LOS ANGELES — Kelly Clarkson could not keep it together. The promo script on the teleprompter wasn’t funny, but every time she tried to read it, she broke down laughing. She steadied herself to try again. Five, four, three, two. . .
Once again, she lost it — and so did her increasingly giddy studio audience. Cut! Clarkson refused to continue until someone explained: What on earth is a “re-scan day”?
“Is this a real thing?!” she asked, laughing. “Nobody is going to know what I’m saying! I’m so confused. . . . Does anybody here know what a re-scan is?”
Finally, the explanation came through: Viewers who use antennas occasionally have to “re-scan” their TVs to keep them connected to certain channels; this promo was for an affiliate in Fort Myers, Fla. (“A huge market for us!” showrunner Alex Duda promised.) Clarkson gathered her composure. When she nailed it, the crowd broke into wild cheers.
It was just one in a series of mild misadventures during a recent taping of “The Kelly Clarkson Show,” which just debuted in September. While singing Lizzo’s “Juice,” the host forgot a lyric and had to retape the entire song. As a guest was sharing an emotional anecdote, Clarkson loudly choked on the piece of wasabi stuck in her throat from the sushi-taco cooking segment. Oh, and before the episode even began, a fire alarm forced the crew to evacuate.
“I heard somebody was vaping in a bathroom or something,” Clarkson recounted in her slight Texas drawl after kicking off her stiletto boots in a dressing room at the taping’s end. “I’m like, ‘Can you not wait until you get home?’ ”
This is Kelly Clarkson: Grammy-winning pop superstar, the first-ever “American Idol” winner, four-season veteran coach on NBC’s “The Voice.” But this is also Kelly Clarkson: The celebrity that you have always been pretty sure that you could be friends with in real life, because she seems . . . well, just like you.
She’s a regular person who showed up for a singing audition in an outfit she sewed herself, and then became a famous person because we voted for her on the TV show that became an unexpected phenomenon, and she’s rewarded us by acting exactly the way we hope we would act if the same thing happened to us: like our old selves. She still freaks out when she sees Meryl Streep on a red carpet. She binge-watches Netflix mysteries. She’s candid about her struggles with weight and body image.
As it happens, that kind of regular-person illusion makes someone very well-suited to host a daytime talk show — a competitive arena that requires hosts to be charismatic yet authentic, driven and yet chill enough to remain calm when things go wrong. (See above.)
“She has no filter, which is great on television,” said Audrey Morrissey, showrunner on NBC’s “The Voice,” which Clarkson joined as a judge/coach in 2017. “If you’ve got a filter and you’re guarded or calculated, or second-guessing everything, it really shows.”
If Clarkson is anything, it’s unguarded. “The compliment I’ve gotten my whole life in the industry, funny enough, isn’t usually, ‘Oh, my God, your voice is amazing.’ It’s always like, ‘Oh, my God, you’re so relatable.’ And part of me is like, ‘I’m working my tail off; can someone mention my voice?’ ” Clarkson joked. “So I wanted to use that gift as kind of a vessel for the show, and really make sure everyone is represented and everyone is included.”
Daytime talk shows are a bit of a cursed enterprise. A long list of ingratiating personalities have attempted it: Kris Jenner, Bethenny Frankel, Jeff Probst, Howie Mandel, Sharon Osbourne, Katie Couric, Anderson Cooper, Marilu Henner, Harry Connick Jr., Roseanne Barr, Donny and Marie Osmond, Suzanne Somers, among many, many others. But only a select few — Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, Steve Harvey, Rachael Ray — have flourished beyond a handful of seasons.
“Honest to God, nobody told me!” said Clarkson, when a reporter brought up the long odds of her new endeavor. “Ignorance is truly bliss.” Then again, she insists she’s never been one to pay much attention to charts or ratings anyway. “I love what I do, and it’s going to work sometimes and it’s not going to work sometimes. But I had no idea it was a hard landscape.”
There are reasons so many stars attempt a talk show: They’re inexpensive to produce. They offer a family-friendly schedule. (Clarkson has two young children with husband Brandon Blackstock, who has a daughter and a son from his previous marriage.) And with the right distributor, host and audience, a show can turn into a regular paycheck for decades. It’s an enticing prospect, even for A-listers: Drew Barrymore is set to debut a show next fall.
“It’s a win-win if you can pull it off,” said Marc Berman, who runs the website Programming Insider. “But it’s really hard to pull off.” His take: Cooper’s show flopped because the hard-news reporter seemed uneasy chatting up celebrities; Jenner’s gaudy wealth was hard for viewers to relate to; Frankel brought the edge of her high-drama “Real Housewives” days — a bad fit for mellow daytime.
Clarkson has a good shot to go the distance, he theorized. Her music career lends her a clear-cut identity that meshes well with the lighthearted world of celebrity banter, cooking segments and feel-good stories. “What’s working in Kelly’s favor is Kelly,” he said. “Viewers at home immediately feel comfortable with her.”
Duda, previously an executive producer on “Steve Harvey” and “The Tyra Banks Show,” saw daytime potential the moment she met Clarkson last year. Since its premiere, “The Kelly Clarkson Show” has averaged an impressive 1.9 million viewers — ranked fourth among daytime talk shows, behind “Dr. Phil,” “Live With Kelly and Ryan” and “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and ahead of “Maury,” “The Wendy Williams Show” and “Rachael Ray.”
“You have to be really authentic and comfortable in your own skin to triumph there,” Duda said, citing DeGeneres, Winfrey and Dr. Phil. “Kelly’s so self-deprecating. I think that’s part of it, too, because we can see a part of ourselves in her.”
Executives at NBCUniversal, which syndicates “The Kelly Clarkson Show” on more than 200 stations — and as the lead-in to “Ellen” in many of those markets — went to work selling Clarkson on a talk show after seeing her on “The Voice.”
“At first I was like, ‘No, that’s a horrible idea; are you drunk?’” Clarkson said. Then she consulted with Blackstock, who is also her manager and now the show’s executive producer, and decided to try to bring some light into our “divided” era. “That’s what we need right now, is just some place to go where it’s fun and musical.”
Her set resembles a concert venue: There’s a pit built into the studio floor so she can feed off the energy of her audience. In perhaps the show’s savviest move, she starts every episode with “Kellyoke” — a song chosen by someone in the audience. Clarkson first rocketed into the public consciousness 17 years ago singing covers of beloved pop tunes; now, every day, she churns out a potentially viral clip — belting out Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” or Katy Perry’s “Roar” — for the show’s YouTube channel, which has nearly 400,000 subscribers.
In the annals of historic reality TV moments, Clarkson winning "American Idol" ranks pretty high: She clutched hands with fellow finalist Justin Guarini in the seconds before Ryan Seacrest and Brian Dunkleman revealed her name. Teary-eyed, the 20-year-old launched into her coronation song, the cheesy yet uplifting "A Moment Like This." Her voice broke as she sang the line: I can't believe it's happening to me.
Before “Idol,” she was broke, working odd jobs in Los Angeles as she tried to break into the music industry until an apartment fire forced her to move home to Texas. Then suddenly, she had a recording contract with RCA.
From the outside, Clarkson’s career looked glorious: “A Moment Like This” hit No. 1, she sold millions of albums, won Grammys, toured the world, sang for the pope and the president. There was a string of hit empowerment anthems: “Miss Independent,” “Breakaway,” “Since U Been Gone,” “Behind These Hazel Eyes,” “Because of You” — all of which are probably playing over mall speakers at this very moment. She even scored a No. 1 country hit with Jason Aldean, the duet “Don’t You Wanna Stay.”
Behind the scenes, Clarkson struggled. She battled then-RCA president Clive Davis over what kind of music she should release. She was compelled by her record label — “blackmailed,” she said — into an unhappy work partnership with producer Dr. Luke. Her “Idol” contract with RCA ended in 2015, and she quickly signed with Atlantic Records.
“It was the first time in my life, at 30-something years old, to finally pick who I worked with,” said Clarkson. Now at work on new music, she has been watching the career of 16-year-old Brynn Cartelli, winner of “The Voice” Season 14, whom she mentored on the show and who is also signed with Atlantic. “It’s just cool to trust a company with this young girl that I was once — I didn’t have that.”
Clarkson changed the industry by proving to the naysayers that reality-competition singers could succeed. “The gatekeepers were sort of threatened by this idea,” said Bill Werde, director of the music industry program at Syracuse University. “The entire industry is set up by singular ability to mint pop stars, and here comes this upstart show: ‘We don’t really need you, we’re going to let fans pick.’ ”
In the second week of her new show, Clarkson hosted an “American Idol” Season 1 reunion with judges Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul and Randy Jackson, along with Seacrest and Guarini. Cowell credited Clarkson with making “Idol” work — without her early success, everyone would have written the show off.
Guarini agrees. “She is exactly who she is onstage as she is offstage,” he said in a phone interview. “The same charisma and energy and bubbly personality that made the nation fall in love with her is the same reason people are going to fall in love with her on her show.”
In her own experience of being interviewed, Clarkson's always resented it when the reporter clearly had no idea what to ask.
“This person wouldn’t know a thing about me, and they didn’t care, and they didn’t want to be there,” Clarkson said. “And I get that: Your editor gave you this piece to write about. But at the same time, it’s like, come on — I don’t want to waste my time if you don’t want to waste yours.”
She has become a bit obsessive about preparing for interviews, hauling home binders filled with research about the next day’s guests. Accustomed to doing all the talking in public appearances, she made a point of sharpening her listening skills. “I thought I was going to struggle with it a lot; I made jokes about it. But it’s actually been very easy because I find people very interesting,” she said.
Her on-air conversations have been chatty and casual: Tyler Perry revealed that he once cried in the car hearing “A Moment Like This”; she and Christina Aguilera bonded over their kids being unimpressed by their singing skills; Reba McEntire, formerly married to Clarkson’s father-in-law, shared old family photos. With guests such as Cyndi Lauper and Kristin Chenoweth, Clarkson has broken into song.
Shortly after winning “Idol,” Clarkson appeared on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno,” sharing a couch with Jimmy Fallon and the Dixie Chicks. She loved the panel setup, so she has striven for a similar mix on her show — everyday people with celebrities. Her wasabi-choking incident happened as she chatted with Muhammed Nitoto, who runs an Instagram account about being a new dad; as he talked, he sat next to “Superstore” actress America Ferrerra and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” breakout Tituss Burgess.
Clarkson, who made no secret of the fact that Hillary Clinton had her vote in 2016, doesn’t plan on spending much time on politics in 2020. “I find it annoying in both major parties; they try to shove [their ideals] down people’s throats. They’re not informing; they’re more telling,” she said. “So on my show, we’re not going to get super political. . . . It’s a fun hour, an escape.”
She will, however, urge her audience to engage. It drives her “a little batty” when voters, especially women, skip the ballot box. “We’re not going to beat people over the head with it . . . but my thing will always be ‘Please vote. Please be informed, and please vote.’ ”
Clarkson wasn’t sure daytime was the place for her, but now she’s growing attached — and despite some early signs of success, trying not to stress out about whether it will work.
“It’s like being on tour: There are going to be shows where I feel like a magical unicorn, and everything went so well and my voice was feeling flawless,” she said. “Then there’s gonna be shows that aren’t. And it doesn’t make you a good or bad performer, or even inconsistent. It just makes you human.”