“I’m so sweaty. I’m gonna roll these Spanx off,” Kelly Clarkson exclaims in front of a live audience at Lincoln Center, having just belted out Mary J. Blige’s “Just Fine” — a song she learned only hours before. The crowd cheers her on and laughs as she announces, mid-performance, “I have to pee, so I’m gonna have an extra pep in my step.”
This is not a concert.
On this rainy, humid morning in August, Clarkson is on set for Season 4 of “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” which has relocated to New York City from L.A. for a week to pre-tape shows for its fall premiere. And things need to be more than ”just fine,” as this is not your ordinary season launch: The daytime star has been thrust into the lucrative time slot that had previously been held by Ellen DeGeneres, who built her empire in that pole position. Now, NBC-owned stations and dozens of other top local broadcasters around the country will rely on Clarkson as a pivotal lead-in for local evening newscasts.
After shooting those first five episodes over the course of two days in New York (3,000 miles from her set on the Universal Studios lot, where her syndicated talk show tapes), Clarkson took “Kellyoke” — the program’s signature opening segment — on the road. The “Kellyoke” bus stopped in Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles, serving both as a talent-search pop-up (with fans delivering their renditions of Clarkson’s hit “Since You’ve Been Gone” for a chance to appear on the show) and as a strategic tie-in with station affiliates. It’s affiliate support that is crucial to ensuring “Kelly Clarkson” thrives in its new hour.
“We absolutely take it very seriously, this change in the time slots,” says Tracie Wilson, executive vice president of NBCUniversal Syndication Studios and E! News, who was the first exec to identify Clarkson’s potential as a talk-show host during the star’s first season on “The Voice,” on which she’s been a coach for eight seasons.
As Clarkson prepares to take over DeGeneres’ syndication turf, it’s a new day not only for daytime but also for the star. Clarkson, whose divorce from music manager Brandon Blackstock, her husband of seven years, was finalized earlier this year, is feeling recharged after decamping with her children — daughter River, 8, and son Remington, 6 — to her ranch in Montana to unplug for the summer. “Nature is so good for me. I’m a Texas girl and I grew up in the country,” Clarkson says.
But vacation mode didn’t last long. Sure, she’s taking the fall season of “The Voice” off, but the talk show isn’t all the working mom is focused on. She’s also the face of home décor company Wayfair, where she has her own line, and she’s about to drop a “9 to 5” duet with Dolly Parton, which will pave the way for her big return to music. Clarkson reveals to Variety exclusively that she’s recorded her first album in five years, which will be released in 2023.
Now, relatively rested, Clarkson is ready to grab the talkshow mic — but in a very shaky landscape. The streaming revolution has upended the way audiences consume television, and in 2022, the stakes in a fractured TV and TikTok world are high. In daytime, for instance, NBC recently threw in the towel on its last soap, “Days of Our Lives,” and sent it off to Peacock. And in afternoon talk, gone are the days of “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “The Rosie O’Donnell Show” or even those early years of “Ellen,” when tens of millions of viewers would tune in.
This year in particular has seen a sea change in daytime TV, with Wendy Williams, Dr. Oz and DeGeneres all having left the airwaves. Given these challenges, Clarkson is realistic in her expectations. “Nobody is going to fill Ellen’s shoes,” she says. “I hold the Oprahs and the Ellens in such high regard. Very few people can conquer what they conquered. My team is very stoked, and I believe in my team. But by no means am I filling anyone shoes — I don’t want that pressure.”
With DeGeneres’ exit, Clarkson is now practically a veteran in the space, just four seasons in, alongside hosts like Tamron Hall and Drew Barrymore. This fall, Sherri Shepherd and Clarkson’s fellow “Idol” alum Jennifer Hudson will launch talk shows.
But all of those hosts will be chasing viewership crumbs. When Clarkson won “American Idol” in 2002, nearly 23 million people tuned in live to watch her become the first champion of the singing competition show. Fast-forward two decades and “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” ranking among the top 10 daytime programs in total viewers, drew an average daily audience of 1.3 million viewers for the 2021-22 season. Still, Clarkson out-delivered “Ellen” and ranked as the third-most-watched syndicated yakker in key demos, behind “Live With Kelly and Ryan” and “Dr. Phil.”
Big-tent audiences may be disappearing from linear TV, but the afternoon news lead-in remains crucial for stations that rely on newscasts for most of their advertising revenue. “Every station is counting on us to deliver for them,” says Alex Duda, Clarkson’s executive producer and showrunner.
On any given day, “The Kelly Clarkson Show” — which has won 13 Emmys in its three seasons — sees a varied panel of guests seated together on Clarkson’s cozy, rustic set, adorned with a barn door, albums lining the exposed brick walls and sunflowers, which are her favorite. When Variety visited her studio at Universal this spring for one of the final episodes of Season 3, Clarkson double-fisted wine with Cameron Diaz and fangirled over Heart rocker Ann Wilson, pinching herself during their duet of “Almost Paradise.”
Clarkson has the ability to connect with guests more as a friend than a celebrity. It’s why, when most hosts might shy away from addressing Hillary Clinton’s marriage during an interview, Clarkson — in a segment that will air during the show’s premiere week — didn’t think twice when she told the former secretary of state that she could relate to the public scandal Clinton endured, because she recently went through a highly publicized divorce. (Clinton and her daughter, Chelsea, sat down with Clarkson on her Lincoln Center set for a “gutsy women”-themed episode.)
Duda says the upcoming season will loosen up the format a bit, giving Clarkson more time to speak intimately with guests. This season will see first lady Jill Biden, Scarlett Johansson, Blake Shelton, Gwen Stefani and Rosie O’Donnell in studio. “We’re not going to go super newsy or super serious, because that’s not who we are,” the executive producer adds. “We’re about connection.”
But during the Season 4 coast-to-coast premiere, Clarkson will pay a visit to Uvalde, Texas, to witness the community rebuilding after the school shootings. As an executive producer and a Fort Worth native, she was the first to engage with her team on how to address the tragedy, and in a later episode, will welcome “NBC Nightly News” anchor Lester Holt, who covered the tragic mass shooting.
Becoming the first winner of “American Idol” at just 20 years old, Clarkson has been in the public eye for more than two decades. But she behaves as if she has no idea how famous she is. Despite being a Grammy-winning international superstar (who is set to receive her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Sept. 19), she is startlingly authentic.
“I find myself to be incredibly normal,” Clarkson says. “I don’t know how that happened. I always feel bad for artists who can’t go anywhere. I can go to Target all the time, anytime I want. Somehow, I lucked out.”
In a wide-ranging interview with Variety on a recent early-morning Zoom ahead of rehearsals in New York, Clarkson (in her pajamas) previews the next season of “The Kelly Clarkson Show” — and reveals more about that new album.
Do you feel pressure taking Ellen’s slot?
I remember Oprah had that spot forever. And then Ellen came in. And I think what’s helpful for me is that those two women are very different — how they did their shows was very different, how they connected with people was different, their humor was different. One was a comedian, one was a journalist, and both were successful. To fill that slot doesn’t mean you have to do one thing — it’s important that we all stand out, and that we’re all different.
That time slot is a big deal.
It’s a coveted slot. What’s cool is more people can watch it because they’re getting off work or getting home from school. It’s just a really great time slot, and that’s how I look at it: as an opportunity to reach more people.
Who were your talk-show influences growing up?
I loved Rosie O’Donnell’s show. If anybody were to compare me, I feel I’m more like that, vibewise. She was such a fan of people. She had conversations; she loved music; she loved to be inspired. It was just positive.
Ellen, Oprah — many of these people were on the air for 20 years. Daytime is a space where you can have longevity. How long do you want your show to go?
The fact that I love my work and can have regular hours — for a mom, that’s so amazing. I’m very fortunate. I never thought I’d be living in L.A., but artists in general are such gypsies. And we’re not really planners. If I plan too far ahead, I start to feel trapped, and that scares me. Yes, it’s a daytime talk show, but I think the reason why I could do it for years and years is because I’m able to do music, I’m able to talk to people, and my team makes it so easy. It’s such a blessing to be able to conquer all these different things.
Daytime has always had a reputation for being toxic, particularly for women. But now you have so many women in the space — from Tamron to Drew to Sherri and Jennifer.
I am so excited for Sherri Shepherd. I’m so stoked for her. She’s one of my favorite guests. Literally, I pole-danced with her on my show. And I’m so excited for Jennifer Hudson. Who would have thought two girls from “Idol” would be doing this type of thing? There’s room for everyone. I just wanted to say that, because I don’t like how people pit us against each other. I want to be sure that everyone knows that we are supportive of each other. We are all so different, and daytime is an amazing platform for all of us to bring something positive into the world.
You took off the entire summer to unplug in Montana, and now you’re in New York to film the premiere week of your show. How does it feel being back?
I had some time, finally. I’ve never had a summer off since I was, like, 16, and I was like, “I need it off.” I think that created the space for me to really have time to go, “What am I comfortable with? What do I want to release?” So I’m working on my album this week. It’s coming out next year. And this is an important album. I’m working on this in therapy: I have a hard time vocalizing what I’m feeling sometimes, so music is helpful for me. It’s just been really healing. I recorded the record quite some time ago.
How long were you working on it?
Two years. When my ex and I first separated, there were many emotions. It was hard. My producer and I were laughing yesterday because I was like, “Remember that time we wrote, like, 25 songs in a week?” A lot of those are the ones that are on the album. I literally wrote most of these almost two years ago. Then I told my label, “I can’t talk about this until I’ve gone through it,” and it’s just taken some time to do that. That’s one of the reasons we’ve done a lot of Christmas stuff the past two years — because I was like, “Well, that’s happy!”
Were you planning on recording a new album, or were you just channeling what you were going through in writing, and then realized that it should probably be an album?
I hadn’t really been working hardcore on an album until I needed to. I was just very busy. There were so many jobs, and I’m a single mom — well, even with being married, it’s a lot, trying to fit kids’ schedules in and all that stuff. But then the whole divorce thing happened, and I needed to write it. And then I didn’t know if I was going to release it, because you can be very angry in that state of mind. So some of the songs, they definitely cover the gamut of emotions; there’s everything on the album. It’s almost like the arc of a relationship, because the beginning is so beautiful and so sweet, and then it evolves. And sometimes it doesn’t evolve how you want.
A talk show is a grind. Did you even have time to work on an album over the past few years?
No. There wasn’t time. And not just because of the talk show, but also because of “The Voice” and “American Song Contest.” I like to be busy in general. But especially when all the feelings are happening, I’m like, “Oh, let’s be as busy a bee as we can, so I don’t have to feel this for a minute!” I do that, which is not healthy. I was like, “I just need to keep swimming like Dory, and then I’ll get there.” That’s why taking this summer was so important to me, even though a lot of people were kind of bummed because I was supposed to do a couple of things. Obviously, I stepped down on “The Voice” this season, because I just needed the space.
You’re not doing “The Voice.” But that show is designed so that the coaches can take seasons off to go on tour or record music or whatnot. Is it safe to say you’ll be back?
I definitely … [Laughs] Um, I probably will be back at “The Voice” at some point. I might be back at “The Voice.”
You might be back? So does that mean the season after next?
I mean, I don’t know! [Laughs ]
Typically, a new album comes with a tour.
I definitely am going to do shows. We’re figuring that out. I sing almost every day because of the show, even though it’s always other people’s music. So I feel like I’m checking that box. But when you write an album that’s so personal, it’s just therapeutic to be able to get up there.
How will a tour work with your talk-show schedule?
The only way it fits in is summer. At this point in my career, the way I’m going to do it may not be the norm, but I’m going do it anyway. I know there are other guys and girls out there that have been through this kind of breakup who are going to need to scream at the top of their lungs — you can come and join me. I don’t go out in L.A. except to see shows: I saw Harry Styles, who is incredible. The Chicks were incredible. Ray LaMontagne was so good, I felt like I didn’t have any talent. Anyway, that just inspired me to get back out there on the road, especially for this album. I think it’s important.
I was talking to Tracie Wilson from NBC and your executive producer Alex Duda, and they said you are an artist first and they’ll always make time for you to do music. Do you remember your first meeting with them?
Tracie saw me on “The Voice,” and was like, “She needs a show.” And I was like, “What?! Are y’all insane? I’m not a journalist. I’m not a comedian. I don’t know who is going to watch this.” I was the biggest naysayer. I always say it’s like a dream I did not know I had. It makes sense now. After I did my pilot show, I was like, “Well, I like talking.” They knew right off the bat that I was doing “The Voice” and that I would want to do music stuff whenever I was ready. I’ve always had like three or four jobs like my whole life, since I could have a job. I like being busy.
I always say: If you want to get something done, give it to a busy person.
Right? Purpose is so important. It not only drives you, but it makes you creative and it inspires you. People always say, “You are the hardest working mama in show business.” I’m like, “No, I’m not.” There are tons of us. There are so many moms in the industry — my jobs happen to be on-camera. There are so many moms and dads killing it at work every day and doing different jobs. I think that’s important to show your kids, like, “This is who I am as a person.” Things don’t stop when you have children; the circle just gets bigger.
How does being a parent change your approach to work every day?
This season, we pushed everything back 30 minutes. I made that call so that I can take my kids to school. And then my nanny picks them up. At least I have the mornings with them, and then I have nights with them. I think the most important thing I’ve learned in therapy, especially through this divorce, is “Don’t hide everything from your kids. Obviously, don’t talk about stuff that you shouldn’t talk about, but it’s OK if they see you cry, or it’s OK if they see you’ve had a bad day.” You start to feel that kind of shame, like, “I’ve got to put my best foot forward as a mom because I don’t want them to be affected.” But then you allow your kids to express empathy, and they learn how to say, “Oh, man, I’m sorry you had a hard day.”
When you’re filming “The Voice,” you’re working at least six days a week, if not seven. Do you have mom guilt?
My mom, I did call her once — this was years ago — and I was like, “Do I see my kids enough?” And she was like, “Oh, my God, Kelly, you see your kids way more than I saw you!” A lot of people don’t have the means, so I’m very fortunate. The scheduling can get tricky, but I have such a great team: Everyone at NBC is amazing, and everybody wants everyone to be successful. It’s really helpful to have that type of unity in your environment at work. There are a lot of parents at the talk show and at “The Voice” and at my label. And there are a lot of women.
Twenty years ago, when you started, that probably wouldn’t have been the case.
There were no women. It’s nice now. But there are a lot of working dads too. Everyone is putting their best foot forward.
You were so young when you won “American Idol.” All of a sudden, you were thrust into the limelight, coming off the biggest show on the planet. What do you remember about that time?
It was not great. 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.”
When you won “Idol,” it was the age of Britney and Christina and Jessica, and the pop-star brand was different than yours. All of those musicians have since talked about being hyper-sexualized by an industry that was particularly nasty to young women. Were a lot of people trying to put you in the popstar box?
One hundred percent. 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.
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.
How were you able to stick to your guns, especially at such a young age?
The biggest thing for me is I never thought I’d be fighting so hard to just be myself. 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.
Can you think of any examples of when you felt like someone was trying to force you into something that wasn’t you?
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 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.
Someone once said that.
Some guy said that to me in Central Park the other day. He was taking us on one of those carriage rides, and I was like, “We’re not light.” And he goes, “Well, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I didn’t even know he noticed me.
TV execs always say that authenticity is key in daytime. And talking to you, Kelly, you don’t really feel famous. You feel incredibly normal. How do you stay so anti-Hollywood?
I don’t know if it’s how I came in the industry – I don’t know if there’s some kind of pride that people feel since they voted for me. It’s always a familial feeling with people. I will say this: I don’t read anything. I do not read things, I do not engage. My favorite thing I’ve been told in life is that you do not have to attend an argument. Like, I will not be attending that. Also, things get blown out of proportion in the media, so it’s not worth it. Also, my personality, I’m just really low key. Like, obviously.
I get the sense that you are in L.A. because you work in the entertainment industry, but you would never be there if you didn’t have to be. Is that true?
No. 100%. It’s nothing against L.A. It’s just hard for me to be in a place that has one season. I love rain, and I love storms. I’m just from a different place. But I do try. We go to shows. My kids have the most amazing teachers and they have the most amazing experience because it is sunny all the time there. This year, I’ll be in Montana every month at some point. It’s important to love your life – I love work and I love everybody I work with and I love my friends, but geographically speaking, that wouldn’t be my first choice.
It still sounds like you have a lot more to do. Is it safe to say that you’re not quite ready to retire to Montana yet?
I was talking to just a couple artists that are older than me, like total legends, and one of them was hilarious, like, “Ma’am, I don’t know what you’re doing. You need to get back out on the road!”
Are you comfortable sharing who these legendary artists are?
One of them was Bette. I know both of these artists through my hair guy, who works with Bette Midler and also Stevie Nicks. I had very interesting, random conversations with both of these women over the phone. Impromptu. Bette was just very cool and supportive. She knew I was going through a hard time, and she gave me such good advice. She has a career I love. She’s done so many different things. I love modeling my career after people like that, who didn’t just stop. They’re not just a one trick pony. Stevie was the one that was like, “What are you doing, ma’am? Why aren’t you on the road? I’m on the road, and I’m like in my 70s!” She was giving me shit, and it was awesome.
Bette Midler and Stevie Nicks. Those are two pretty great mentors to have in your life.
They were so supportive. I think women — and this is especially what I try to do for the younger generation — you want to be supportive and tell them to dream big. You have no idea what you could accomplish. There’s room for everyone at the table. You can’t stress that enough in this industry. If I’m releasing a record, a lot of people be like, “Oh, I hope big artists don’t drop on the same day,” and I have the mentality, “I would love to drop on the same day as big artists because then you drive each other.” You know how people are always pitting people against each other? I don’t like that.
What else do you still want to conquer?
I have dreams of maybe Broadway one day. And I have different dreams I’ve had since I was a kid. I don’t know how it’s all going to pan out. I could do the show for years, if we’re lucky enough to have the legacy that these other people have. But at the same time, that doesn’t mean I can’t do Broadway in a summer. That doesn’t mean I can’t have that gypsy mentality and change it up.
Kelly Clarkson on Broadway. Let’s put that out into the universe.
I’ve been putting it out into the universe since I was a kid.