Before catapulting to pop stardom, Kelly Clarkson was one of us. In many ways, she still is.
The original American Idol, who memorably erupted into waterworks when she won the first season of the reality show in 2002, wasn’t always able to muster the willpower she’s instilled in the gay community through her uncompromising persona and liberating pop anthems, including those on her latest album, Piece by Piece.
That’s just the charm of Clarkson, who opens up in our new interview about overcoming teen inferiorities, diehard lesbian fans who call themselves “Kezbos,” driving Bette Midler to “suicide,” and that night she sipped some wine, felt “sad” for our generation and wrote a powerful song about it.
WATERMARK: Tell me the moment in your career you first knew gay people worshipped at your altar.
KELLY CLARKSON: (Laughs) Oh my god—that’s amazing! It was the Breakaway World Tour (in 2005)—the first tour for the Breakaway record—and it was so awesome. One girl on tour came up and just introduced herself and was like, “I’m a Kezbo,” and I was like, “What?!” She was like, “A Kezbo—your lesbian fans.” And I was like, “Wait—there’s enough of you to have a group? That’s amazing! Awesome! Go me!” And she was like, “Yeah, we just love you. We’re gonna bring you to the other side.” And I was like, “All right, well, keep trying!”
Then, on the same tour, I had this guy, and he was so funny! Because, you know I’m a huge fan of Bette Midler and have been since I saw For the Boys when I was a kid, and he’s like, “You’re our new Bette!” (Laughs) I was like, “You need to aim higher. Bette Midler just shot herself! I’m not that cool, but I will work on gaining the respect of that compliment.”
Is it hard to fathom yourself a gay icon?
I guess it’s hard to fathom you can be an icon in general. I don’t consider myself an icon at all, but no—I have a lot of gay and lesbian friends and they like my stuff, so I guess it’s not so hard for me to think [the LGBT community] might like my music. But I don’t know … I’m not an icon. I’ve only been doing this for 13 years. You’ve gotta be doing it for a good 20 to gain that status.
How do you explain your strong bond with the gay community?
I don’t ever look at a fan as a gay fan or a lesbian fan or a straight fan—I don’t ever look at that. Fans are fans, and no matter what our lives are like, no matter what path we’re on, music is the one thing that connects us. I mean, I had so much fun at this club recently. It’s called G-A-Y—this club in London—and everybody knew all the words to every song. Even the new one! And they were gay and straight and lesbian—everybody was there. It didn’t matter, and it was just really cool. It was a cool event, and it was fun. And it’s what I love about music—that it doesn’t matter. That’s what connects us.
What was your very first time at a gay bar like?
Oh gosh—that would’ve been in LA, and I was probably 22. I went with some of my friends and a couple of my gay friends, and they were like, “You’re gonna love this! But you’re gonna need to wear a hat.” They played “Since U Been Gone,” and it was so funny because nobody knew I was there. I had a blast!
The awesome thing, for girls especially: Because most gay bars that I’ve been to—and I guess I’ve been to four or five—are all gay men and not lesbians, and being a straight female, you don’t get hit on the whole time, you don’t get people grabbing you or, like, being gross. There’s no judgment, and it’s just fun. You’re not worried about going, “No, thank you, I can buy my own drinks.” It’s the most fun club and fun time you’ll ever have in your life.
The song “Invincible” alludes to overcoming self-doubts and insecurities. In your own life, when did you most experience those hurdles, and when did you finally accept yourself for who you are?
In high school, and you know, I was having a hard time. I guess all people go through it—it’s just a different time period for all of us. When I was a sophomore in high school, it was the one time [in my life] I felt like I was insecure. It was just an awkward stage for me. Well, as was junior high, but I just wasn’t aware of it yet. (Laughs)
I’ve always been different. I’ve never been the girl that has to feel like she has to get all dolled up every day. I’ve always been kind of a tomboy. I’ve always been very outspoken, and, you know, my mom is too. I don’t know any other way to be. It’s just my personality.
In my sophomore year of high school, I got a little insecure about [my personality], because girls can be mean and I got the lead in this role in choir. No sophomore was ever supposed to get it, so people were just really mean about it. And, like, mean. Worse than the movie! (Laughs)
Growing up in small-town Texas, when did you get your first taste of gay culture? Did you even know gay people then?
Oh yeah. Yeah! Nobody was outspoken like they are now. I think it’s a more comfortable—well, I don’t know. A couple of friends of mine just recently came out to their parents and one was just about the most horrible situation ever. So I think that still happens, unfortunately. But when I was a kid, I had a couple of my friends in choir with me. I think everybody knew [they were gay], but it wasn’t talked about or anything.
Honestly, I grew up in such a creative environment. Even in our choral group—even with my friends—nobody really talked about it, nobody was against or for it. There were no flags of any kind—of race, of who liked who. I feel like I grew up in a really incredibly good bubble. I never experienced people hating—no hate crimes or anything like that—until well into the industry. With Idol, people would say hateful things about certain contestants on the show, and I was like, “What in the world?!” I, fortunately, grew up in a world where that wasn’t a huge issue.
But you were raised Southern Baptist, a denomination that condemns homosexuality. What was the journey like to get to where you are now—a staunch supporter of marriage equality?
At my church, whenever I did attend Sunday service, that was never talked about. I know that is what the doctrine of Southern Baptist is, but they also said don’t drink and dance, but we drank and danced! (Laughs) I don’t think I grew up in some hardcore community where people were like that. I grew up in a very accepting household. I was taught to accept everybody how they are, and I admire my mom for that. She’s never taught me hate.
I gotta ask about your baby girl, River Rose.
Because she’s magical. She’s a magical unicorn.
You know, in some circles, the unicorn is a gay symbol.
Oh, I didn’t know that! But I love it. That’s what I call my baby!
Speaking of which, how might you and your hubby handle it if River turned out to be lesbian?
Oh, I don’t care. I mean, here’s what I hope for her: I just hope she finds love. It took me a while, man. And there was a lot of heartache throughout those years. You know, as long as she’s happy, I don’t care either way, and neither does my husband. And we have two other kids as well, and we don’t care either way for all of them.
If one of them were to come out to you, what would you say?
I’d be like, “Awesome! When do we meet him or her?” Honestly, it’s so funny, it doesn’t even register in my world as different. I don’t know why. But yeah, it doesn’t. I’m glad it doesn’t!
When you look out at pop culture currently, where do you stand concerning its use of sex? And how satisfied are you with the examples these artists are setting for people like your kids and future generations?
There’s a reason why women have been revered as long as we have been—even back in the day most statues are of us; most paintings are of us—[and it’s because] we’re a beautiful form, and I get it. I get that that is sexy and I’m so in support of that. I love a sexy video. I don’t even mind raciness. I don’t mind that at all.
I just mind when people use that as the entire basis of their career. The only reason that I say that is because I feel those people are short-sighting themselves. I’m like, “You’re far more talented than that.” Yes, you can be sexy and risqué, but some of these women have these amazing voices and these amazing ideals, and they have more to offer than just that.
Why was it important for you to include a gay couple getting engaged in the “Heartbeat Song” video?
What’s funny is, I wasn’t even actually the one who picked all the people! Marc (Klasfeld), the director, and his team did. But it was funny, because I was doing an interview here in Nashville at one of the radio stations and one of the DJs there was like, “I’m gonna be in your video tomorrow!” And I was like, “Whaaaat?” And he was like, “Yeah! I asked if I could bring my boyfriend and they said yes.”
We had no idea that his boyfriend—I mean, he didn’t know either—was gonna propose to him on the set! At first he thought it was part of the video. He didn’t get it at first, and that’s why he was like, “Are you for real? I don’t get it.” But it was the coolest thing that ended up happening, but none of that, honestly, was planned. It just kind of happened, and it was a beautiful thing.
And it’s sending an important message, don’t you think?
I think it’s silly that we’re still talking about gay rights. I just live in this world where people are accepted, so it’s very hard for me to even realize that that still exists. It’s hard for me to wrap my brain around it. That [gay couple] was a no-brainer, and I didn’t even think, “Oh, I’m making a statement for gay rights.” I was making a statement for the loss of love and the hope that you can still find it, regardless of what form that comes in. It wasn’t a purposeful thing. Love is love in whatever relationship it may be in.