On September 4, 2002, Kelly Clarkson was crowned the first ever American Idol.
After auditioning by singing Madonna’s “Express Yourself” in a shirt made from an old pair of jeans, Clarkson immediately captured the hearts of the gays watching at home. The then 20-year-old from Fort Worth, Texas, with the chunky blonde highlights and a personality as big as her voice soared during the competition and everything was about to change.
At the time, watching her sing flawless covers of different classics every week was an eye opening experience as a closeted 11-year-old. Delivering stunning renditions of anthems like Mariah Carey’s “Without You,” Celine Dion’s “I Surrender” and Dionne Warwick’s “Walk On By,” she spoke to me in a way I hadn’t been spoken to until then. Clarkson winning American Idol was my first big gay pop culture moment that was the beginning of my long coming out.
Witnessing Clarkson’s crowning impacted who I would become. In a pre-YouTube world, I downloaded all of her performances from services like Limewire or Kazaa to watch over and over again at night in my room with the door locked. I would stay up late rewatching them, transfixed by her. It gave me a musical education, introduced me to female singers adored by the LGBTQ community and, in turn, was an awakening of my queerness.
After the night she was crowned the winner, Clarkson’s life changed forever. Clarkson went from living in her car for a few days and waiting tables to becoming an overnight pop sensation. As time went on, she released several albums including her debut album Thankful, Breakaway, My December, All I Ever Wanted, Stronger, Piece By Piece and her Christmas album Wrapped In Red. As her career continued, I sat on the sidelines watching from afar.
I remained in the closet for many years, too scared to come out. Each new tour passed, and I never got to go because of my own crippling fear of being outed or spotted by someone I knew. Instead, I logged onto a Kelly Clarkson message board every day from the safety of my computer and waited for fans to upload videos from different tour stops so I could feel like I was there.
At the age of 23, I had finally come out. One of the first things I did after was attend Clarkson’s Piece By Piece Tour. I went with a friend who was one of the first people I came out to, and it made the night even more meaningful.
At the show, Clarkson sang her emotional ballads “Because of You” and “Piece by Piece” back to back and, in turn, I was rendered a puddle on the floor. She performed her soaring anthems like “Since U Been Gone” and “My Life Would Suck Without You” and I got to jump up and down like I’d been waiting to do since I was a teenager. The concert was as cathartic an experience as I had anticipated and the beginning of the end of hiding who I was.
Surrounded at the show by a sea of fans of all sorts, women both straight and queer and her large following of gay men, it was the first time in years I felt at home. I remember looking behind me and spotting a group of gay men living their best lives at the concert and I knew what I had been missing: living the gay experience out loud.
Now, when I’m in a gay bar and a drag queen is performing one of her songs, I am free to scream sing the lyrics for everyone else’s displeasure. When Christmas comes around, I proudly display my “Wrapped In Red” vinyl and include it on any holiday party playlist I can. At almost 27-years-old, Clarkson winning is just as important to me today as it was 15 years ago and allowed me to realize who I am.