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"Idol' winner keeps it real

Published Sep. 7, 2002|Updated Sep. 3, 2005

In the bubbly lingo of Kelly Clarkson, life is simply "cool beans!"

And understandably so for the 20-year-old former cocktail waitress from Burleson, Texas, who sang her way past thousands of other hopefuls to win American Idol: The Search for a Superstar, Wednesday night.

"Cool beans" is Clarkson's pet exclamation, and it's certainly a fitting shorthand for her whirlwind life during the summer-long run of the Fox network talent show that has unexpectedly become a cultural phenomenon.

Along the way, Clarkson has landed on the cover of Entertainment Weekly and found her performances dissected in innumerable Web chats.

Such sudden media attention could prove overwhelming for any young performer. But confronting this sometimes harsh glare of scrutiny ("This summer's hit TV craze, American Idol, could as easily be called American Insult," editorialized USA Today), Clarkson has been the picture of perkiness, pleasantness and her own grounded serenity.

"I just try to be as real as I can be _ the kind of person who doesn't really care if she is caught without makeup, not some ultraprofessional musician who is only "on' when in front of the camera," said Clarkson during a recent visit to her alma mater, Burleson High School, just south of Fort Worth. "Before I sing, I just pray to God that He won't let me mess up."

Clarkson's success on American Idol hasn't been based solely on her take-no-prisoners singing ability. Judging by the number of signs held by fans during the show's broadcasts ("Kelly, You're a Super Star") Clarkson has clearly touched a chord of mass appeal.

Her warm-as-a-popover personality communicates to her audience that even she doesn't fully comprehend how she pulled off her performance. Still more refreshing is how willfully she has discarded the pop-idol stylebook that seems to dictate that a performer wear a sycophantic smiley face at all time. Instead, Clarkson delivers her songs with the smoldering gaze of someone utterly invested in her material's emotion.

"What audiences see in Kelly is someone able to project this truthful image of someone real and comforting," suggested Kristin Holt, the former Miss Burleson who first met Clarkson when both became top-120 Idol contestants.

"Kelly is phenomenal," said Nikki McKibbin, the Grand Prairie, Texas, singer and single mom eliminated by voters in the semifinals of Idol. "Just look at her, starting with that incredible voice. She has obviously been the crowd favorite and she just deserves every stitch of everything she is receiving."

On Aug. 22, a triumphant visit by Clarkson to Burleson High School provoked a stampede of squealing teens.

"Hey, I'm so excited about all of this _ this is just cool beans," said Clarkson in a school office teeming with well-wishers. Then she recognized yet another long-lost friend: "Hey girl, what's goin' on? Come here and give me some loving."

Though Clarkson was working on two hours' sleep, she was a multitasking Energizer Bunny as she wielded an autograph pen, scrawling dedications (always beginning with "God Bless") on glossy publicity shots, T-shirts and school notebooks _ all while eating a slice of sausage pizza, hugging passers-by and answering numerous cell phone calls.

And then Clarkson fielded questions like a news conference pro.

What do you miss about Texas?

"The humidity, believe it or not," Clarkson said. "I've also missed those orange Flurries from Sonic."

What would she like to get if she becomes a recording artist in Los Angeles?

"A personal trainer, please," Clarkson blurted out with unabashed honesty. "I need to get my booty in shape."

Clarkson was born in 1982 into a firmly middle-class family. Her mother, Jeanne Taylor, is a first-grade teacher, and her stepfather, Jimmy Taylor, is a contractor. Clarkson was 6 when her mother and biological father, Steve Clarkson, separated.

Upon entering Burleson High School, Clarkson spent much of her time in choral mode, when she wasn't honing her skills as a crack volleyball player. She was all but made for musical theater.

"Already then, Kelly could do any and all musical styles," recalled Philip Glenn, her choir teacher at Burleson High School. "She could sing the classical literature but didn't sound like a rhythm-and-blues singer trying to sing classical."

After graduating in 2000, Clarkson wrote and did a demo tape of her own compositions while working as a waitress in a comedy club and as a clerk at an Eckerd pharmacy.

In January, Clarkson and a friend went to Los Angeles to seek her break in the music business. Through various contacts, Clarkson began tentatively working with well-known songwriter Gerry Goffin. But for Clarkson, a series of discouraging incidents _ Goffin's suffering a sudden illness, a fire at her Los Angeles apartment and her roommate's decision to leave LA _ convinced the aspiring singer it was time to return to Burleson.

There, a friend cajoled Clarkson into joining roughly 1,000 hopefuls at the Dallas auditions for American Idol.

With her victory Wednesday night, Clarkson will have plenty of Idol-related activities to keep her busy. She and the rest of the show's top 30 reportedly will do a series of shows in Las Vegas, in addition to heading out on a national tour that brings them to the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa on Oct. 23. Fox is also planning a televised special involving many of Idol's top performers.

Her first recorded single _ the song she performed Tuesday night _ will be released Sept. 17, with a full CD expected out Nov. 26.

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