With her octaves-encompassing singing voice and an almost guileless approachability, Kelly Clarkson became an instant star when she won the first season of American Idol in 2002. Yet her say-it-like-it-is realness and seeming eternal optimism were not the typical naïveté of a 20-year-old, but an approach to life already forged through years of familial emotional hardships and professional struggle.

Her goal from an early age was never fame and fortune, but to simply connect with audiences through the power of music. “I want to make songs that I’m proud of,” she told Entertainment Tonight immediately following her Idol win. “Songs that I will be proud of singing in front of millions. Songs of all different types. I’m all for breaking the rules of everything. I’m just going to do the first thing that pops in my head at whatever time.”

The self-described rule-breaker was already focused on a successful singing career before Idol. That win catapulted Clarkson onto the world stage, and subsequent successes — including three Grammys, an Emmy and record sales totaling more than 25 million — only helped to showcase her personality alongside a considerable musical prowess. Everyday normalcy was her secret weapon and after two decades in the spotlight, it continues to win and keep fans.

Clarkson worked odd jobs in L.A. before auditioning for 'American Idol'

Born Kelly Brianne Clarkson on April 24, 1982, in Fort Worth, Texas, her parents divorced when she was 6-years-old and Clarkson was raised in suburban Burleson by her mother, an elementary school teacher, and her stepfather, a contractor. Clarkson says she spent most of her adolescence singing, though she never received any formal training other than as a member of the junior high school choir and acting in school musical productions. Religion played a major part in her upbringing in the form of Church youth group and attending services Sundays and Wednesdays with her Southern Baptist parents.

College held little interest for Clarkson after graduating Burleson High School in 2000, her goal was Los Angeles and she saved money by working at a movie theater and waitressing at a comedy club. In 2001, she left Texas for the West Coast to pursue a living as a singer. Though she made ends meet with waitressing gigs and occasionally appearing as an extra on television shoots, misfortune soon struck and she returned home to Texas where she heard about a new, upcoming show called American Idol. She applied, along with 10,000 other hopeful entertainers.

Her voice, humility and personality were what ultimately led to her win the reality show

In 2002, American Idol was as unknown to viewers as the aspiring singer who would go on to win America’s votes. “I had no idea what the show was until the third audition,” Clarkson said to The Guardian of her experience. “My goal was just to be a backup singer—I never intended to be in front. But then my apartment in L.A. burned down and I had to move home, I had no money and I had to sleep in my car for three days.” She auditioned on the encouragement of friend, with a realist’s mindset: “I went into it thinking it might pay my electric bill.”

For her first Idol audition, Clarkson sang the Aretha Franklin hit “Respect,” and was eventually named one of the 30 finalists from Dallas. “There wasn’t anything about her that jumped out at us at that point,” Idol judge Simon Cowell wrote in his book I Don't Mean to Be Rude of Clarkson’s early appearances on the show. “She was just a girl with a good voice.”

By the time she competed in the season finale, her better than “good” voice, humility, sense of humor and infectious optimism had won over both the judges and the voting public watching on television. Her tear-filled rendition of “A Moment Like This” delivered the win during the season finale and a recording contract with RCA. That song was also her first chart-topper, becoming the highest-selling single of 2002. Her debut album, Thankful, also hit number one and was nominated for a Grammy.

Kelly Clarkson American Idol
Kelly Clarkson shortly after winning "American Idol"
Photo: Kevin Winter/ImageDirect

Clarkson clashed with record executives over her contract

Not only could she now cover her electric bill, but Clarkson could also concentrate on building the music career she’d dreamed of. Contractually obligated misfires like the much-maligned post-Idol movie she did with runner-up Justin Guarini, From Justin to Kelly, aside, she focused solely on her music, both live and recorded, as she negotiated her way around the RCA contract that formed the bulk of her Idol prize. A contract she would chafe against throughout its designated terms.

Clarkson addressed her issues with her RCA with as much honesty as she addressed other aspects — both positive and negative — of her life. During her time with RCA, she released seven studio albums, three of which topped the Billboard 200 charts as well as delivering chart-topping singles such as “Miss Independent,” “Since U Been Gone,” “My Life Would Suck Without You” and “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You).” Though she was awarded three Grammys for her work with RCA, she spoke of clashing with former chairman/CEO Clive Davis, particularly in reference to her 2007 album My December, which Davis reportedly wanted significant changes made to ahead of its release. Changes that Clarkson refused.

“I’ve sold more than 15 million records worldwide, and still nobody listens to what I have to say,” she told Elle at the time of the album’s release, reiterating that she “couldn’t give a crap about being a star. I’ve always just wanted to sing and write.” Once free of her RCA/Sony BMG contract in 2016, Clarkson signed with Atlantic Records, who offered her the artistic freedom she craved. “After winning American Idol there was an arranged marriage that occurred that sometimes worked out and sometimes resulted in the hardest experiences of my life,” Clarkson said in a press release announcing her label move.

Such turmoil and its emotional fallout not only provide grist for Clarkson’s songwriting but also provide media soundbites thanks to her seemingly filter-less pronouncements regarding her music and almost every aspect of her life. Clarkson originally wrote “Because of You” (2004) when she was 16 as a way of processing her parents’ divorce and subsequent estrangement from her father. Rejected by RCA for her first studio album, a reworked version made the cut for her second album Breakaway.

Learning from her hardships has helped shape her later career

Clarkson says life’s hardships are just as important as its successes and equally form who you become as a person. “You are thankful and I’m a very strong individual,” Clarkson said to Glamour UK in 2020. “I’m very confident and I’ve been forced to find that in myself. I’ve been forced to at a very early age. ... So, you just take your cards you’re dealt, and you do the best you can with them.”

Clarkson eloped with talent manager Brandon Blackstock in 2013 and the couple have two children together, daughter River Rose and son Remington Alexander. She filed for divorce in June 2020 citing irreconcilable differences. The relationship and its ending inspired much of her as-yet-untitled ninth studio album. “This will probably be the most personal one I’ve ever released,” she told Today in 2020. “The whole record is basically every emotion you experience from the beginning of a relationship to the end of what it is now or where it is now, and it’s been very therapeutic for me.”

Such approachability and openness about her own life have translated into further success on screens as a daytime talk show host and ongoing coach on The Voice, a singing competition with parallels to Idol. Clarkson was awarded an Emmy for the first season of The Kelly Clarkson Show, where she performs covers of hit songs — new and old, expected and surprising — in lieu of an opening monologue and where her relaxed, unfiltered style charms guests and produces real moments of celebrity connection.

Clarkson has taken that approachable normalcy and doubled down on it over her two-decade career, regardless of transpires professionally or personally. What you see is what you get. “… I’m basically the same person I was when I won Idol,” she has said of herself. “Or when I was 10.”