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,”

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