Up on the 65th floor of New York’s Rockefeller Centre, in the hallowed surroundings of the historic Rainbow Room, everything is dazzling.
The view – a straight shot ten blocks south to the Empire State Building – is so picture-perfect as to look almost unreal; the décor, all mirrors, chandeliers, and oversized candelabras, speaks to an infinitely more glamorous age (the room opened in 1934 and was the spot for society functions), and the well-heeled crowd of models and music-industry sorts is merrily enjoying free-flowing martinis.
The most dazzling element in the room, however, is erupting from the woman on stage, clad in a gold sequined column dress: Kelly Clarkson’s astonishingly powerful, soulful voice, reminiscent of Whitney Houston, Aretha Franklin and, more latterly, Beyoncé.
Back in 2002, aged 20, Kelly was the inaugural winner of American Idol, the US iteration of Pop Idol, forerunner to The X Factor. Her first single ‘Before Your Love’ went to the top of the charts. Now 35, she has sold more than 25 million albums and 36 million singles worldwide, and won three Grammys and three MTV Video Music Awards, among myriad other prizes. She also performed at Barack Obama’s second-term inauguration in 2013, singing ‘My Country, ’Tis of Thee’.
And for a truly contemporary symbol of the American Dream – that ‘life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement’, as defined by the writer James Truslow Adams three years before the Rainbow Room opened – there could be few better examples than Kelly Clarkson.
Two days later we meet in the only slightly less impressive offices of Atlantic Records in Midtown Manhattan. Thanks to an appearance earlier this morning on the US breakfast television programme Today, Kelly has been up since 3.30am. ‘If I were a dude, I’d just stroll in with my hat, somebody would powder me and then I’d go on stage. Being a girl, it’s two hours in wardrobe and make-up,’ she observes in her rich, roiling Texan twang. ‘It takes Harry Potter magic to make this happen,’ she adds, motioning to her mane of blow-dried hair and the dramatic make-up she has not yet removed.
She might have the voice of a diva, but her personality – open, chatty and delightfully self-deprecating – is anything but. Having spent her career thus far at RCA Records (as part of a deal with American Idol), the past 15 years have seen Kelly pump out pop-rock hits such as ‘Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)’ and ‘Since U Been Gone’, as well as ballads such as ‘Because of You’.
‘I love pop rock and I love pop ballads, so it wasn’t completely miserable, but I just filled that lane for the powers that be,’ she says, with no hint of bitterness. ‘It was like an arranged marriage. I was on American Idol and RCA had the contracts for whoever won the show, so it’s not as though they handpicked me either. And because I was on the first series, I didn’t know any different, so my expectations were nothing.’
Does she think, I ask, that there’s more pressure on female artists to be moulded into a neatly commercial package? ‘Aesthetically, yes, much more for women,’ she says. ‘But musically, it’s the same for both men and women. I have a lot of male friends whose labels wanted them to sound like whatever they felt was going to make them money.’
Kelly’s new album Meaning of Life, which will be released later this month, however, is in a very different vein to her previous output. ‘I wanted to make an album that sounded like my influences, the women who inspired me to be who I am now: Aretha, Whitney, Bonnie Raitt, Mariah Carey, Reba McEntire, Rosemary Clooney, Bette Midler,’ she enthuses. ‘That’s what I grew up on and I think it bleeds out of me naturally.’
This month she will be returning to where it all began, the television talent contest – though this time on the other side of the fence – as she begins filming for the 14th series of the US edition of The Voice, where she will be one of the coaches alongside country music star Blake Shelton and Adam Levine of Maroon 5. It’s an opportunity she has been offered several times, but had to pass up because of pregnancies. (She and her husband of four years Brandon Blackstock, who is also her manager, have two children, River Rose, three, and Remington Alexander, one. ‘That’s it, no more,’ she assures me firmly.)
In an era of YouTube, in which would-be stars can upload demos to their channel and reach an audience without the middleman, is there still a place for the television talent show? Kelly believes so. ‘It’s a platform that reaches millions of homes every week,’ she says. ‘And there’s an investment on the part of the public. They feel as though they are involved in the journey; they got to choose an artist, help make an album. They have a sense of ownership in a positive way.’
There is, however, a less positive sense of ownership, too. Throughout Kelly’s career she has endured endless commentary about her appearance, every weight fluctuation scrutinised and criticised. She is finally answering the trolls with a track on the new album: the upbeat, enormously catchy ‘Whole Lotta Woman’.
Though it’s the first time Kelly has tackled the subject of body image, she has always explored personal topics in her songs. She wrote her 2005 single ‘Because of You’ when she was 16 as a way to channel her distress at her parents’ divorce a decade earlier and her lack of relationship with her father since. ‘Piece by Piece’, released in 2015, is its sequel, the ‘happy ending’ in which she pays homage to Brandon, who restored her faith in love and family.
Introducing ‘Whole Lotta Woman’ at her Rainbow Room showcase, Kelly referenced ‘all the fat jokes over the years’ and the criticism levelled at women: ‘Too skinny, too fat, too blonde – so much blah. This is who I am and I’m happy,’ she declared. ‘Happy looks different on everyone.’
‘The media has always been obsessed with it [her size],’ she says. ‘And I have felt conflicted over the years. Do you address it? Do you talk about it? Because then you just add to the noise. But people like me to talk about it, so I don’t really mind carrying that flag. I love that people come up to me and say: “Because you are comfortable in your skin, you have made me more comfortable in mine.” That’s the best compliment ever.’
Kelly grew up in Fort Worth, Texas, the daughter of Jeanne, a teacher, and Stephen, a former engineer, with a sister, Alyssa, who is seven years older, and a brother, Jason, ten years older. Kelly’s parents divorced when she was six. Stephen left, taking Jason with him; Alyssa was sent to live with an aunt, while Kelly remained with her mother. ‘My brother and sister experienced the divorce in a very different way than I did,’ she says. ‘The only memories I have from that time are not good ones. But being a mother now and looking back and seeing what my mother went through with zero help: she got married straight out of high school, then put herself through college; she had no family around her, three children and no child support…’ Kelly tails off, looking horrified.
From six, she had no contact with her father, but in recent years, she says, she gave their relationship ‘three solid chances’ – none of which worked out. ‘I’m not angry or bitter or unhappy about it,’ she continues. ‘A lot of people stepped up and filled those parental roles for me. Life is too short to surround yourself with people who keep hurting you.’
She also didn’t get to know her sister and brother until she was 18, when her brother married and the siblings reconnected. ‘It’s really lovely to have that relationship as adults and we’re best friends now.’
Money at home was tight, but Kelly was able to indulge her passion for singing at church and at school, where she sang in the choir and, later, in musicals. She was, it seems, always fiercely driven and ambitious – perhaps too much so at points. She confesses to a short period in high school when she was on the verge of developing an eating disorder, triggered by frustration at not getting the parts she craved. ‘I felt: what can I do? I’ve worked my ass off vocally. I’ve done everything I can acting-wise to get this part. I don’t know what else to do at this point. I started to think: well, maybe it’s me – maybe I can change something.’
After Kelly left school, she sent a demo to record labels but had no luck, so in 2001 she moved to Los Angeles to pursue her ambitions there, but was turned away from all the major labels for sounding ‘too black’.
It was friends who encouraged her to audition for the inaugural series of American Idol. Her hopes did not extend beyond getting paid a small sum for taking part. ‘You see a sense of entitlement in a lot of the contestants now because they know it [stardom] can happen,’ she says. ‘I feel lucky that I didn’t know; I did not have any expectations.’
Though her life today looks very different, Kelly is the first to admit that combining a music career with motherhood is far from a breeze. ‘For any working parent it’s always a tug of war,’ she says. ‘You prioritise your children, but it is important to show them that you’re capable of being a healthy family while also being successful in your own right.’
Brandon has two older children from a previous marriage, aged 16 and ten. ‘Luckily I’m from a blended family, so I understand it from their side, too,’ says Kelly. When her mother remarried (she would subsequently divorce again), Kelly inherited five stepbrothers, then, later, two half-brothers on her father’s side, whom she has met only a handful of times.
What concerns her more is the challenge of instilling the resilience she developed in her own children. ‘I have very privileged kids. They fly private a lot, they meet amazing people, they go to incredible places that others only dream of,’ she says. River Rose even has a series of books named after her, penned by Kelly, the second of which, River Rose and the Magical Christmas, will be published this winter.
‘I think sometimes when people come from such a privileged background it might be hard to develop that thick skin. But we’re both very strict with them,’ she says. ‘We don’t have one good cop – we’re both disciplinarians.’
For years Kelly split her time between Texas and Nashville, but she is now firmly based in the latter, where she and Brandon own a farm. ‘We spend all our downtime on projects there and we now have honeybees and chickens and a little orchard that we just planted. We are trying to have less of a footprint and become as self-sustaining as possible.’
It’s a far cry from the whirlwind of the music business and Kelly admits to still harbouring Broadway ambitions. ‘It’s a big dream of mine, but I don’t know that I could live here [in New York] that long, especially in winter,’ she sighs, gazing out of the window. ‘Could I do a show just in the spring or autumn, do you think?’
One element of her Texas roots that she retained until recently, however, was an allegiance to the Republican party: she came out in support of the then presidential hopeful Ron Paul in 2011. ‘I am not a Republican,’ she says today. ‘I’ve been more of a Democrat in recent years. I’m for the best person to run the show and I definitely didn’t vote for this guy [Donald Trump],’ she adds vehemently. ‘But he won, so we need to get some great people around him to make better decisions.’
The fact that he is a fellow alumnus of reality TV, having gained most recognition on The Apprentice, does not endear him to Kelly. ‘Life has become a reality TV show and I don’t want to be in suspense about what’s going to happen next week,’ she says of his presidency.
The family seems well set up to deal with whatever does happen next, however. Brandon is a hunter, she tells me, ‘so we have five freezers full of game. If the end of the world does arrive and you’re hungry, come to us.’
-Kelly’s new album Meaning of Life will be released on 27 October on Atlantic Records
By Jane Mulkerinns