Kelly Clarkson,Texas girl

The first American Idol isn't doing the Hollywood thing. She's building her pop empire from afar, and on her own terms.

Published June 29, 2006

If everything goes according to plan, Kelly Clarkson will never star in a celebrity sex tape.

Nor will the former American Idol champ ever be caught toting around a small, yippie dog in her designer purse.

And you can safely assume that the 24-year-old will never date, marry and/or divorce Richie Sambora.

These are just a few reasons why Clarkson is the rare pop phenom who doesn't make you feel guilty for finding her appealing. The 5-foot-3 (on a big-hair day, that is) Texas tornado has zero desire to play the Hollywood Shuffle.

And heck, even if she wanted to mingle with Lindsay and Britney, Paris and Nicole, she claims she'd have a hard time recognizing them.

Case in point: At this year's Grammy Awards, the singer goosed the music world by winning both best pop vocal album (for 2004's multiplatinum Breakaway) and best female pop vocal performance (for ubiquitous smash Since U Been Gone).

It was a dream night for sure: She overcame her reality TV rep and took her best friend from seventh grade as her date. But truth be told, Clarkson would have enjoyed herself even more had she known just who was congratulating her.

"Honestly, I'm such a nerd," says Clarkson, talkingreallyfasty'all! during a phone call to promote her concert Saturday at Ford Amphitheatre in Tampa. "I don't ever recognize anybody! People come up to me - and I don't even want to say who it is - but big stars will come up to me, and I'll have no idea who they are! Then they'll walk away and I'll be like, 'Man, who was I just talking to?'

"People won't introduce themselves, 'cause they think that you should just know. And I'm like, 'I've never met you, so how would I know you?' People look different in person. I look totally different in person!"

Before you go buying too much of her "aw shucks" stuff, let it be known that the girl wants to dominate. Selling almost 10-million copies worldwide of your first two albums (2003's Thankful was her debut) doesn't happen by accident. She's dreamed about giving a Grammy speech since she was a wee thing growing up in Burleson, Texas.

But as La-La Land's nubile no-talents compete to sleaze up the cover of US Weekly, Clarkson builds her budding pop empire from afar - and all without tabloid-tailored controversy.

"I'm always going to live in Texas," says a defiant Clarkson, chatting away as she drives through her Fort Worth neighborhood. "Just 'cause Texas is so awesome - and everything else isn't."

And there you go: The reason Clarkson is so universally likable is because she has learned, in a short time, how to be successful on her own terms.

After winning Idol in the show's inaugural season in 2002, Clarkson was put under the care of 19 Entertainment, the management company led by Idol creator Simon Fuller. Clarkson reportedly balked at Fuller's puppeteering and her own lack of creative input.

She has distanced herself from Idol somewhat but has been careful not to alienate the fans who got her here in the first place. It's a tightrope walk, but she's doing her best.

"I was obviously the first (Idol winner), and I'm very proud of coming from it," she says. "I love the show. It was a great, great thing for me. ... (But) I think I'm more interesting now because people know me more. With the show, it was overnight, and no one knew anything about me. It was all in your face, and you had to swallow it. Now I'm holding the reins of my career. I'm not as much of a rookie as I was before."

Clarkson recently cut the final Idol apron string, leaving 19 Entertainment and signing with a new management group, the Firm. The new fit is a good one, if only because her current handlers know too much Kelly is not a good thing.

"I get tired of myself," she says, "and that's usually when I call my manager and say, 'If I'm tired of me, then other people have to be tired of me. So let's cool it on that for a little while.' "

Clarkson has been one of the most played pop stars over the past three years. Since she's giving the interview while in a car, I ask her if she changes the radio station when she hears one of her hits, be it the funky strut of Miss Independent, the ballad Because of You, which chronicles the divorce of her parents, or that delicious breakup basher Since U Been Gone.

"It depends," she says. "If it's a song I haven't heard in a while - like, I hadn't heard Walk Away ever on the radio, and I was in Texas one time, and I was like, 'Oooh,' and I listened. Other than that, I usually turn it off."

During our conversation, Clarkson laughs a lot (and laughsreallyfasttooy'all!), which betrays her reputation as someone so intent on ditching her past that she can't embrace the present. So I ask her flat out: Are you having fun?

"For the first three years of this? No!" she says. "I was only enjoying it a little bit. Now I'm starting to get the hang of it. It's not worth anything if you're not going to be happy with it. I'm great with it now, 'cause I go home. . . . I live way out in the country, and I have tons of acres. I live with my brother. I have go-carts, a pool. The (go-carts) are like war vehicles, man. They're huge! They go pretty dang fast."

For the record, Clarkson does not wear a helmet while go-carting. But she promises she won't pull an Ozzy and go tuchus over teacups. After all, her upcoming U.S. tour is one of the most anticipated of the summer. Clarkson says she will be tinkering with her set list each night, switching out cover nods to such songwriting heroes as Patty Griffin ("I'm in love with her!") and Marc Broussard.

But her show's most buzzed-about moments will no doubt be when she unveils a handful of songs from her as-yet-untitled third album, which is slated to hit stores in January or February.

"Oh my god!" shouts Clarkson. "I'm going to be honest with you: My third album is ridiculous. I'm so excited. It's so great. There are parts of it that rock totally hard. It's a soulful rock thing. I grew up with Aretha and Aerosmith and Reba McEntire. There's this one song, Yeah, that's just ridiculous. It's almost like Chaka Khan (meets) Prince. I'm telling you what, dude: It's going to be really hard to pick (a first single) for this album."

Normally, such confidence coming from a major pop star - especially one who calls you "dude" - would seem like the typical hype machine spitting out empty promises.

But Clarkson isn't typical. Not even in the slightest.

"If everybody doesn't like it, that's cool," she says, laughing. "I'm in love with it!"

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His blog is at www.sptimes.com/blogs/popmusic.

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Kelly Clarkson With Rooney, 8 p.m. Saturday, Ford Amphitheatre, Interstate 4 at U.S. 301 N, Tampa. $25-$75. 813 740-2446.