Since She’s Been Gone

Three years after her we-can’t-believe-we-were-crying-too American Idol moment, Kelly Clarkson’s new reality looks a lot like her old one in Burleson.
Clarkson photographed on February 17 in Los Angeles.
Photograph by Jeff Lipsky

Only three years ago Kelly Clarkson was working part-time for Red Bull, the energy-drink company, driving around in a little car that had an oversized Red Bull can attached to the top of it, passing out free drinks at places where young people liked to gather. She made $13 an hour. Not bad, but Clarkson didn’t hesitate to tell her customers that she had other plans. Her goal, said the recent graduate of Burleson High School, was to become a major recording artist. The customers would nod and smile encouragingly. Clarkson was five feet three inches tall, cute but not a knockout. She had a rather round face, and she didn’t look particularly sexy in a midriff-baring shirt. When she was passing out Red Bulls at Joe Pool Lake, a popular hangout outside Fort Worth, she sometimes sang to whatever song was blaring from someone’s stereo, and she sounded good. But what were people supposed to say? “Oh, yeah, you’re on your way”? She was getting out of her Red Bull car and singing at Joe Pool Lake.

Then, one day that summer, she showed up in Dallas to audition for the first American Idol, whose premise was little more than a hastily recycled version of the British reality- TV hit Pop Idol: Three judges would critique the singing of each contestant, and the television viewers would vote for their favorite performer by calling an 800 number. “What the heck,” said Clarkson. And a few months later, she won. She won the whole damn thing, including a $1 million recording contract with RCA Records. Twenty million people watched the final episode, in which tears streamed down her face as she sang “A Moment Like This,” a melodramatic ballad written just for the show. Still, though Kelly Clarkson was suddenly a household name, it wasn’t supposed to last. That’s the nature of reality television. You become a star on a show, you make some headlines, and then along comes another show and, like so many Colby Donaldsons and Bill Rancics, you’re forgotten. According to the music critics, Clarkson would be back in her Red Bull car very, very soon. And why shouldn’t they have made such claims? Nobody else had ever parlayed a stint on reality television into something substantive.

But now it’s 2005, and Clarkson is still making records. Her second album, Breakaway, is one of the best-selling albums in the country. It has already sold more than two million copies, and two of its singles, “Breakaway” and “Since U Been Gone,” are in the top ten on the Billboard mainstream radio airplay chart. She is everywhere: performing at awards shows, at halftime at the Orange Bowl, and at nationally televised concerts before the Super Bowl and the NBA All-Star Game. And any notions that she would be fading away soon seemed to disappear in February, when she landed the musical guest spot on Saturday Night Live. It wasn’t just that she was a guest on the kind of show that you would expect to lampoon an American Idol contestant. It was that when Clarkson was introduced, the host, actor Jason Bateman, didn’t say, “Ladies and gentlemen, your American Idol, Kelly Clarkson.” He simply said, “Ladies and gentlemen, Kelly Clarkson.”

In other words, Kelly Clarkson has accomplished something no other reality- television veteran—no survivor, no apprentice, no bachelorette, no amazing racer—has been able to pull off. She’s become a legitimate star. What’s more, no one else from any subsequent American Idol, a show that does require genuine talent, has been able to match Clarkson’s success. So how did it happen?

Once Kelly realized the door had been cracked open for her , she reared back and kicked it wide open,” says Jeff Rabhan, a manager at the Firm, the Los Angeles agency that handles Clarkson’s career. But that’s just her management talking, and it doesn’t explain Clarkson’s more surprising feat: While all the other highly managed pop tarts of her generation—Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Jessica and Ashlee Simpson, to name a few—have learned to rely on the paparazzi and their tabloidish personal relationships to sell albums, Clarkson has remained a star despite acting, well, normal.

In fact, when I first meet Clarkson, she is sitting in a photographer’s studio in Venice, the Los Angeles neighborhood right next to the beach, wolfing down some pasta before she has to go behind a curtain to get dressed for a photo shoot. She is wearing a loose-fitting T-shirt, white capri pants, flip-flops, and a black-and-white-checked hat, the kind that former Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant used to wear on the sidelines. There is not a stitch of makeup on her face.

Kelly,” calls out a woman from the other side of the room. It’s Emma, Clarkson’s wardrobe consultant, a member of what an executive from RCA Records describes as “Kelly’s glam squad.” Besides Emma, another young RCA-hired woman is there to do Clarkson’s hair and makeup.

How’s this?” Emma says to Clarkson, holding up a black dress.

Usually, the process of choosing an out fit for a celebrity photo shoot lasts about as long as an Oscars telecast. The celebrities and their handlers fret over the meaning of the outfit and what image it conveys. Arguments ensue. Dozens of outfits are tried on and discarded before one is finally chosen. Clarkson, however, looks at the dress Emma is holding for maybe five seconds. “Great!” she says before turning back to her lunch. “Love it!”

Sitting across the table from her is her brother, Jason, who’s 31, a congenial teddy bear of a guy Clarkson hired last year to be her personal assistant. Jason not only lives with Kelly, but he also drives her to all of her appointments, flies with her to concerts, deals with the phone calls from her managers and agents, and handles her fan mail: thousands upon thousands of letters that he keeps in boxes in his bedroom.

I ask Jason what he did before working for his sister.

I was living in

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