How Kelly Clarkson Legitimized ‘American Idol’ As A Cultural Institution

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“You will never, ever, ever, ever have a career in singing,” Simon Cowell once scowled at a contestant. “There are only so many words I can drag out of my vocabulary to say how awful that was,” he said to another. “Who’s your vocal teacher? Get a lawyer and sue her.”

Those words hit Kelly Clarkson hard. “I was just so happy because the British man didn’t make me cry” were the relieved words the then-unknown singer uttered after nervously completing her “forgetful” American Idol audition in May of 2002. That “British man” was Simon Cowell, the tough-as-nails Idol judge from across the pond who seemingly didn’t get excited for anything or anyone. In fact, by the second round, Simon didn’t even remember Clarkson, who just sang Aretha Franklin’s signature rendition of Otis Redding’s “Respect.” “I honestly don’t know what to say. You have a good voice, but I couldn’t remember you from the previous rounds,” he said. That would soon change.

American Idol debuted June 2002, which was odd back then because most new shows premiered between the traditional television season period of September and May. However, Idol was a reality show and Fox needed cheap programming to fill up both their summer schedule and their pockets. Idol perfectly fit the bill because reality TV is cheaper to produce than scripted shows. Upon airing, the U.S. version of the British smash Pop Idol series was tuned into by nearly 10 million people who wanted to see bad guy Cowell mercilessly crush the dreams of America’s most talentless and mediocre bunch.

However, as the show went on, it became clear Idol wasn’t just about that “mean British man.” The focus shifted to the group of 30 hopefuls desperate for a break in the music biz. But was any of it legit? Can contestants of the show be taken seriously when its biggest star was a sadist who appeared to revel in publicly humiliating ambitious singers?

Kelly Clarkson’s spunky, dorky, girl-next-door personality and tremendous voice made her an early fan favorite, despite being one of the few contestants whose audition wasn’t aired during the show’s original June 2002 broadcast. Viewers soon hopped aboard the Texas native’s bandwagon after watching her slay in the eight-week, live semi-finals, belting out untouchable Soul staples such as “You’re All I Need To Get By,” “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” and “Don’t Play That Song (You Lied).” Kelly’s big band performance of Betty Hutton’s 1940’s “Stuff Like That There” pop classic moved Simon enough to call Kelly the star of the show. “This show is all about finding a star, not feeling sorry for people who aren’t very good. Absolutely brilliant!”

By the final weeks, it was beginning to look like Kelly Clarkson was on her way to becoming Idol‘s first winner and was a strong favorite to win over eventual runner-up Justin Guarini. Even Simon seemed on board and said Kelly had put herself “in the same league as Celine Dion and Mariah Carey,” following her strained performance of Celine’s “I Surrender” in Week Six.

For their final performances, both Clarkson and Guarini performed three songs apiece, including Idol‘s first original song, “A Moment Like This.” More than 22 million viewers watched as Kelly was crowned the first winner of American Idol after she garnered 58% of the fans’ votes.