Kelly Clarkson Reveals Secret Battles After ‘Idol’: ‘I Had To Fight Like Hell’

Kelly Clarkson 2002

Getty First-ever 'American Idol' winner Kelly Clarkson at 2002 finale

While millions of TV viewers assumed that Kelly Clarkson was living the dream after winning the first season of “American Idol,” the powerhouse singer says she was privately up against mean celebrities and sexist stylists, promoters, and executives who were constantly pressuring her to change who she was and how she looked.

In an interview with Variety published on September 7, 2022, Clarkson looked back on her 20-year career since winning “Idol” and recalled how hard it was to pave her own path at the time.

Clarkson Felt Pressured to Be Sexier After ‘Idol’

Kelly Clarkson on 'Idol'

GettyKelly Clarkson is kissed by an audience member on ‘American Idol’ in 2002

While millions of Americans assumed that Clarkson was having the time of her life after winning the first season of “Idol” in 2002, the truth was the 20-year-old singer was struggling to maintain her identity.

“It was not great,” she told Variety. “It was just really hard for me to navigate the industry.”

At just 20 years old, she was thrust into the notoriously cutthroat music industry and was stunned by how poorly celebrities and music executives treated her. On her hit talk show, “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” she recalled being treated terribly by fellow celebrities, including at awards shows.

“People were really mean to us because we’re from a talent show and it was the first season,” she said on the show in 2021. “Like, everyone was so rude to us, like, on the carpet. …It was so bad. It was a horrible experience.”

Another huge hurdle was the pressure that stylists, promoters, and music execs kept putting on her to be, do and say things she wasn’t comfortable with, including dressing provocatively.

“I remember this one tool I worked with,” she told Variety. “This dude came over my house and put down some magazines and was like, ‘So this is what you’re competing with.’ There were naked people on the cover! I have no problem with nudity. I’m, like, a total nudist. But that’s just not my vibe, artistry-wise. A little mystery goes a long way for me. But I literally looked at this older white man and was like, ‘Uh, no. That’s not what I’m competing with. It might be what you feel like I am competing with, but that’s not me.’”

Clarkson said she didn’t want to be over-sexualized like many pop stars are; she wanted the music to take center stage. She stood firm in her view that sexualizing every female artist with barely-there outfits and sultry songs made women seem one-dimensional.

“Women love to be sexual. Everybody likes to be flirty. Everybody likes to be sensual,” Clarkson said. “But every woman is not just that one thing; we are multifaceted. And they try to take that one thing and blow it up. I had to fight like hell to make sure that it didn’t push the envelope for me. I think it’s hard if you’re a young girl, a teenager. You’re still growing up.”

In the Variety interview, she recalled another situation in which a famous photographer tried to make her seem edgier and got angry when Clarkson wouldn’t acquiesce.

“I had this one photographer overseas who was like, ‘I just want you to hold this cigarette and act rock ’n’ roll,’ and I started laughing because I thought she was joking,” she said. “She got so mad at me. Apparently, she was like this big photographer. She was like, ‘I want you to crash this beer bottle and hold it up.’ I was like, ‘What? What type of frat party are we at?’ She was so angry. I had so many of those instances that are just uncomfortable. It just bummed me out. But you know what? It’s alright. Because what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Clarkson Wanted to Be Treated Like a Person, Not a Product

Over time, Clarkson realized industry executives were just looking at her — and every other performer — as a product, not a person.

“At the end of the day, a lot of people look at you as a product, because they’re in a business — they’ll get fired if they don’t make money. So I don’t blame them,” she told Variety.

“The biggest thing for me is I never thought I’d be fighting so hard to just be myself,” Clarkson said. “People don’t think what you are is going to sell is going to make them money, and I was like, ‘Well, I am just going to be me. If that happens for you, that’s great. If it doesn’t, sorry.’ It’s worked out, the hard work. But it was very hard.”

Over the years, Clarkson has been savvy about diversifying her career, from serving as a judge on “The Voice” to hosting a hit talk show that begins its third season on September 12. She said she’s inspired by “legends” in the business who have also spread their wings in different ways, such as Bette Midler.

“She knew I was going through a hard time, and she gave me such good advice,” she said of Midler. “She has a career I love. She’s done so many different things. I love modeling my career after people like that, who didn’t just stop. They’re not just a one-trick pony.”

Back in 2002, the newly-crowned “Idol” champ subtly told Entertainment Tonight she was not going to give in to industry pressures.

“I have so many goals and I’m just about breaking all the rules,” she said at the time, “so I’ll just do whatever comes my way if it feels natural.”

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