Kelly Clarkson wants to ‘light up America’s life,’ even on the days she feels dark

Grammy and Emmy winner Kelly Clarkson
Grammy and Emmy winner Kelly Clarkson on the Universal Studios lot in Universal City, where “The Kelly Clarkson Show” is filmed. Clarkson, the first “American Idol” winner in 2002, is set to begin the second season of her talk show this month.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

For nearly two decades, Kelly Clarkson has connected with fans through the power and prowess of her singing voice — swaddling them through heartbreak, empowering them beyond that heartbreak, and beaming with them through new love. So it’s little wonder how much Clarkson has been able to build on that connection lately. With help from Wi-Fi.

As work on most television shows was suspended in March because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 38-year-old entertainer was part of two series that pressed on remotely. From a ranch (with poor plumbing) in Montana, where Clarkson took refuge with her family early on in the health crisis, she powered up her tech and offered her y’all-peppered critiques as a coach on “The Voice.” At the same time, just months into her debut as a daytime talk show host with “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” she and her team found themselves scrambling to produce at-home editions of the show.

As she explains it: “I am that kid that adapts to whatever environment.”

So for months now, her approachable charm and BFF energy have been confined, but not dimmed, by a rectangular box on screen, whether she’s covering Lisa Loeb’s 1994 heartbreak stunner “Stay (I Missed You)” as part of her Kellyoke opening segment or shrieking with excitement when “Goonies” star Sean Astin makes a surprise cameo during her interview with Josh Gad. And wait, she’s not wearing makeup? Cool, me neither!

Maybe that’s why talking to her now over Zoom doesn’t feel all that weird.

Clarkson has been back in Los Angeles since May to sit out quarantine at her Encino home. But now, in the glow of blue light, she’s speaking from an office on the Universal Studios lot, where her talk show is gearing up to resume primary taping for the upcoming second season. A wild reality considering that she needed to be persuaded to take this step in her career in the first place.

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Kelly Clarkson goes virtual on "The Kelly Clarkson Show."
A screengrab of host Kelly Clarkson and guest Demi Lovato on “The Kelly Clarkson Show.”

“I will be completely honest, and I have been since the beginning: I did not want this job,” she says. “I say that it’s the dream I didn’t know I had because I talk to so many people, and not just celebrities. I’ve talked to the people that have been hit hardest in all of this — financially, emotionally, mentally ... it’s really the everyday people on this show that have just lifted my spirits when I’ve been feeling like, ‘Oh my God, nothing else could possibly go wrong at this point, like, send in the locusts.’”

That Clarkson, a superstar TV helped create, would find a second wave of career success in television isn’t all that surprising. Eighteen years after 15.5 million viewers voted to ensure the Burleson, Texas, native was crowned the first “American Idol,” many of those same fans are tuning in to her now.

She is gearing up for her sixth season as judge on “The Voice,” which returns next month. And with “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” she has emerged as a bright spot in the increasingly hard to crack daytime talk show space — the program was the most-watched new talk show in seven years, averaging more than 1.6 million viewers daily. She even became a Daytime Emmy winner for entertainment talk show host.

Former “Idol” judge Paula Abdul, who appeared on Clarkson’s show early in its run as part of an “Idol” Season 1 reunion, describes being seated opposite host Clarkson as, “like I was watching a movie on the edge of my seat, knowing from the start something overwhelmingly good is going to happen.”

Abdul points to Clarkson’s “Idol” audition, in which she traded places with Randy Jackson — taking a seat behind the judges table while he auditioned for her — as early evidence she was destined for the role.


“There’s a kind of power that comes from being able to shift the trajectory of an audition,” Abdul says in an email. “It’s not something to dismiss. She’s just one of those rare gems who’s so genuine and welcoming … it makes everyone around her want to get comfortable and have a conversation. Not everyone can have that kind of an impact. It’s a gift to be able to connect people authentically. Kelly’s got that gift, no question.”

And people want to witness it because, as Clarkson’s longtime musical director Jason Halbert sees it, the Clarkson they first met as an ordinary person pursuing a dream hasn’t become a ghost of her own fame.
“Sitting in the office with Kelly yesterday — it’s literally the same person I first started working with 18 years ago,” he says. “The industry hasn’t changed her. She’s not jaded, she’s still just as excited about working as she was then. I’m sure she has grown in many ways over this time, but the standout take for me with her is somehow she’s managed to — she would never use the word ‘superstar,’ it would make her cringe from the inside out — but she’s managed to become a superstar in all fields and still remain the 20-year-old Texas girl that we met almost 20 years ago.”

Clarkson’s ascension in the daytime talk show space, which many attribute to her likability, comes as peer Ellen DeGeneres and her show have come under fire in recent months over allegations of a toxic work culture, which resulted in the ouster of three producers after an investigation by production company Warner Bros. Claims of workplace misconduct have also hit closer to Clarkson’s orbit: Former NBC Entertainment Chairman Paul Telegdy, who was instrumental in persuading Clarkson to join “The Voice” and had been the one who saw her potential as a talk show host, was recently pushed out after being accused of racism and sexism. (Telegdy has denied the allegations.)

Clarkson, who says she was “more shocked than anyone” by reports of Telegdy’s behavior, didn’t directly address “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” allegations, but she acknowledges that the recent attention to Hollywood’s workplace culture has reaffirmed a lesson she first learned at church camps and on student council as a child: As a leader, “How you act is how all those beneath you are going to feel like they’re allowed to act.

“Accountability is so important,” she says. “Everybody messes up. Everybody’s allowed to mess up. We are imperfect; that’s OK. But it’s not OK to pretend it’s not happening. ... I’m the first one in the room to go, ‘Was that me? Did I do it?’ Or, ‘How can I fix it?’”

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Kelly Clarkson on the set of her daytime talk show, "The Kelly Clarkson Show."
Grammy and Emmy winner Kelly Clarkson is photographed on the Universal Studios lot, where her talk show is taped.
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

At a time when asking anyone how they’re doing can feel like a loaded question, Clarkson says she feels “surprisingly great” — at least that’s the forecast for today. As we’ve all come to know, there are good days and there are bad days. Producing a show remotely from Montana, while trying to process the realities of the pandemic, was challenging. Or, as Clarkson calls it, a “turd of a situation.”

“That was not fun,” she says. “I’m trying to smile and light up America’s life [and] I’m just wanting to drown myself in the creek next to me ... I do remember, right before then, I was like: ‘Look, at some point, people in the limelight are humans too and we’re all going through the same roller coaster as everyone else. So sometimes I don’t want to smile.’ I was honest about that. It doesn’t matter who you are, it’s all relative to your own world.”

Even now, like many parents, the back-to-school season is on her mind. Her son, Remington Alexander, 4, is back in school, while her daughter, River Rose, 6, will have online classes through October.

“I think we really forget how hard this is on [children],” she says. “My kid has been in school now and he has been seeing other kids — his whole disposition has changed. There’s just a different lightness to him. It’s not Groundhog Day every day. ... It’s easy to tell adults — well, you think it’s easy to tell adults — ‘You need to do this, you need to do this in order to come to work and you can’t come if you don’t.’ But it’s harder to tell a 4- and 6-year-old — and then, without terrifying them, that it’s like the freaking apocalypse and they’re going to die if they take their mask off. It’s a really hard thing to navigate right now: to be honest with them but not so honest that it’s overwhelming and scary.”

While her kids are getting used to a new routine, Clarkson will hardly have had a break as she gears up for the new season of her talk show. Produced and distributed by NBCUniversal Domestic Television Distribution, the show has aired new, all-virtual episodes throughout the summer. With the new season, it will take on a hybrid format, with live and virtual interviews with guests — complying with various safety protocols — as well as a virtual audience. And those Kellyokes aren’t going anywhere.

“I always, always say Kelly’s like the color yellow,” says showrunner Alex Duda, whose previous credits include “The Tyra Banks Show” and “Steve Harvey.” “If you spend time with her in a Zoom room or regular room, you leave there feeling better and that’s what we want our viewers to remember. We want our viewers, when those credits are rolling, to feel better. I think everyone wants to feel better right now.”

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Kelly Clarkson embraces fellow "American Idol" competitor Justin Guarini after being crowned the first winner.
Kelly Clarkson, with Justin Guarini, during 2002’s final “American Idol” episode.
(Lucy Nicholson / Associated Press)

Though fans have come to know Clarkson more intimately through her talk show, there’s one topic that she’s not planning to open up about anytime soon: her divorce. In June, Clarkson filed for divorce from her country music manager husband, Brandon Blackstock, after nearly seven years of marriage. They have two kids together in addition to Blackstock’s two children from his previous marriage.

“I am a very open person, but I’m not going to be able to be truly open about this in certain aspects because there’s kids involved,” she says. “I think that I will navigate a way in which to be open and honest about it eventually, probably via the show, and it’ll probably, I’m assuming, happen organically when someone says something in conversation or something. It definitely wouldn’t be planned. But my children and his older children — there are a lot of little hearts involved in this and while people feel, ‘Oh my gosh, what a loss ...’ imagine how it is in the epicenter of the storm. It’s a lot to process and deal with, just as a family. So because it’s not just me, I probably won’t go too deep with it.”
What comes through in her music is another story. While the Grammy-winning songstress, like most musicians, had to hit pause on some of her musical endeavors this year — namely, postponing the launch of her Las Vegas residency at Planet Hollywood — she hasn’t stopped writing. And she’s sure some will read between the lines about her split in the new album she’s working on.

Grammy and Emmy winner Kelly Clarkson
Grammy-winning songstress Kelly Clarkson.
(Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times)

“It’s funny, I actually told my therapist recently, ‘I have no idea how one goes through any kind of huge life change, like a divorce, that doesn’t have some kind of an outlet,’” says Clarkson, whose last album was 2017’s “Meaning of Life.” “I am very lucky. Even from my childhood, my mom told me I had a problem expressing my emotions and all these things when I was really young and that I should start writing. So that’s me expressing it. I usually leave it in the songs and that’s usually my therapy.

“It’s just like people dealing with the pandemic,” she continues. “Some days are fine, you’re laughing about it and there’s comedic things about it — in a dark comedy kind of way — but then there are other times that are so low that you just don’t know if you’re going to get picked back up. And then there’s other times when you’re like, ‘OK, fresh start.’ ... I’m incapable of not incorporating it into my music because that is my outlet.”