Clay Aiken's career is in the toilet.
''It smells like urine in here!'' says the American Idol runner-up as he strides into the cavernous bathroom -- complete with two stalls and a group shower -- that's serving as a makeshift office backstage at the Wachovia Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. ''I bet you've never done an interview in one of these before!''
Yep, it's a first on this end, but Aiken had better get used to the surroundings: Just hours before he's to take the stage as part of this summer's American Idols Live! concert tour, the potty is pretty much the only place he's safe. Around the corner lurks a throng of ''Claymates,'' as the most obsessed Aiken freaks call themselves -- including beaming moms, screaming daughters, and one 27-year-old therapist who had ''Clay'' permanently tattooed on the small of her back earlier in the day. When the arena lights go down, the 24-year-old special-ed teacher from Raleigh, N.C., is the performer who elicits the most earsplitting shrieks from the suburban crowd. As one oaktag sign in the cheap seats proclaims, ''Elvis, the Beatles, and now Clay.''
The correct progression might be more like ''The Monkees, O-Town, and now Clay,'' but we get the picture. At some point since the cheesy early Guarini-esque ballads, the ubiquitous Ford Focus commercials, and the sad-sack lone dance move (you know the one, the shoulder pump crossed with the knee bend), Aiken has become one of the most natural, confident, and addictive voices in contemporary pop music. And thanks to his Queer Eye-popping physical makeover and his show-stopping vocal range, he's emerged as the biggest star from Idol's second season. Earlier this summer, his debut release, ''This Is the Night''/''Bridge Over Troubled Water,'' shot straight to No. 1 on the Billboard charts, trounced the offering from American Idol winner Ruben Studdard by 200,000 copies, and became the fastest-selling single since Elton John's ''Candle in the Wind 1997.'' ''I was going to be a teacher or a principal,'' Aiken says of his pre-Idol plans. ''Thank Jesus I came back for the wild-card show!''
We'll give up a hallelujah as well. With the Backstreet Boys MIA and Justin Timberlake essentially an R&B artist, the world needs a new prince of pop. ''There's a lot of singers that have incredible instruments,'' says Steve Ferrera, RCA Records' senior vice president of A&R, who, along with mogul Clive Davis and Idol creator Simon Fuller, is helping to oversee Aiken's musical output. ''Clay is one of those rare singers who has the chops, but he's also able to make the connection to the lyric. So when some people might be just doing vocal histrionics, he's imbuing the lyric with passion and feeling.''
Although cuddly crooner Studdard won the right to release his CD first, the pair's labels, RCA and J Records, have now pulled a Rehnquist and reversed America's decision, opting to debut Aiken's album on Oct. 14, a month before Studdard's. ''It was with Ruben's blessing,'' insists a rep for both singers, adding that Studdard isn't finished recording yet. ''He didn't want to hold up Clay's record.'' That's the noncynical take. Here's another: Idol execs recognized they were wrong to throw so much weight behind Studdard during the competition. (Some speculated they did so because they were afraid to be put in the position of having to back Aiken, who was rumored to be gay. The singer has said he is straight.) Publicly, Idol judge Simon Cowell says marketing Aiken is a no-brainer. ''He is the clean-cut American boy, and he has the advantage of being able to appeal to 3-year-olds and 80-year-olds with pretty much pure pop music.'' Aiken's life story, which resonates with so many, is also a draw. ''If I was naming Clay's album, I'd call it The American Dream, because he encapsulates all of that,'' Cowell says. ''He is the American dream, which is the geeky little kid who went on to win over the hearts of America through a singing competition.'' (Start lobbying, Simon: Aiken has yet to decide on an album title.) The goal for today's hottest preteen pinup is to win over postpubescents who wouldn't know how to text-message Ryan Seacrest if their lives depended on it. ''We've definitely tried to take it a little edgier than what he sang on the show,'' says Ferrera, who connected Aiken with a posse of young, unknown songwriters. But don't expect him to stray far from his comfort zone. ''There are no up-tempos on this album,'' Ferrera says. ''But there are definitely some midtempo ballads.''