Arsenio Hall won, but Clay Aiken is Celebrity Apprentice’s true winner

Clay Aiken lost his second national reality TV competition on Sunday, losing Celebrity Apprentice to Arsenio Hall, who joked that he was “Skinny Ruben” [Studdard]. Both were deserving finalists and either would have been a satisfying winner, and their friendship throughout the competition made it even more rewarding. Still, I think Clay Aiken was the real winner.

The win itself is meaningless—except for the $250,000 for the winner’s charity, which isn’t insignificant, of course, but a nice addition to what they already earned. As part of the final task, Arsenio Hall raised $167,100 for the Magic Johnson Foundation, while Clay Aiken raised $301,500 for his National Inclusion Project. Yet Trump chose Arsenio.

First, a preface about the actual decision: Celebrity Apprentice finales are the weakest part of the show, which is odd because the penultimate episode is usually one of the strongest (it’s entirely task-focused and Donald Trump is not present). But the finale, ugh: The weak reunion of fired celebrities. Donald Trump rocking back and forth, acting like he cares about the questions someone wrote for him. The padding. The live audience’s laughter over the taped segments. And worst of all is Trump’s decision, which typically makes less sense than usual, or perhaps that’s just what I think because the person I like usually doesn’t win. He didn’t even offer any rationale on Sunday.

That said, it did seem obvious even last week that Clay would lose, regardless of the amount of money he raised. In the final task, he chose/was saddled with some of this season’s problem children, primarily Aubrey “I did everything” O’Day and Debbie “My ego is so fragile if you simply ask me a question I shall cry” Gibson. (Debbie did own her bad behavior though, so props to her; Aubrey, of course, will never know.) And Trump just seemed to be gravitating toward Arsenio these last few weeks.

But here’s why Clay wins, in all other senses of the term: He didn’t care about his old image, nor creating a new one. He was just himself, and while it wasn’t a brand-new persona, it was surprising.

As a result, he transcended the image of the sweet, shy singer/runner-up who has a rabid fan base of middle-aged women, some of whom would jump on any perceived slight and protect their guy (some of them still do that). He’s still an amazing singer and someone who cares a great deal about others and his charity, but he also isn’t pandering to anyone.

The big surprise is that the actual person who emerged is funny, intelligent, competent, and committed—and not afraid to do or say things that could possibly alienate some fans. He didn’t shy away from conflict during the season, embraced being controlling during the final task, and earned the respect of his fellow teammates because and/or despite that. He was, above all else, honest and genuine.

“We’re now at plan F for ‘fucked,’” Clay said during the second-to-last episode, and in another interview, he actually said, “So fuck Arsenio.” Laughing, he added, “Can you use that?” He also can laugh at himself, like when Lisa Lampenelli made an anal sex joke (“achin’”) about him during her set at the final charity event.

This from the guy who is still well-known enough to interrupt a kid’s baseball game while looking for a shooting location during a task and have the irritated coach/dad do a 180 when he realizes: “Oh my god! I voted for you.”

Clay didn’t emerge from his previous image because he’s willing to say “fuck” on national television, but can you imagine 2002 Clay Aiken saying “fuck” during or post-American Idol? Or can you imagine 2012 Clay Aiken saying “fuck” if he was trying to get something out of Celebrity Apprentice—even attention and cash for his charity? Arsenio admitted he wants a talk show, and hopes the platform will help him get it; even if Clay has similar ambitions, and there’s nothing wrong with that, it never came across.

What we saw instead was, perhaps for the first time on national TV, a non-constructed version of Clay Aiken. He emerged from his American Idol box but didn’t climb into a new one.

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