you recall of meeting Simon, Randy, and Paula?
To be perfectly honest, I was more nervous to see Paula Abdul than anything. Because as a child, Paula was a huge pop star, so I remember that more than I ever knew who the bass player in Journey was or who wrote Mariah Carey’s songs. I grew more enamored with Randy when I got to know him, [but] not when I was walking in the room.
What did you see of the show beginning to rise in pop culture? Season 2 always seemed like the year the show went from a spark to a phenomenon.
It was definitely pandemonium. I think after Kelly won, everybody was hungry for that thing that made her who she was. I think people were apprehensive that first season, but when we came along, it was like, “Okay, we’re in.” And it was so weird coming to the show and seeing, at any given time, everybody you’ve ever seen on television would be in the audience watching you with their kids.
How about the fans?
I remember how crazy it was driving up to the CBS lot where they tape the show and seeing people wrapped around the block waiting for tickets to get in. And they keep us in such a bubble that you can’t really understand until one day you roll the window down. Folks just went crazy.
What sticks out to you about your fellow contestants from your season?
The thing about our season is that all of us got close really fast. We fought like siblings and we got over it really quickly. And the way the show was at that point, I feel like they kind of fostered that situation. Because the producers didn’t really understand what they had either. It was a big learning curve on our season, for the whole gamut. Everybody involved in the show learned more about what to do and what not to do with our season. Like, we couldn’t use cell phones at the dinner table. It was really like we were made to act like we were family members, so it carried over.
What characterized your dynamic with Clay as you ran that race together?
I met him in our Hollywood audition. One of my fraternity brothers had made it to Hollywood, too, so I was excited we would be able to hang out like we did in college. And he got cut the first day. So now my whole plan is shattered. So I go to the bar, like, man, I need to go get me a beer and just chill out. And I see this little skinny white dude at the table with six of the most beautiful women I have ever seen in my life. So I’m like, “Who in the hell is this dude by himself with all these girls?!” And so I went over and introduced myself, like, “Yo, what’s up, man, you need some help at the table?” And he’s like, “Hi, I’m Clay Aiken.” We’ve been really cool ever since.
What was your relationship with him like after the finale?
When I think of the finale, I think that both Clay and I were so tired that we really didn’t care who won. I’m sure [the show’s winners today] are tired now, but their workload is totally shrunk compared to the work we did. We used to have to do five commercials and four singles and do the show and record albums and do photo shoots for magazines every week. It was a non-stop schedule.
Did you continue watching the show after you won?
Kelly and I, I don’t think we could really detach ourselves as just artists from the show until maybe Carrie Underwood’s season, because we were always coming back. When Fantasia was on, Kelly and I were coming back. We all did an Idol Christmas special like three years in a row. And then, there was American Juniors, so we were always on that set, which is kind of hard because there really wasn’t any life away from Idol because we were always around it. I didn’t stop going to finale until I think Jordin Sparks’ finale. But for me, it was good because it always kept you present in people’s faces. To me, there is no downside to being associated with American Idol. It definitely has been a blessing for me. I’ve been able to do a job for 14 years now that I’ve always wanted. I’m on the road, I perform, I do shows every weekend because of that show.
What’s the biggest legacy the show leaves behind, and perhaps a smaller legacy we might not even realize?
The biggest thing that you could see is its impact on the music industry as a whole. And I could just take my season as an example. You have four people from that season that had No. 1 singles. Four people from one season of one television show that had number one singles. You had two people from one season that had multi-platinum albums. And you can go season upon season of that show where that is a tangible reality, that other shows haven’t been able to copy. In a similar sense, you look at the economic impact that it’s had on several different ventures. People launch television shows in front of or behind American Idol. You look at the TV show landscape, at how many three-judge talent show or comedy show or any kind of show has come out using the same formula as Idol.
Will Idol ever really be gone?
Every good thing comes to an end, and I don’t think it will ever be gone away out of people’s memories because we’re still here. The products of this show will be around. So as long as there is a medium to listen to music, no matter how long ago it is, 200 years ago from now, somebody will be able to listen to “Sorry 2004” or “Flying Without Wings” or “Invincible” or a Kelly Clarkson song. The impact of the show will be felt forever.
A version of this story originally appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1408–1409, on newsstands Friday or available for purchase here.