'Idol' rivals Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken are keeping the magic alive. See them in Phoenix

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It’s been 20 years since Ruben Studdard squeaked by Clay Aiken to win Season 2 of “American Idol.”

That season finale remains the most-watched episode in “Idol” history and the highest-rated regularly scheduled, live, non-sporting television episode of the 21st century with 38.1 million viewers.

It was kind of a big deal.

That’s why Studdard and Aiken are headed to Phoenix with Twenty | The Tour for a show at the Orpheum Theatre to celebrate their anniversary.

Well, that and the fact that they formed more of a friendship than a rivalry on their way to the finals, where Studdard prevailed by a margin of 134,000 votes of the 24 million total.

We caught up with Aiken and Studdard to discuss the tour, the “rivalry” that never was and more.

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How it feels to be celebrating 20 years since 'American Idol'

How does it feel to be out there celebrating 20 years since the two of you did ‘’American Idol” together?

Studdard: It feels absolutely amazing to know that I’m 20 years older than I was on “American Idol” (laughs).

Aiken: We do move a little slower (laughs). It’s crazy. Ruben pointed out to me that it was coming up on 20 years about a year or so ago and I don’t think that I had even comprehended what that meant. It sort of feels like it was yesterday to some degree. And to think about just how long 20 years really is, it’s a little mind-blowing and a little bit humbling, too.

We’ve been lucky enough to keep doing this 20 years later and a lot of people have not had that luxury in their careers, so we feel really good about that.

What brings Ruben Studdard and Clay Aiken back together

This isn’t the first time you have worked together since the show. What do you think keeps bringing you back together?

Studdard: I honestly think it’s the response from the fans. They really enjoy the nostalgia of it all and the opportunity to see us on stage together.

Aiken: That and it’s easy. And by easy, I mean it's easy because we’ve known each other 20 years. We’ve been close friends for 20 years. We’ve done one other tour together, a Broadway show and now this second tour together. It’s very easy when you work with someone you know and can trust.

There’s certainly comfort in not having to carry the whole burden of a show on your own. But it’s even easier and more fun when you know there’s a natural chemistry.

The idea of a Studdard-Aiken rivalry

You guys are obviously friends. When it came down to just the two of you on “Idol,” though, there had to be a sense of competition. Was there a rivalry?

Studdard: I mean, you know, I think the competitive nature of the show, I only felt during the earliest moments of the show, when we were in those large groups. Once we were in the group of people that made it to the house, so to speak, it took on a family atmosphere.

Aiken: Also, I can say emphatically that very last week of the show, when it was just the two of us, I would argue that was possibly the least competitive any of us had been. At that point, I think we both felt that we had made it to the end. We were gonna be on every episode of the season.

But there were also no stakes to Season 2 in the way I think there were for other seasons. When Fantasia showed up for her audition, she had seen Kelly sell her album very successfully. She had seen our season air to 40 million people in its finale. People who came into Season 3 and 4 and beyond, they knew what “Idol” could do for them and what was at stake if they were successful.

When Ruben and I and all of us on our season auditioned, we didn’t have the benefit of that information. We auditioned for a show that had gotten 9 million viewers the season before. And we all thought this would be a fun thing to do, that we might make some contacts and might get to make an album. And then we might go home.

Do you remember when you met? Did you immediately bond?

Aiken: (laughs uproariously) Ruben and I bonded over, I think, the fact that we were so similar. (Laughs). No, I’m kidding. We’re so different.

But we both had a strong affection for our home states. He was telling me all the people who were from Birmingham. I was telling him all the things that were great about Raleigh. And we just kind of competed back and forth with each other about that and that built a friendship.

But like Ruben’s been saying, there was something about that season. Season 2 is the only season where everybody lived in a house together. We roomed with each other, ate dinner together. Everything was done together. All subsequent seasons, they had hotel rooms or little apartments and lived their own separate lives. We shared everything.

Yes, there's a Season 2 Facebook chat group. And a text group

Have you stayed in touch with other people from that season?

Studdard: We’ve stayed in touch with everybody. We have our own little Facebook chat group and text chat group for everybody from the Top 12.

Aiken: Julie DeMato, who was in our season, she’s already been to this show. Vanessa Olivarez, who was in the Top 12 with us, she’s coming to the Nashville show. They all come when they are able to. And we stay connected pretty regularly. Unfortunately we lost one of our brothers from the show a few years back to a car accident, Rickey Smith. And we all flew to Oklahoma to be together for that funeral with his family. It is a family, that group of 12. We both know other people from other seasons, obviously, professionally or more, but we have really stayed connected to our core group.

It sounds like you have nothing but good memories of that show.

Studdard: Absolutely. It was one of the fondest times of my life. I liken it to my experience in college, playing football. It was just with music. So it was very memorable. A lot of work but well worth it.

Aiken: I tell people all the time if we could eliminate that little piece of Wednesday where we had to worry about being cut, I would’ve done everything we did on “Idol” and enjoyed it for the rest of my life. I just really had fun with it. It was exhausting, but we had a great time.

Did either of you have a week where you thought for sure you were gonna be cut?

Studdard: I was in the bottom two once, so I had a week where I definitely thought I would be cut.

Aiken: For me, it was every week (laughs). I actually didn’t end up in the bottom two, but every week, I thought I would go home. I was sure.

The show aired at 5 p.m. on the West Coast, so we’d do dress rehearsal in the early afternoon and for the very first time all week, we’d get to see the other people sing their song. And I would sit there and listen to Rickey sing his song. Or Trenyce. Or Kim Locke sing. And I’d think, “Oh my God, (I'm) going home. There’s no way.” We had so many good people on that season.

And we did not realize that people were watching this show. There were 9 million people watching it the season before. And it sort of blew up while we were sequestered in our Idol house. We had no idea that people were watching and certainly didn’t realize that people who were watching it were liking the two of us as much as they did.

I know you said that by the time you made the finals, you felt you’d already won. But Clay, what did you think when Ryan announced that Ruben had won?

Aiken: (laughs) Well, here’s the breaking news that isn’t news anymore. I actually saw the card before he said Ruben’s name. We were standing backstage. So I had seen it. By mistake. Ryan had turned it around and looked at it and I looked over his shoulder and saw.

So I expected it. I knew what was gonna happen. And if you go back and look at the show, I’m staring right at Ruben when he announces the winner because I wanted to see Ruben’s face when he won. And Ruben, I’m sure, is thinking “Why the hell won’t you back up, man?”

What fans can expect from the Clay Aiken and Ruben Studdard tour

Tell me about this tour and what fans can expect.

Studdard: It is a wonderful night of great music. And I say that because on the show, in particular, we got an opportunity to sing songs from I think America’s greatest songwriters. So what we’re doing is trying to bring that same energy to our live show.

Aiken: Something about “Idol” for not just us but the audience that watched it 20 years ago was you could turn it on with family and sing along with the songs. I tell people at our stage show every night, I didn’t know who the Bee Gees were until “Idol,” which is a little embarrassing, even to this day. I didn’t know who they were, but I knew their music.

So the music “Idol” brought to audiences in their living rooms every week was stuff that everyone knew, the biggest hits from the biggest songwriters. And we wanted to make sure we recreated that when we did this tour. We’ve tried to make the entire evening a flashback to 2003. The music as you’re walking into the theater and playing during intermission is all the hits from 2003.

And we tell the stories of what it was like on the show. We talk about how we chose the song, about the people we worked with, like Smokey Robinson, or how we got to record with Burt Bacharach. We tell some of those stories from behind the scenes, and we really just try to recreate as much of that magic from that year as we can.

Do each of you have a particular moment in the concert that you most look forward to?

Studdard: I can’t say that I do have a special moment. I enjoy all of it, honestly. And that’s not to say that other people don’t say that all the time, but I really do.

Aiken: When we sat down to put the show together, it was very much an organic situation. Ruben, myself and our music director, John Jackson, we all just kind of sat down and started talking. Ruben would start talking about a memory and I’d say “Oh, I remember this.” And then, we’d say “Oh we should do this song together.”

But at one point in the process, we started talking about music that inspired us growing up and somehow that detoured into boy bands. And we ended up deciding to put together this medley of boy-band songs but it's less about the songs than it is about me trying to dance. Which is never pretty.

Studdard: (Laughs)

Aiken: So I think that maybe is my favorite simply because I’ve just gotten to an age where I know I can own it, that I cannot dance at all, and we just both have a lot of fun with that part of the show.

Your fans were obviously deeply invested in seeing you win. How does that work with them coming together to cheer for both of you on this tour?

Aikens: It comes to blows every night in the audience (laughs).

Studdard: If you had asked us that question when we were on the “American Idol” tour, I would say they probably did have a couple of fights in the parking lot. Now, nobody cares. They really are just coming to have a good time.

Aiken: And they know. They know we’re friends. We play it up a lot. We joke about being competitive with each other. But we don’t feel that way. And our fans recognize that. I know my fans have grown to love Ruben and I think some of his fans like me a little bit too.

How to see Ruben & Clay in Phoenix

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 19.

Where: Orpheum Theatre, 203 W. Adams St., Phoenix.

Admission: $39-$69.

Details: 602-262-7272, etix.com.

Reach the reporter at ed.masley@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4495. Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, @EdMasley.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: 'American Idol' stars Ruben Studdard, Clay Aiken tour at Orpheum Theatre