knows what you're thinking. He's heard the whispers. He's read the message boards. And he wants to say this: He's perfectly happy with his new look, thank you very much. "It's not Goth Clay," the singer says of the dark, longer hair he debuted on the American Idol
season finale last May, which he has since lightened. "I thought I should change it up a little bit instead of coming right back on the American Idol
stage and looking like I had never left." Still, he admits that when he watched the performance later, "it took me three or four weeks to really get used to it: 'This is me now.'"
This is definitely a far different Clay from the charmingly awkward, self-confessed "dork" who came in second on the second season of American Idol
in 2003. Nor is this the same newly minted pop star who made the rounds to promote his debut album, 2003's 2.6 million-selling Measure of a Man
. Dressed casually in jeans and a long-sleeved T-shirt and seeming more relaxed than ever, the 27-year-old Southern Baptist-bred singer is back with a new album of pop love song covers, A Thousand Different Ways
, which hit stores Sept. 19, and a new, if hard-won, perspective. "I learned this year that you can't make people like you or care about you or love you," he tells PEOPLE in his first major interview in over a year. "I'm becoming a man, not just with my hair"—he laughs—"but with my life. This year's been an education: the education of Clay."
Aiken openly acknowledges that the education has, at times, been painful. After leaving L.A. to return full-time to his hometown of Raleigh, N.C., he has found himself yanked back into the spotlight as the subject of relentless tabloid and online gossip about his sexuality. In January a tabloid ran a story in which a former Green Beret claimed that he had had an affair with Aiken. Then in March, Webcam photos surfaced in which a man who looked like Aiken performed a striptease on a site for gay men. "The first thing was, 'That doesn't look like me,'" he says of his reaction to the photos, which quickly made the rounds online. "But then I thought, 'Well, a little bit.' But it's not. So I laughed at it. But what was different and what bothered me was that [the rumors] kept on. I would have friends over at the house who I went to high school with and there was always like this little gorilla in the room."
The gorilla—or elephant, choose your own metaphor—became "harder and harder to ignore," Aiken says of the is-he-or-isn't-he speculation about his sexuality. "[It was there] every time I turned around. The elephant in the room probably followed me to the mall and the grocery store."
During that time, did anyone ever simply ask him, "Are you gay?" "No," says Aiken. "Nobody said it. I think because people who are with me, people who know me best, even fans, they know, you know, who I am. They know what's true."
When he is asked, Aiken doesn't answer the question directly. "What do you say [to that question]? You know what it's like? It's like when I was 8. I remember something would get broken in the house, and Mom and Dad would call me in and say, 'Did you do this?' Well, it didn't matter what I said. The only thing they would believe was yes. I used to think, 'Why would they ask? They think I did it. It doesn't matter what I say.' That is what I've discovered. It doesn't matter what I say. People are going to believe what they want."
Why didn't he respond to the tabloid reports? "I guess it goes along with something my mom has told me growing up my entire life. I could try and go on the defensive and attack back or I could leave it alone. I think certain people and certain magazines have gotten enough publicity. I have always been told to let the negative stuff fall away."
His friends say that Aiken was surprisingly unbothered by the rumors. "He is really resilient," says his Raleigh roommate Kristy Barnes, 28, who also serves as president-COO of the singer's nonprofit Bubel/Aiken Foundation, which creates inclusion programs for special-needs kids. "Believe it or not, he gets over things very quickly." Still, she notes, "he was a little bit drained by [the gossip]." How does Aiken's mom, Faye Parker, 60, handle the constant scrutiny of her son? "My mother has had a tough life," says Aiken, referring to his mother's divorce from his biological father, Vernon, who Aiken says was abusive. (He died in '04.) "She's a tough lady. Tougher than I am sometimes. I think what bothers her more than anything is the fact that I have to deal with it. It's her son. I don't like having crap spread about me to everybody. But I've kind of unfortunately come to know that it's part of what I'm doing."
It wasn't always that way. When he first hit it big on Idol
, "I had no idea how famous I was," he says of his fan base, the unapologetically enthusiastic Claymates. "We're cloistered in that house. The first thing that happened to me when I walked out of that house is whoosh! People bombard you." Before long, the attention overwhelmed Aiken to the point where he began having panic attacks. "I'd walk into a room and say to myself, 'I am not going to have a problem when these people stare at me," says the singer. "I knew I wasn't going to get attacked. No one was going to hurt me. But then [in] that situation, my heart would start pumping, and I'd start sweating and looking around nervously and shaking. I felt like I was going to have a heart attack. I'd tell my friend, 'We gotta go.' And then I'd get out of the room and say to myself, 'What is your problem?'"
Coupled with the stress from the gay rumors, Aiken finally decided to seek help from his doctor. "I said, 'Listen, I don't want to go to a therapist. I have nothing against therapists. I want to think I can do this on my own,'" he recalls. "And she recommended that I try a medication." He began taking the antianxiety drug Paxil, though he has not seen a counselor. "I'm just stubborn," he says of his decision not to seek therapy. "Nobody in my family has. We're tough Southerners."
Since starting the medication, "I can focus on what I have to do," says Aiken. "Now I can sit here; I can go into a store; I can handle a photo shoot," he says. "I'm able to get rid of all that stuff in the periphery. It makes everything easier." On the flip side, he says the medication has at times made him feel detached: When his stepbrother Brett, 20, left for Iraq in July, "I was trying to make myself cry, and I couldn't," he says. "I started thinking, 'Do I not have emotions anymore?' It was kind of weird for me."
But Aiken says the trade-offs are worth it. When he wasn't recording his new album—on which he cowrote one tune—the singer was settling back into life in his home state, where he relaxes with pals and his border terriers Raleigh and Durham, and tries not to miss his favorite show, The Office
. In Raleigh, "everybody is family," he says. "They don't give a flying turd how many albums I've sold." And he continues to be active with his children's charities: In addition to the Bubel/Aiken Foundation, which began as an outgrowth of his degree in special education from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Aiken is a UNICEF ambassador and traveled to Uganda last year on behalf of the organization.
Although he is single—"Not found love yet," he says—he has his mind on fatherhood. "I want to be a father so badly," he says. "I want [kids] one day. Not now." Would he consider adopting? "I would love to adopt, yes. There's an orphanage not too far from my house, and I've been up before with church. I always thought, 'What happens to those kids who have the potential to go to college but just can't afford it?' I've been thinking a lot lately about finding a way to pay for one of those kids to go to college."
For now, Aiken is simply focused on finding the calm at the center of a gossip storm that is unlikely to go away any time soon—and on continuing his own education. "I'm more content," he says of the changes brought by the past year. "I really hope and I really want to believe that it's me and not the medicine. That's what I'm going to figure out."