By Matt Hendrickson
Massive record sales and hordes of devoted fans could easily make a diva of Kelly Clarkson. But her heart belongs to small-town Texas and the ranch she shares with Mom.
As a girl growing up in Burleson, Texas, Kelly Clarkson couldn’t afford singing lessons, so she did the next best thing: She turned her bedroom closet into a recording studio. “My mom got me an old, beat-up recorder at a garage sale for 50 cents, and I would get blank tapes from my teachers at school,” recalls Clarkson, 27. “My friend Ashley put a sign on my closet door that said ‘Recording Studio: Please Do Not Disturb.'” Though those tapes have yet to surface (eBay, anyone?), the powerhouse singer’s perseverance has paid off. Her soaring vocals made her American Idol’s very first champ, in 2002. Since then, she has sold over 20 million records and scored two Grammys, and her latest effort, All I Ever Wanted, debuted at the top of the charts.
Through it all, Clarkson has managed to stay more heartland than Hollywood, shunning the red carpet for her sprawling ranch, which she shares with her mother, her brother, Jason (who doubles as her personal assistant), and her sister, Alyssa, as well as their families. There are also 11 horses, 8 dogs, and the newest member of the Clarkson clan, a 20-pound cat named Chief. This month, she begins the busiest part of her tour, leaving home and “the best sunsets in the world” behind to perform across the country. Before packing her bags, she talked to Reader’s Digest about her early hardships, her wish for marriage and children, and why Simon Cowell still makes her quake.
Q. How old were you when you wrote your first song?
A. Ten or eleven. My mom was struggling financially and emotionally [Clarkson’s parents divorced when she was six, and she was raised by her schoolteacher mother and contractor stepfather], so I didn’t talk a lot. Finally, she told me if I couldn’t talk about what was bothering me, I should write about it. So she gave me a notebook, and my poems turned into lyrics. It became therapeutic.
Q. You’ve said you grew up poor. How bad was it?
A. I grew up in a very hardworking family. But we didn’t have a lot of money. I was the kid friends’ parents bought Christmas presents for. One year, though, when I was in sixth grade, my mom got a bonus at work, and instead of paying off bills, she bought me a CD player and four Reba McEntire CDs. I wore those CDs out.
Q. You eventually got several college music scholarships but passed on them to move to Los Angeles in 2001.
A. Everyone thought I was crazy to do it. Even my friends’ parents gave me the sit-down talk before I left: “What are you doing with your life?” But I moved to California anyway and got work right off the bat singing backup. A friend and I lived in a house with some other people, and we finally saved enough money to get our own place. The day we moved into our apartment, the building burned down. I stayed in my car for a few days so I could get enough money to drive back to Texas. When I got home, a friend told me about the American Idol audition in Dallas.
Q. Looking back on the show, is there anything about it that makes you cringe?
A. The theme music. And it was weird going back and performing on Idol last spring. I’m singing my new single [“My Life Would Suck Without You”] and I’m wondering, Okay, what are Simon and Randy really thinking? They’ve always been supportive and nice. But I think they were so nice because no one thought I was going to win.
Q. No one?
A. I was the dark horse. Members of the crew came up to me after the finale and told me they didn’t think I should have won. It wasn’t like everyone was rooting for me.
Q. You have taken your share of lumps, especially around your weight. Does it mean a lot to you to show girls that you don’t have to be skinny to be successful?
A. I recently gave a self-esteem workshop for Girl Scouts in Nashville, and I told the girls that I wasn’t a role model for my weight, because I change. Sometimes I’m thicker when I’m around my family and I’m eating more. Sometimes I’m thinner because I’m on the road and that takes a lot out of me. But I do feel it’s important to talk to girls about weight. They see these images, and there’s no way they’ll ever live up to them. I want them to see someone who is real and know they don’t have to live up to anything.
Q. How do you think being a child of divorce has affected you?
A. I’m trusting in the beginning of a relationship; it’s not that I don’t ever let people in. But when people screw up in a big way, it’s difficult for me to get over that. I’m not one of those people who keep going back to someone who hurt them.
Q. Are you dating anyone now?
A. I’m a big fan of being single right now. I’m getting to do a lot of selfish things: travel, tour the world. But it is one of my dreams to find someone to settle down with and to adopt a kid.
Q. Why adopt?
A. I grew up with a lot of other parental influences around me, so I don’t think you have to be blood-related to love and support a child.
Q. On your fan sites, people talk about how you’re like a sister to them.
A. Everyone says I’m down-to-earth. It would be very hard for me to keep up any sort of celebrity persona. It’s just not me. I’m comfortable in my skin. I’m outspoken. I don’t know any other way to be.
5 Things You Don’t Know About Kelly
1. Hugh Jackman is my celebrity crush. But I don’t like the pretty Hugh Jackman. I like the hairier, dirtier Hugh, like Wolverine. Hello!
2. My all-time favorite show is Designing Women. I want to be Dixie Carter. I love how she goes off on people who are jerks.
3. My worst job was working at the zoo. You try surviving a Texas summer cleaning up monkey poo.
4. I’m obsessive-compulsive about numbers. Ever since I was a kid, everything has had to be even: the volume dial on the TV, the number of books on my bookshelf.
5. I’m a huge Scrabble fan. Do I usually win? Of course!