updated 09/19/2006 AT 4:00 PM ET
•originally published 09/20/2006 AT 7:30 AM ET
Clay Aiken is no longer the charmingly awkward, self-confessed “dork” who came in second on 2003’s second season of American Idol. He has a new look, a new album – A Thousand Different Ways, which hit stores Tuesday – and some new, hard-won wisdom.
“I learned this year that you can’t make people like you or care about you or love you,” the 27-year-old, Southern Baptist-bred singer, whose 2003 debut album Measure of a Man sold 2.6 million copies, tells PEOPLE in an exclusive interview.
“I’m becoming a man, not just with my hair,” he says, laughing about his darker, longer ‘do, “but with my life. This year’s been an education: the education of Clay.”
He’s also aware of what people have been saying about him this year, and in the new issue of PEOPLE (on newsstands Friday), he addresses rumors about his sexuality and more. Here’s a preview:
On whether he’s gay: “What do you say (to that question)? 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. People are going to believe what they want.”
On the panic attacks he suffered after Idol: “I’d walk into a room and say to myself, ‘I am not going to have a problem when these people stare at 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.”
On taking the anti-anxiety drug Paxil: “I said (to my doctor), ‘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.’ And she recommended that I try a medication. Now I can sit here; I can go into a store; I can handle a photo shoot. I’m able to get rid of all that stuff in the periphery. It makes everything easier.”
On the future: “I want to be a father so badly. I want (kids) one day. Not now. I would love to adopt. 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 more on this story, pick up PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.