A Little Bit Kelly, A Little Bit Rock and Roll

Kelly Clarkson, the first-ever American Idol, has a new show that lets her do what she loves most: sing, make jokes and be an all-around sweetheart.

When you go to interview a famous person—unless you’re another famous person—you do not just knock on her door and say, Hello, so-and-so. I’m Sarah Miller. I love your movies/music/TV show, and I thought we’d discuss your life and then I’d write about it. Sure. I’d love to sit by the pool.

It’s so not like that, and it’s even less like that the more famous the person is. I’ve heard Kelly Clarkson is really nice and that she loves to talk, but she’s still a huge pop star. So everything is Arranged. Time is Allotted. There is a Plan.

But when I arrive on the set of the new ABC show Duets, expecting to be greeted by some sort of handler, Clarkson herself charges out of her dressing room in curlers and a flowered sundress. “Hi, I’m Kelly,” she calls out. “Great to meet you.” She fixes her sweet brown eyes on my face. “You look so familiar.” When I suggest she may have mistaken me for actress Ally Sheedy, she laughs, asks where I’m from, then sincerely compliments my completely unremarkable homeland. “Massachusetts is beautiful. I love Boston. I went to a Red Sox game a while back.” When I tell Clarkson I saw the record of this outing on YouTube, she cringes. “The one where we were singing? And may very possibly have been drinking?” She plucks at the neck of her sundress and says, “God, isn’t it just so frickin’ hot out? I just had my assistant run out and get me this dress at Target. It’s pretty cute, right?”

“It’s totally cute,” I say and smile, but my mind is having a little trouble catching up to what’s going on: She’s just so open and utterly without guile, and very pretty but utterly devoid of vanity. She hasn’t even mentioned the curlers. (I’m not even sure she knows they’re there.) I mean, the woman sings six of the top 25 most-played songs on my iPod, and we’re just standing here outside her dressing room chatting like we’re at a cocktail party.

Reality returns in the form of her manager, Narvel Blackstock, a Southern gentleman who just happens to be married to Reba McEntire (two songs on my top 25!). He’s come to take Clarkson onto the set so that she can, per our plan, rehearse and be watched by me.

“I just like to get totally into it and get totally real,” Clarkson says as she turns to go. “I guess it’s not that popular always in this business, but…” and she shrugs, and I think, Well, it’s totally popular with me.

The Duets set is dreamily cool and silent, a harmonious marriage between outer space, a really expensive wedding chapel and a Led Zeppelin laser show. The show premiered in May, and in case you are not among its viewers, here’s the concept: Clarkson, Robin Thicke, Jennifer Nettles and John Legend travel around the U.S. auditioning would-be recording artists. Each chooses two people to work with, and every episode, in a sort of Captain & Tennille/Mary J. Blige and Method Man version of Idol, contestants are eliminated as the season progresses and the ultimate victor receives a recording contract.

With her duet partners, Clarkson alternates between two roles: the compassionate high school choral director and the teasing big sister. She and Jason Farol, a lanky, boyish 23-year-old from Torrance, California, sing “Come What May,” an unapologetically cheesy love ballad from Moulin Rouge. Clarkson repeatedly compliments Farol’s remarkable tenor but also scolds him about his poor eye contact. This begins gently: “You need to remember to look at me,” she says, but after a few takes, this escalates to “Hey, don’t forget to look at me,” then “Excuse me, I’m hot! Hey! I think I should wear curlers on the show. Who thinks Americans can’t handle how sexy I look right now? Jason, frickin’ look at me!”

Next, Clarkson and her other partner, Jordan Meredith, 21, from Kimberly, Wisconsin, block out their performance of “Take My Breath Away,” the love theme from Top Gun. Suddenly (remember, this is two chicks singing an aerial-themed love duet) the backdrop switches to clouds drifting across a powder-puff-pink sky. Again, Clarkson begins in mentor mode: “Jordan, don’t forget to show yourself to the audience here. You’re gorgeous, they want to see you.” But she can’t stay serious for long. “Okay, musical bars, musical bars,” she sings to the melody, as she promenades mock–Gloria Swanson–style down one side of the stage and directs Jordan down the other, “and now you come across here, and I go there, and then we meet here for our big lesbian moment—ha, that’s all I need.” She makes a Marx Brothers–worthy face to indicate her mike is too quiet, and I laugh out loud. Then she sings a verse a cappella, demonstrating a harmony for Meredith, and her voice hits me like a blow to the chest. It is so beautiful that my eyes fill with tears (let the record show: I usually only cry when yelled at).

Rehearsal over, I’m ushered into Clarkson’s dressing room. Clarkson curls up on her chair with her dogs, labradoodle Joplin and Maltese Security, and opens a Sprite. I ask her about the lesbian comment. “Oh, there’s all these rumors that I’m a lesbian.” She laughs and then lunges across the table to grab a mini Snickers out of my hand. “Don’t eat that. It was in my dog’s mouth. I’ll find you one that wasn’t. Anyway. I have a boyfriend now, Brandon Blackstock, my manager Narvel’s son, Reba McEntire’s stepson?” Again she has that intimate, casual country lilt in her voice, as if she were saying, “Yup, I’m going to prom with Bob, Farmer Jones’ boy?” “I just had my 30th birthday and we went turkey shooting. It’s what I wanted to do, so we went.” She riffles through a bag on top of the fridge and then drops three mini Butterfingers next to my phone. “Just tell me if you want more.”

Clarkson grew up in Burleson, Texas, and this and other details of her pre-Idol life are more or less known by now: After high school, she took a job at Six Flags, saved her money and moved to L.A. And just when she was starting to get gigs and write some songs, just after she’d rented a decent apartment, she went out for dinner and returned to find the place burned to the ground. By the time she got to Idol, she not only wanted it, she needed it. “I was like, Just tell me what I have to do to win this.” Winning led to the success she dreamed of—10 Top 10 hits, 20 million albums sold—but not much in the way of peace of mind. “The hardest thing about being in this business is just being able to be yourself,” she says, happy that after making her way through several managers and producers, she recorded her last album, Stronger, with people who take her as she is. “People act like there’s this one set of rules to follow to be a pop star, and I think, Well, you say I’m a pop star, so maybe that’s not true.”

One of the rules she bristles about is the need to live in L.A. “When people complain about living in Los Angeles, I’m like, Why do you?” Clarkson lives in a condo near Vanderbilt University in Nashville and comes to L.A. to work. Most of her friends aren’t famous. The only famous people she hangs around with are Blake Shelton, Miranda Lambert and McEntire, who’s kind of family. “I mean, I love her,” she says, “but her stepson is my boyfriend.”

Life in Nashville has been a great way to stay in the game without getting crushed by it. “Even though I’m a pop singer, I really have more the life of a country singer,” she says. This extends into fashion. Though she may jostle for position on the charts with a Katy Perry or a Lady Gaga, she has no interest in a similar competition style-wise. There’s a small amount of girlish enthusiasm for some favorites. Out of a Miss Albright purse she produces a handful of YSL lip glosses in every color and describes her relationship to them with a fairly L.A. word: “obsessed.” She is also a serious fan of bandage dresses. “They’re like built-in Spanx,” she says. She stresses that she is so not the girl who takes forever to get dressed. “I put on the Hank Williams and the Patsy Cline and the Rosemary Clooney on vinyl—I’m not trying to be some cool indie-rock person, I just love the way it sounds—and throw on a T-shirt and jeans. In Texas, we practically come out of the womb in jeans.” She did, however, emerge without the ginormous hair, long nails and serious makeup that usually accompany the jeans. “I just blow-dry my hair and put on mascara and lip gloss, and I’m ready to go. I really don’t get long nails. They’re so Edward Scissorhands.”

Blackstock comes in to let me know that as much as they’d like to let Clarkson talk to me forever, she has to go to hair and makeup: The show is about to be taped. Clarkson agrees we need five more minutes. She seems to want to sum everything up, and this is how she does it: She says, “I’m just a really normal girl.” She means this seriously, and I take it that way, as a sincere acknowledgment of the fact that she is not known for being super-fashionable (though she looked pretty chic at the Billboard awards in a red Roberto Cavalli) or scarily sophisticated (the adorable penchant for the word “frickin’ ”) or photographed in all the right places. But her normalness is the greatest thing about her. This is a girl whose fondest wish is to one day make a big-band Christmas album. There’s not a scrap of artifice between her and the sound that comes out of her.

As I pack up my stuff, Clarkson tells me a story. “Last week, one of the Duets contestants was crying. She said, ‘I gave everything up to come here, and I’m scared.’ I thought back to Idol and how I didn’t know much except that I was scared, and that I had nothing left to lose. I told her, ‘That fear? It’s your power in this situation. Use it, because it’s your fire.’ ”

And I’m moved to tears for the second time today. I just want one more thing, and when I ask, Clarkson says yes, yes we can sing a duet of the chorus of Pistol Annies’ “Hell on Heels.” We sing it twice, and at the end she claps and takes a swig of Sprite. “That was fun,” she says. “Don’t you just frickin’ love that song?”

Click through below for more of Kelly's cover shoot.

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