This week, NBCUniversal announced that The Kelly Clarkson Show will take over the plum, 3 p.m. EST slot long occupied by Ellen DeGeneres, after the latter ends her reign next year. It’s a shift that will make Clarkson, in the words of one NBC executive, “the star of our daytime entertainment.” Some might even consider it a sort of moral victory—the sweet, big-hearted Texas girl taking over from, according to the reports that dogged DeGeneres last year, “notoriously one of the meanest people alive.”
But mostly, it’s a huge step up for Clarkson, who has managed to become daytime TV’s new heir apparent over the span of just two seasons, one of them filmed in the middle of a pandemic. Ever since it premiered in 2019, The Kelly Clarkson Show has hit ratings highs, racked up Daytime Emmy nominations and critical accolades, and earned renewals through at least 2023. It’s the first genuine daytime hit in over a decade, thriving in a space that’s seen plenty of other celebrity chat-fests come and go. How did Clarkson succeed where the likes of Harry Connick Jr., Megan Mullally, and Tony Danza failed?
If you read any article about her show, you’ll inevitably find some appraisal of Clarkson’s “authenticity.” It’s a pretty nebulous concept, this question of whether audiences can look at a celebrity reading cue cards from a soundstage and feel like they really know that person. But authenticity is the crux of Clarkson’s appeal, these analysts agree, and it’s the reason why so many other, ostensibly likable stars have failed to click. Clarkson is a multi-platinum pop star, a household name to senior citizens and Steve Carell alike. Yet she still manages to come off like she can’t quite believe someone actually gave her a talk show.
Some of this ease can surely be attributed to how she became famous. Clarkson, of course, got her big break on the first season of American Idol, the series that ushered in a wave of reality shows promising a more democratic form of stardom. “Even though she has this voice of an angel and she has this huge talent, she’s one of us,” Alex Duda, her show’s executive producer, told The Daily Beast last year. “We chose her. She’s by the people for the people, right?”
Because fame was a gift we bestowed upon her (even though she’s worked tirelessly these past two decades to justify and maintain it), Clarkson manages to blur the line between celebrity and common-folk Cinderella story in a way that so many other hosts simply can’t. Clarkson’s closest daytime competitor, The Drew Barrymore Show, looks a lot like Clarkson’s hour on paper. Barrymore plays your average dorky, wine-and-pasta-and-Hamilton-loving mom. But no matter how many pesky juice stains she scrubs, it’s impossible to forget that she’s Drew Barrymore, scion to one of the world’s most prestigious acting dynasties, and a huge movie star since the age of seven. And it probably doesn’t help that so many of Barrymore’s interviews—with her equally famous friends, former co-stars, and even ex-husbands—end up being about Barrymore herself.
Clarkson, by contrast, has developed a reputation as an unapologetic “fangirl,” gushing and fawning, with an authentic lack of cool, over heroes like Mariah Carey and Meryl Streep. She seems to innately reject the notion that she could ever be considered their peers, even while hosting a hit talk show with her name on it. Clarkson’s screaming enthusiasm seems both sincere and unusually personal.
In fact, the real secret to Clarkson’s authenticity may be that she’s, not so secretly, kind of a mess. Hers is a perfectly at-ease sloppiness that’s been repeatedly dubbed relatable, in touch with the many self-proclaimed “wine moms” who adore her. Clarkson’s been open about her past issues with—and utter indifference toward—losing weight. (She’d rather just enjoy her wine.) She’s talked about motherhood as a balance of honor and constant horror. (Again, Clarkson recommends wine.) After filing for divorce from her husband, Brandon Blackstock, in June of 2020, Clarkson kicked off her show’s second season with a monologue in which she all but apologized for not baring her soul about it, while still managing to discuss it for several minutes. Clarkson also cries a lot, with entire montages devoted to cataloging her breakdowns. And with the possible exception of Dr. Oz, you’d be hard-pressed to find a TV host who’s as open about pooping.
“I feel like a lot of Texans are like this, but I have no filter in the best of ways,” Clarkson told country star Clint Black last month. She then launched into an anecdote about the time when, riddled with food poisoning, she “destroyed” a backstage trash can.
It’s these universal struggles—balancing work and motherhood, finding a place to poop in peace—that have made Clarkson a breakout star of the pandemic, one of the few people you could argue has actually benefited from a plague.
Clarkson wisely continued filming during quarantine, inviting a newly captive audience of remote and laid-off workers into her family’s Montana ranch. There, she revealed how she hides from her kids in the bathtub just so she can drink Baileys Irish Cream by herself.
Clarkson was far from the only talk-show host who pivoted to Zoom and parlayed the utter weirdness of the last year into something affectingly personal. But her ability to roll with it, joking about how much everything sucks without getting lost in theatrical despair or mushy platitudes, felt uniquely attuned to the moment. Since its beginning, Clarkson has said her show is about “connection,” and somehow she’s managed to keep that spirit alive even in complete isolation and playing to an audience of digital heads.
On this last note, it would be a mistake to suggest that anything about The Kelly Clarkson Show’s success is accidental. It’s shown a shrewd understanding of how to go viral, even if that’s seemingly for the wrong reasons. A clip of Clarkson’s virtual audience awkwardly swaying to Vin Diesel’s new dance song led to Twitter mockery that, in turn, spawned a think piece in the New York Times. You can’t buy that kind of publicity. The show also regularly mines TikTok for content, creating a symbiotic relationship with an audience that only experiences Clarkson through sixty-second clips. And every episode starts off with a round of “Kellyoke,” in which Clarkson puts James Corden to shame by belting out a broad variety of viewer-selected tunes, creating a near-daily stream of crowd-pleasing, agreeably inspirational YouTube fodder.
To all of these things, you can add Clarkson’s relentless focus on positivity and community—particularly her “Good Neighbor” and “What I’m Liking” segments, where Clarkson highlights (and usually cries through) stories of local kindness while doling out cars to needy schoolteachers and the like—something that surely endears her to daytime’s traditionally older-skewing audience.
All told, it’s easy to see why NBCUniversal is enthusiastically staking its daytime future on Clarkson. She has Oprah’s ability to make people feel like they’re doing good in the world just by watching, but she never comes off as inherently superior about it, even when she’s nailing the high notes. The challenge for Clarkson will be retaining that humility, and not turning into the sort of aloof, over-it celebrity that success so often creates. In this, at least, Clarkson seems less likely to follow in Ellen’s footsteps.