American Dreamers

By Jessica Shaw
December 26, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST

The stars of American Idol 2 are one of our Entertainers of the Year

Just ask stylists, choreographers, and P. Diddy’s umbrella carrier: If you want to rock the pop charts, image is everything. Now take a look to your right. A year ago, these two had nothing.

Think back to the first time you saw Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken audition for the American Idol troika of terror (a.k.a. Simon, Randy, and Paula): Ruben resembled an overstuffed Care Bear, and Clay, all bushy eyebrows and glasses, looked like he had just received a wedgie backstage.

But when Clay and Ruben hit their notes, the other, prettier Idol contestants — from the scantily clad vixens (yes, you, Trenyce) to the G.I. Joe pinups (hello, Josh) — were rendered mute. ”Velvet Teddy Bear” Ruben made 205 jerseys the season’s must-have item, while ”Aiken for Clay” became a prepubescent mantra.

”In the past few weeks I’ve looked back at the early performances,” says Clay, 25. ”Every week I’m looking more and more different. I’d like to think I haven’t changed, but it’s pretty obvious my entire life has.” Even the shy and laconic Ruben becomes almost animated when recalling his Idol victory. ”Winning the show was the most exciting thing I’ve ever done,” says the 25-year-old. ”I got to meet Stevie Wonder this year. And he knew my song.”

Of course he did. If he’s like 22 million of us, his entire life revolved around Idol from January to May. Who did not tear up when big Ru let loose his inner Luther (and a quart of forehead sweat) with an ultra-smoove rendition of ”Superstar”? Or while listening to Clay’s goose-bump-inducing ”Bridge Over Troubled Water”?

The adulation translated into sales and industry accolades: Clay’s Measure of a Man debuted at No. 1 and has sold over 1.4 million copies, while Ruben grabbed a Grammy nom for ”Superstar.” Not that they’ll be scheduling make-out sessions with Madonna anytime soon. ”We’re still fish out of water,” says Clay, who checks in with Ruben twice a month. ”We’re just trying to swim in a new river.”