Celebrity Gossip

Kelly Clarkson Felt Pressured to Be Sexual as a Rising Pop Star: “I Had to Fight Like Hell”

American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson after winning the contest at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood, Ca., Sept. 4, 2002.  (photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

In the 20 years since her “American Idol” win, Kelly Clarkson has become a household name. Most recently the “Stronger” singer announced her 10th studio album, expected to be released in 2023, and signed on for a fourth season of “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” which is set to take over the time slot originally held by “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” on NBC. But as a young pop star, Clarkson said her rise to stardom was uncomfortable, with industry professionals often pressuring her to act sexual and fit the mold of a stereotypical Hollywood star.

“It was not great,” Clarkson told Variety in the publication’s September cover story. “It was just really hard for me to navigate the industry. I remember this one tool I worked with — 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.”

“It just bummed me out. But you know what? It’s all right. Because what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

For Clarkson, the demand to be edgier was emotionally taxing, forcing her to stand her ground for the sake of her career and her well-being. “The biggest thing for me is I never thought I’d be fighting so hard to just be myself,” she 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.”

As her career developed, the pressure to change her image became constant, with one photographer even losing her temper when Clarkson refused to hold up a cigarette. “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 all right. Because what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

At such a young age, the constant expectation to pretend to be someone she wasn’t could have turned the singer off from going after her dreams altogether. But Clarkson doubled down on her efforts to make her true self seen, refusing to conform to typical pop-star standards even if it meant making industry leaders unhappy. “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,” Clarkson said. “Women love to be sexual. Everybody likes to be flirty. Everybody likes to be sensual. 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.”

While navigating Hollywood’s expectations of women pop stars hasn’t been easy, Clarkson said she’s grateful for the path her “American Idol” win has put her on and the relationships she’s built along the way. “20 years ago today I won ‘American Idol’ and it forever changed the course of my life,” Clarkson wrote in an Instagram post on Sept. 5. That moment was the door that opened up so much access and opportunity, and creative partnerships that I will be grateful for all of my days. The family and friendships I have created over these 20 years in music and tv are priceless to me.”

“I am most proud and grateful for those friends that have become family, and for their arms that have held me when I needed it and their hearts that listened to me when I felt lost. Without them I would not be where I am.”

She continued, “We only get so many trips around the sun and while I am proud and feel abundantly blessed of the successes and failures that I have learned from, I am most proud and grateful for those friends that have become family, and for their arms that have held me when I needed it and their hearts that listened to me when I felt lost. Without them I would not be where I am. I would probably not be here at all. Thank you so much to every single person that voted 20 years ago! Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I hope all of you have people in your lives that fill you with laughter, and hope, and happiness, and if you don’t feel like you have that, then keep searching because I promise you they’re looking for you too.”

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