'Who in the hell is this dude by himself with all these girls?!'
Credit: Chris Polk/FilmMagic

On their own, the individual names of American Idol winners can elicit a perfectly visceral reaction from the fans who voted them into fame, but the explosion of nostalgia grows tenfold when a winner is mentioned in conjunction with the runner-up they bested — and none more so than Ruben and Clay.

Ruben Studdard may have emerged the victor from the second season of Idol, but his neck-and-neck race with eventual runner-up Clay Aiken came to define the 2003 season. In fact, it’s arguably the most potent pairing in 15 years of the show (which signs off for the last time on April 7).

Studdard recently spoke with EW as part of our mega-sized Idol retrospective — see also Paula Abdul’s fan-fic horror stories or Ryan Seacrest’s genesis of those awful commercial breaks — and the 37-year-old shared the legitimately hilarious origin story of his relationship with Aiken, back before either of them truly recognized the three-legged-race they were about to run with each other.

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“I met him in our Hollywood audition,” Studdard tells EW. “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.’ ”

Studdard laughs, and continues: “We’ve been really cool ever since.”

Having only bested Aiken by about 134,000 votes (a paltry half-percent of the 24 million votes cast in the 2003 finale), Studdard goes on to describe life in the Idol fast lane as so overwhelming, it didn’t even matter who won. Probably.

“When I think of the finale, I think that both Clay and I were so tired that we really didn’t care who won,” he admits. “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.”

A version of this story originally appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1407, on newsstands now or available for purchase here.

Episode Recaps

American Idol

Ryan Seacrest hosts as Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan guide aspiring singers on their way to superstardom.

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