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.

Alaska, working as an electrician and running a part-time janitorial service,” he says. “Then I went through a divorce, and Kelly said come on down, she had something for me to do.”

You know,” I say to Clarkson, “there are people in L.A. who are professional personal assistants, all of them very good with Palm Pilots and Day-Timers and that sort of thing.”

Good Lord!” she says. “You really think I’d hire someone like that?”

Clarkson lives not far from the photographer’s studio in a two-bedroom apartment, close to the Pacific Ocean. She sleeps in one of the bedrooms. Jason sleeps in the other bedroom. Clarkson’s childhood friend Ashley Donovan, who used to work with her as a ticket-taker at the movie theater in their hometown of Burleson, sleeps on a mattress in the cramped upstairs loft.

Because Clarkson doesn’t cook, there is almost nothing in the refrigerator except bottled water and packaged turkey. In the freezer are frozen grapes, which she likes to suck on whenever she gets a sugar craving. The living room, which needs a new coat of paint, contains a stereo, a television, and a big brown couch—“thrift storish” is how she describes it—and on the walls are two colorful abstract paintings that she bought for next to nothing at a flea market. Her bedroom consists of a king-size bed set on a gigantic wooden frame. What floor space is left is covered with pairs of Chuck Taylor All Stars, T-shirts, blue jeans, stacks of CDs, and a couple of half-packed suitcases. She tells me her bathroom doesn’t even have a mirror.

I know, I know. Everyone tells me that the time has come for me to act like a diva,” she says, shrugging her shoulders. “But to be honest with you, I never brush or blow-dry my hair unless I’ve got to be somewhere in public.”

Ashley arrives at the photographer’s studio and takes a seat at the table. I ask her how her life has changed since she quit her job as a waitress at an Outback Steakhouse in Fort Worth and moved to Los Angeles last year at Clarkson’s urging.

Well, if you want to know the truth, what we really like to do is just hang around the apartment, staying up late and talking and watching reruns of Kelly’s favorite shows, Friends and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” she says. “Don’t ask me why, but she loves Dr. Quinn. And some nights we do get in the car and cruise around. Just the other night we were in the car trying to make a movie, but we missed it. So we ended up at this run-down bowling alley near our apartment. Kelly said, ‘Hey! Bowling!’ And so that’s what we did.”

How many really great parties have you been to?” I ask.

Well, we do like going to Chili’s, even though it’s pretty far from our apartment. Kelly always orders chips and salsa with a bowl of ranch dressing.”

Reporters tend to assume that any attempt by celebrities to be modest is simply an act to mask the breadth of their ambition or their controlling natures. Yet it is hard to spend time with Clarkson without wondering if she even realizes she has moved to Los Angeles. By most accounts, she spends all of her free time with Jason, Ashley, or a small circle of other friends who she tells me are “completely outside the industry and not obsessed with discussing what Justin Timberlake is really like.” Not only does she go to very few industry parties, she has the kind of personal life that does not remotely interest the tabloids or the other celebrity-driven magazines. She says she dislikes going to trendy bars because of the way men talk to her. “Guys hit on you in L.A. like they are selling you a fully loaded car,” she says. “They always want to talk to you about all the stuff they have.” She does tell me that she had a boyfriend for a while (she wouldn’t identify him), but then she says they didn’t really date. “Well, we had one date. We went to a very good restaurant and ate something called lobster something. But almost every other night we just hung out with my friends at the apartment.”

Nor will the magazines feature Clarkson in one of their periodic stories on how celebrities stay in shape. She doesn’t have the requisite personal trainer, to help her try to reduce the size of what she describes as “my big butt.” She does some sit-ups and occasionally walks on her treadmill at home. Every now and then she goes with Jason to a public park near their apartment, where they lob tennis balls at each other on a crack-lined court with a metal net. But that’s about it. Probably the best chance you have of spotting Clarkson in an Us Weekly is in one of the wholesome “Got Milk?” advertisements she’s agreed to do, which are supposed to start running this spring.

Clarkson was raised in Burleson by her mother, a first-grade schoolteacher, and her stepfather, a contractor. (Her father, a car salesman, has lived in the Anaheim area of California since he and her mother divorced, when she was six years old.) She says she spent most of her childhood singing. She spent so much time singing, in fact, that Ashley put a karaoke machine in Kelly’s closet, stuck a sign on the door that read, “Kelly’s recording studio,” and sat in a corner of the closet while Clarkson held a little plastic microphone and wailed away to such glass-shattering tunes as Mariah Carey’s “Vision of Love.” Although she never had formal singing lessons, she definitely had talent. When she sang a solo with the junior high school choir, she received a standing ovation, and in high school she received rave reviews from the audience when she played the role of Fiona in a school production of Brigadoon. “I didn’t want to go to college,”

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