Idol Under Attack

updated 05/16/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/16/2005 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Every installment of American Idol comes complete with its own set of mini-scandals—including this season's phone number mix-up and revelations about the checkered histories of contestants Bo Bice and Scott Savol. But it is a ghost of Idol past—second-season finalist Corey Clark—who seems poised to give the show its biggest jolt yet. Booted in 2003 by producers for what they said was his failure to reveal a prior arrest, Clark, 24, is now back in the spotlight with claims that he says expose FOX's megahit as rife with inappropriate romantic entanglements and manipulated-for-TV situations. Openly angry at the show he believes has tried to ruin his reputation, Clark—who, perhaps not coincidentally, plans to release his debut album in June—says he is finally telling his side of the story "to clear my name up. I am just setting my record straight."

Not surprisingly, the true record of events is proving highly contested. At the heart of Clark's allegations is his claim that as an Idol finalist he had a three-month affair with judge Paula Abdul, 42, which he believes ultimately led to his dismissal from the show—but not before, says Clark, Abdul coached him on how to win, including buying him clothes and helping him choose songs. In response, Abdul has come out swinging: A statement from her spokesperson accuses Clark of "communicating lies about Paula Abdul in order to generate interest" in a tell-all book proposal he is shopping to publishers. (There are no takers as yet.) Further, Idol producers issued this statement to PEOPLE: "Corey Clark was removed from the show for failing to disclose his criminal arrest history.... We recommend that the public carefully examine Mr. Clark's motives, given his apparent desire to exploit his prior involvement with American Idol for profit and publicity. We will, of course, look into any evidence of improper conduct that we receive."

But the tempest surrounding Clark's allegations—which extend well beyond Abdul—could grow. In a highly promoted May 4 special, ABC's Primetime Live was set to air a taped phone message Abdul left for Clark encouraging him not to talk to the press.

Among Clark's other sensational charges: that Kimberley Locke, 27, the 2003 season's second runner-up, was carrying on a relationship with executive producer Nigel Lythgoe's son (and fellow Idol producer) Simon. In a statement to PEOPLE, Locke did not confirm the relationship but said, "Any relationship I had with anyone involved in the series started after the competition ended." Clark also claims that amid his alleged affair with Abdul, he had one-night stands with an unnamed female Idol staffer and a fellow Top 12 finalist. (She denies it.)

Among one of the few uncontested facts: Clark auditioned for Idol in Nashville in November 2002 and made the cut. On Dec. 13, amid the next round of auditions in L.A., he says he was encouraged by a producer to go out partying with a group of fellow contestants. "He said, 'If you take these guys out, we will pay for everything. It's all good,' " says Clark. The group ended up at a nearby strip club, and the next day he says the incident was used as fodder to add drama to the show, with Simon Cowell admonishing the group on air: "Stop wasting my time."

Immediately after, Clark says, he was approached in secret by a woman who identified herself as "a friend of some people on the show," who he says gave him a paper with Abdul's phone numbers on it, telling him that Abdul wanted to help him.

Certainly Abdul's reputation as the most supportive of the Idol judges is no secret. But Clark says that what happened next between him and Abdul went well beyond a mentoring relationship. A day after getting the note, Clark says, he made his first call to Abdul, using a hotel pay phone so the call couldn't be traced. "I knew it was wrong from the time she gave me her number," he says. "That's why I called from a pay phone. I didn't want the show to know." When he reached her, "she said, 'I want to help you out. I want to look after you like your mom. Well, more like your sister. Well, more like your special friend,' " says Clark. "When she said 'special friend,' I was like, 'Yeah, okay. I want to be your special friend too.' "

Thus began, claims Clark, a three-month romance that he contends turned sexual in January 2003. Clark says he was unfazed by their 18-year age difference: "Older women have always been attracted to me." During their affair, he claims that he spent most nights at Abdul's Studio City home, where he says a typical evening involved ordering take-out food and watching the preliminary taped rounds of Idol on TV. Clark also says that Abdul began taking an active role in shaping his image, treating him to several $500 shopping sprees at the ritzy L.A. boutique Fred Segal to buy "jeans, shirts, hats, shoes," he says. He also says she advised "that my hair hung over my eyes on TV a lot" and that she enlisted her personal hairdresser, Daniel Combs, to style him—a claim Combs refutes. "I never cut his hair," Combs told PEOPLE.

Clark's mother, Jan, 46, the manager of a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Nashville, says she learned of her son's alleged affair soon after it began. "I didn't like it," she says. But, she says, "Corey is an adult, so Corey obviously can make his own choices."

In numerous interviews with PEOPLE, no one connected to Idol or Clark could confirm witnessing firsthand any romantic behavior between Clark and Abdul. But several of Clark's friends and family members do back up his claims that he spent time at Abdul's house and spoke frequently with her on the phone during his Idol run, often late in the evening. (Phone records provided by Clark to PEOPLE and ABC News confirm this.)

During their initial meeting, Clark says, Abdul warned him against revealing personal information to show staffers, including the show's psychiatrist, with whom contestants were encouraged to meet. "She called them 'juicers'—they were going to juice information out of us [to give to producers]," he says.

It was also early on, says Clark, that he confided in Abdul that just one month before auditioning for Idol, he had been arrested in Topeka, Kans., during an incident involving an argument with his younger sister (see box). He says that when he told Abdul about the situation, "she said, 'Don't tell the show anything. They will just twist it up and put it out on you.' "

As the second season wore on, Clark says, his relationship with Abdul intensified. Even when the Top 12 finalists moved into the Idol mansion and were put under stricter security, "I would sneak out and see her," says Clark. "She helped me pick my songs." In one instance, "I chose 'Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog' ['Joy to the World'], and she said, That's not going to work,' " he says. "She picked some stuff from Terence Trent D'Arby because she was a fan of his."

Meanwhile, Clark's frequent absences did not go unnoticed. "I did think it was really odd that Corey was always gone," says fellow Top 12 finalist Trenyce.

Clark's Idol roller coaster came to a screeching halt on March 31, 2003, when the Smoking Gun Web site published his arrest record. The next day he was booted from the show, with producers saying he had lied about the incident on his Idol application. Clark believes the real reason for his dismissal was that producers had learned of his relationship with Abdul. In the statement given to PEOPLE by Idol producers, they respond, "Despite documented procedures and multiple opportunities for contestants to raise any concerns they may have, the producers...were never notified or contacted by Mr. Clark, nor presented any evidence concerning his claims."

Clark says that after his dismissal from the show, Abdul, then a special correspondent for Entertainment Tonight, requested an interview with him. When he declined, "she left me hanging high and dry," he says. He also blames Abdul for not coming to his defense. "[Considering] how deeply involved we were...[she] could very well go out there and say, 'Corey Clark is nothing like they say he is,' " he says.

At the same time, he says, he is not out to hurt Abdul, noting that he kept quiet for two years and rebuffed offers from various tabloids to sell his version of events. Why speak out now? "The only person to look out for me is me," he says. "I've got to make sure Corey Clark is all right."

Michelle Tauber and Jill Smolowe. Beverly Keel in Nashville, Lauren Comander and Cindy Dampier in Chicago and Oliver Jones, Monica Rizzo and Cynthia Wang in Los Angeles

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