It's 20 years ago — the early 2000s. The biggest pop stars on the planet are Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera and Jessica Simpson, and a young girl from Texas has just been crowned the first ever American Idol. It was a moment that changed Kelly Clarkson's life forever, and two decades later, she's reminiscing on what it was like to launch a career as a female pop star during an era when "sexy" was hotter than ever.

"It was not great," Clarkson confesses in a cover story for Variety. "It was just really hard for me to navigate the industry."

With many of her fellow artists gracing magazine covers with next-to-no clothing, the "Since U Been Gone" singer says she felt pressure from every direction to follow suit. In fact, Clarkson recalls someone brining said magazines to her house to show her what she was 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," she says in 2022. "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.'"

"Women love to be sexual. Everybody likes to be flirty. Everybody likes to be sensual," the American Song Contest host adds, "But every woman is not just that one thing; we are multifaceted. And they try to take that one thing and blow it up."

Planting her flag and declaring who she was proved to be difficult in an industry that is dead set on making money. Barriers and molds needed to be broken for Clarkson's authenticity to shine, which wasn't easy. In other words, she had to become "Miss Independent."

"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," she reveals.

"The biggest thing for me is I never thought I'd be fighting so hard to just be myself," Clarkson adds.

It was a bold choice for the "Breakaway" singer. She's sympathetic to what the music business is — a business — and understands that the people around her also have pressure on them to make money or they might lose their jobs. However, it was — and still is — important for Clarkson to remain true to herself, even if it's not profitable.

"People don't think what you are is going to sell is going to make them money," she shares. "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."

That hard work has certainly paid off: Clarkson has built herself an empire. She's still making music, but she's also the host of American Song Contest with Snoop Dogg and her own talk show The Kelly Clarkson Show, which has won 13 Emmys in just three seasons (Season 4 is rolling now).

And she's not done yet — the "Stronger" singer is still dreaming bigger and bigger.

"I have dreams of maybe Broadway one day," Clarkson admits. "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."

Adds the star,

"I’ve been putting it out into the universe since I was a kid."

See Inside Kelly Clarkson's Nashville Estate

Kelly Clarkson has sold her estate in Nashville after four years on the market. The singing superstar and television personality received $6.3 million for the 7-bedroom, 11-bathroom, 20,121-square-foot mansion.

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