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Texas Monthly: Since She's Been Gone (May 2005)

Texas Monthly: Since She's Been Gone (May 2005)

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Texas MonthlyMay 2005
Since She’s Been Gone
 Three years after her we-can’t-believe-we-were-crying-too
 American Idol
moment, KellyClarkson’s new reality looks a lot like her old one in Burleson.bySkip HollandsworthOnly three yearsago Kelly Clarksonwas working part-time for Red Bull,the energy-drinkcompany, drivingaround in a littlecar that had anoversized Red Bullcan attached to thetop of it, passingout free drinks atplaces whereyoung people likedto gather. Shemade $13 an hour.Not bad, butClarkson didnthesitate to tell hercustomers that shehad other plans.Her goal, said therecent graduate of Burleson High School, was to become a major recording artist. The customers wouldnod and smile encouragingly. Clarkson was five feet three inches tall, cute but not aknockout. She had a rather round face, and she didn’t look particularly sexy in amidriff-baring shirt. When she was passing out Red Bulls at Joe Pool Lake, a popularhangout outside Fort Worth, she sometimes sang to whatever song was blaring fromsomeone’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
 AmericanIdol,
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 thetelevision 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 wholedamn thing, including a $1 million recording contract with RCA Records. Twenty millionpeople 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, thoughKelly Clarkson was suddenly a household name, it wasn’t supposed to last. That’s thenature 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 BillRancics, you’re forgotten. According to the music critics, Clarkson would be back in her
 
Clarkson photographed on February 17 in LosAngeles.Photograph by Jeff Lipsky
 
Red Bull car very, very soon. And why shouldn’t they have made such claims? Nobodyelse 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 twomillion copies, and two of its singles, “Breakaway” and “Since U Been Gone,” are in thetop ten on the Billboard mainstream radio airplay chart. She is everywhere: performingat awards shows, at halftime at the Orange Bowl, and at nationally televised concertsbefore the Super Bowl and the NBA All-Star Game. And any notions that she would befading away soon seemed to disappear in February, when she landed the musical guestspot on
Saturday Night Live.
It wasn’t just that she was a guest on the kind of showthat you would expect to lampoon an
 American Idol
contestant. It was that whenClarkson was introduced, the host, actor Jason Bateman, didn’t say, “Ladies andgentlemen, your American Idol, Kelly Clarkson.” He simply said, “Ladies andgentlemen, Kelly Clarkson.”In other words, Kelly Clarkson has accomplished something no other reality-televisionveteran—no survivor, no apprentice, no bachelorette, no amazing racer—has been ableto pull off. She’s become a legitimate star. What’s more, no one else from anysubsequent
 American Idol
, a show that does require genuine talent, has been able tomatch Clarkson’s success. So how did it happen?“Once Kelly realized the door had been cracked open for her
,
she reared back andkicked it wide open,” says Jeff Rabhan, a manager at the Firm, the Los Angeles agencythat handles Clarkson’s career. But that’s just her management talking, and it doesn’texplain Clarkson’s more surprising feat: While all the other highly managed pop tarts of her generation—Christina Aguilera, Britney Spears, Jessica and Ashlee Simpson, toname a few—have learned to rely on the paparazzi and their tabloidish personalrelationships 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 beforeshe 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 kindthat 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’swardrobe 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 doClarkson’s hair and makeup.“How’s this?” Emma says to Clarkson, holding up a black dress.Usually, the process of choosing an outfit for a celebrity photo shoot lasts about as longas an Oscars telecast. The celebrities and their handlers fret over the meaning of theoutfit and what image it conveys. Arguments ensue. Dozens of outfits are tried on anddiscarded before one is finally chosen. Clarkson, however, looks at the dress Emma isholding 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 bearof a guy Clarkson hired last year to be her personal assistant. Jason not only lives withKelly, 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 Alaska, working as an electrician and running a part-time janitorialservice,” he says. “Then I went through a divorce, and Kelly said come on down, shehad something for me to do.”“You know,” I say to Clarkson, “there are people in L.A. who are professional personalassistants, 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 otherbedroom. Clarkson’s childhood friend Ashley Donovan, who used to work with her as aticket-taker at the movie theater in their hometown of Burleson, sleeps on a mattressin the cramped upstairs loft.Because Clarkson doesn’t cook, there is almost nothing in the refrigerator exceptbottled water and packaged turkey. In the freezer are frozen grapes, which she likes tosuck on whenever she gets a sugar craving. The living room, which needs a new coatof paint, contains a stereo, a television, and a big brown couch—“thrift storish” is howshe describes it—and on the walls are two colorful abstract paintings that she boughtfor next to nothing at a flea market. Her bedroom consists of a king-size bed set on agigantic wooden frame. What floor space is left is covered with pairs of Chuck Taylor AllStars, T-shirts, blue jeans, stacks of CDs, and a couple of half-packed suitcases. Shetells 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 howher life has changed since she quit her job as a waitress at an Outback Steakhouse inFort 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 theapartment, 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 nightwe were in the car trying to make a movie, but we missed it. So we ended up at thisrun-down bowling alley near our apartment. Kelly said, ‘Hey! Bowling!’ And so that’swhat 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. Kellyalways orders chips and salsa with a bowl of ranch dressing.”

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