American Idol Champ Kelly Clarkson Returns to TV in ABC's Duets

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Kelly Clarkson | Photo Credits: Rick Rowell/ABC
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Kelly Clarkson | Photo Credits: Rick Rowell/ABC

"Security! Security!"

Given Kelly Clarkson's urgent cries, one expects a fleet of beefy bodyguards to rush the pop star's dressing room on the set of her new ABC summer series, Duets. But as the seconds tick by, the only one bolting through the open door is Clarkson's teacup Maltese, who's decided to go exploring down the hall. "Security!" the singer yells again, calling after the spirited, ironically named pint-size pup. His escape quickly foiled, the adorable white furball leaps up into a visitor's lap, prompting his exasperated owner to command, "Get down!" and apologize profusely when he doesn't. "He will," cautions Clarkson, "lick you to death."

Clarkson's dog seems to be the only one ignoring those powerful, pitch-perfect pipes these days. Since winning the first season of American Idol in 2002, the former cocktail waitress from Burleson, Texas, has become a world-wide music-industry success story, selling more than 30 million albums, scoring two Grammys and carving out a niche as Queen of the Catchy Kiss-Off (see "Since U Been Gone" and her latest No. 1 hit, "Stronger"). Now, in the midst of a tour to support her fifth album, also entitled Stronger, Clarkson is returning to her reality-show roots with Duets, ABC's attempt to capitalize on the current singing-competition craze fueled by Idol, The Voice and The X Factor.

Duets aims to distinguish itself with a twist on the now predictable format: Instead of simply mentoring contestants, the A-list pros — who also include Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles, Robin Thicke and John Legend — will perform alongside them each week in the hopes of securing one of them a contract with Hollywood Records. Clarkson's involvement undoubtedly adds luster to the show, a fact producers are keenly aware of — and grateful for. "Kelly is the voice of this generation, as far as a pop singer is concerned," says Duets executive producer Robert Deaton, who adds that Clarkson was repeatedly met with a reaction befitting pop royalty as she scoured the country for her two amateur duet partners. "We got a lot of 'I cannot believe I'm singing in front of Kelly Clarkson!' For some people who didn't get picked, just that was a win."

With her hair in a ponytail and playful rainbow polish on her fingernails, Clarkson comes across as decidedly approachable in person. And as she talks, it becomes clear that, despite a decade of fame, she's retained much of the Texas-twangin', humble-girl-next-door charm that helped her clinch the Idol title over Justin Guarini. Take, for example, her response to all those starstruck hopefuls: "I'm like, 'Dude, I know you have my album, but there's plenty of people who can sing like me or better, and you just gotta get past that because this is your moment.'"

Clarkson remembers her own moment like this vividly. It's why she signed up for Duets in the first place. "I wouldn't be here without a show like this," she says, cradling her significantly more chilled-out pup, Joplin, in her lap. "It's about giving other people the opportunity to shine. I love the fact that I'm up [on stage] with them and I'm not just telling them to do something."

Which is not to say she'll hesitate to dispense advice. After all, she knows all too well what the contestants are going through. "I was 19 and scared to death," she says of Idol. "Nothing will ever be that difficult again." Her confident stage persona, she insists, was "all acting! And that's the thing I say to my contestants now. Even if you don't feel like you're doing your best, I want you to pretend like you're Jay-Z or Beyoncé up there because you need confidence. You need to own the stage."

After a decade in the business, Clarkson effortlessly commands a stage. It's other aspects of her career that have proven more difficult to master. There have been well-documented battles between Clarkson and her label over artistic control and her image. And there have been times, she admits, when she's crumbled under the relentless schedule of recording, touring and promoting required to stay on top. "I would just cry and cry because I was like, 'There's too much,' " she says. "That's the most important thing I've learned — that I can't handle everything on my own."

With Duets, wannabes won't have to. The TV singing contest's biggest success story is happy to provide back-up. After the rigorous experience of Idol, "everything I do now is a piece of cake." And life these days is especially sweet. "I just want to enjoy [myself ],"says Clarkson, who turned the big 3-0 in April. "Work a little, play more."

Duets premieres Thursday at 8/7c on ABC.

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