When Kelly Clarkson won American Idol back in 2002, fans knew her as a 20-year-old Texan with a strong set of pipes. Fast-forward almost two decades later, and Clarkson isn’t all that different.
Sure, she’s since sold millions of albums, won three Grammys and landed more than two-dozen songs on Billboard’s Top 100 chart. However, the soulful sound and authentic personality fans first fell in love with still exist today.
Perhaps that’s because Clarkson’s career was never about the fame but rather about the music.
“I’m not looking for fame or anything,” Clarkson told The Early Show six months after her win (per CBS News). “I want to have a job that I could come home and love.”
In honor of the singer’s 36th birthday, here’s a look at how Clarkson avoided going too Hollywood and how she came out even stronger in the end.
1. She came from humble beginnings—and never forgot them
Clarkson didn’t grow up with an idyllic childhood. Her parents divorced when she was young—leading her to have an estranged relationship with her father—and her family lived paycheck to paycheck. Her life didn’t get much easier as a young adult. In an interview with The Guardian, the singer revealed her apartment burned down while she was living in Los Angeles and that she lived in her car in Texas for a few days.
“I had to grow a thick skin from the age of 5,” she told the British newspaper.
However, her hardships ended up inspiring many of her hit songs, like “Breakaway” and “Because of You.”
While Clarkson told The Guardian many people “love to do these personas” of overcoming adversity, she’s “constantly the same person”—making her story one of genuine triumph.
2. She always wanted to be a singer—not just a celebrity
Clarkson didn’t always dream of taking center stage.
“I just wanted to sing,” Clarkson told CBS This Morning in 2015. “And my initial goal, actually even when I was little, wasn’t to be the frontrunner. I wanted to be a backup singer.”
Of course, Clarkson’s American Idol win changed all of that and shot her into the limelight. But even as her career started to take off, Clarkson wanted to focus on music versus other avenues of fame. So when she found out she was obligated to star in the movie From Justin to Kelly, she wasn’t pleased.
“I did not want to do that movie,” she told Rolling Stone in 2009. “I didn’t enter a singing competition to be an actress.”
3. She didn’t let the media tell her how to look
Clarkson’s songs weren’t the only things to draw media attention. The “Love So Soft” singer also faced public scrutiny when it came to her weight. But instead of conforming to how other people thought she should look, Clarkson focused her energy on her music.
“I never wanted to draw attention,” she told Rolling Stone in 2017. “But for 15 years of my life, no matter if I’m really thin or really not, [weight was] always a talk of discussion. Even when I was on Idol, it was a discussion. I never really wanted to attract attention, because then you talk about it all the time, instead of [your] music.”
Clarkson embraces the skin she’s in and sings about her self-confidence in her song “Whole Lotta Woman.”
“So it was fun to write a song that said, ‘Yeah, you’re right, I am a whole lot of woman, and it’s OK,” she continued. “I came with a brain, and I came with drive and passion and sensuality, and these things that are awesome. If you can’t handle it, that’s totally cool, but you’re not tall enough to ride this ride, then move along. It’s fine.’ We put a fun twist on it.”
4. She found happiness beyond her music career
While Clarkson has worked hard for her music career, it isn’t her only source of fulfillment. Clarkson has also found joy in being a wife and a mother and enjoys pursuing other interests, like writing children’s books and being a coach on The Voice. Therefore, her success isn’t the only thing that defines her.
“I’m going to teach my kids to do what they love, regardless if they’re the most famous person doing it.” Clarkson told People earlier this year. “Love what you do. Love who you work with and don’t work with people you don’t and don’t do things you don’t love.”
5. She fought to stay true to her voice
Life in the spotlight wasn’t always glamorous for Clarkson. In a 2017 interview with Variety, Clarkson opened up about the tension she experienced with her old record label, RCA Records, and with the company’s president, Clive Davis.
“A group of men thought it was OK to sit around a young woman and bully her,” Clarkson told the magazine, recalling a time she played “Because of You” for Davis and his team. “I was told I should shut up and sing.”
However, Clarkson didn’t lose focus of the type of music she really wanted to sing. So when it came to produce Meaning of Life—her first record under her new label Atlantic Records—Clarkson created the album she craved—one that reflected her soulful side.
“Every artist wants to feel proud of the footprint they leave behind,” Clarkson tweeted back in October. “This is my best footprint yet.”