A 5-year-old Aiken makes his performing debut as the mascot at a Raleigh, N.C., high school dance. The kindergartener sings the song that Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton performed as a duet: "Islands in the Stream."
In his first headlining role, 16-year-old Aiken stars in his high school's production of Oklahoma!.
Studying to be a special-education teacher at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Aiken tries out in Atlanta for the second season of American Idol. Though the judges aren't crazy about his look – "Simon said, 'You don't look like a pop star,'" Aiken tells PEOPLE in 2006 – his rendition of "Always and Forever" is enough to get him to Hollywood.
Though he doesn't initially make the final 12, Aiken returns for the Wild Card show, eventually making it to the Idol final round. The judges still express concern over his image, so he loses his spiky hair and glasses. When the 24 million votes are counted, Aiken loses to Ruben Studdard by just 130,000 votes, less than 1 percent.
Aiken's second-place finish doesn't spoil his chances of success. Music exec Richard Sanders signs the singer to RCA after noticing what he tells Time is Aiken's "emotional connection" with the Idol audience. His single, "This Is the Night"/"Bridge Over Troubled Water," shoots straight to No. 1 on the Billboard chart and becomes the fastest-selling single since Elton John's "Candle in the Wind." Released the same day, Studdard's single "Flying Without Wings/Superstar" sells 100,000 fewer copies.
Aiken hits the road for the American Idols Live! tour. Entertainment Weekly notes that Aiken clearly elicits the most ear-splitting shrieks from the crowd. The magazine says that at a show in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., one fan holds a sign that says, "Elvis, the Beatles, and now Clay."
Partnering with Diane Bubel, the mother of an autistic boy he worked with in college, Aiken announces the Bubel/Aiken Foundation to develop educational programs for children with autism and other conditions that require special care. "His personality hasn't changed at all," Bubel, who gave Aiken the idea to try out for Idol, tells PEOPLE. "Clay hasn't gone Hollywood." In December, Aiken completes his bachelor's degree in special education.
Aiken's debut album Measure of a Man hits stores. It sells 613,000 copies its first week to become the third best debut of the year. "Clay has struck such a tremendous, responsive chord with the American public," music mogul Clive Davis tells PEOPLE. Aiken is also named one of PEOPLE's Sexiest Men Alive. "I [once] had a lady take her bra off during the tour show and throw it at me," he says to PEOPLE. But mostly, "women want to take care of me like I'm a little boy. They want to make sure that I'm fed well."
Aiken and fellow Idol alum Kelly Clarkson co-headline a 30-city tour dubbed "Independent". He sings material from his album Measure of a Man, while Clarkson gives knockout renditions of hits "A Moment Like This'' and "Miss Independent.'' "I've kind of gotten rid of all my nerves because of [Idol]," he tells PEOPLE. "You don't really get nervous anymore when you've been in front of millions of people."
Celebrating one of his favorite holidays, Aiken releases a Christmas album called Merry Christmas with Love, named for a song Aiken sang in his high-school choir. His first book, Learning to Sing: Hearing the Music in Your Life, also hits shelves. "It's a collection of stories about people who have taught me something," Aiken tells PEOPLE.
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): FAYE PARKER; FAYE PARKER; FOX; KEVORK DJANSEZIAN/AP; COREY LOWENSTEIN/THE NEWS & OBSERVER/AP; Lisa Rose/jpistudios; ERICA BERGER