Before winning 'American Idol,' Kelly Clarkson was broke, working at Papa John's and had 'nothing to my name'

Kelly Clarkson performs onstage at the 2018 Billboard Music Awards
Matt Winkelmeyer | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

After winning the first season of "American Idol" in 2002, Kelly Clarkson put out a No. 1 single and got a record deal — and that was just the beginning. The singer-songwriter, now 36, has sold over 25 million albums and won three Grammy Awards.

But Clarkson wasn't always in the spotlight and making millions of dollars. As a young adult, she was broke. Before her "Idol" audition, "I had nothing to my name," the star tells Guy Raz on an episode of Spotify's new podcast series, "The Rewind." "Literally, I had to make that top to go to this audition. I had like no clothes, no nothing."

Before taking the stage in front of the judges, Clarkson, just 20 at the time, showed off her outfit she had made from an old pair of jeans and joked with host Ryan Seacrest, "I'm gonna be a fashion designer if this doesn't work out."

Clarkson, who grew up in a small town in Texas, recalls singing everywhere as a teen: in the shower, in her room, in choir competitions and, once, in an opera production put on by a local college. "Literally, I'd sing anywhere," she says.

She even found paid gigs: "I worked at Six Flags — I did the singing and dancing, like all those shows. Any option that was available to make money singing, I was like, 'OK.'"

She earned a few music scholarships but decided to forego college and move to Los Angeles to pursue her dream of becoming a backup singer. She tells Raz: "I had a lot of older friends that I watched go to college and just waste their time. … I knew that I'd rather go out and almost like an apprentice-style, just start doing background vocals for people and then just kind of work my way up. So I chose to move to L.A. randomly."

She was 18 years old and broke but had peace of mind knowing that, "if it's the wrong decision, it's fine. You can always go back to school. And even if I didn't get a scholarship, I already had like four jobs. I hustled to make money because I had to for my car, gas.

"So, I don't know, I've just always known it'll work out as long as you're working your ass off."

Any option that was available to make money singing, I was like, 'OK.'
Kelly Clarkson

In L.A., Clarkson kept up the pace. She put a demo together and started looking for backup gigs. On the side, she picked up other jobs: "I worked at a comedy club, I was a cocktail waitress at a comedy club. I've worked at a Papa John's. I've worked at a Subway."

In short, "I did anything that paid," she recalls. "I made any job work. … Even now, when people are like, 'I can't find a job,' I'm like, 'Well, then, you're not looking.' Because if you're hungry enough and you want electricity, you'll work anywhere, and so I did."

After a year and a half in L.A., the apartment that Clarkson shared with a roommate burned down. She slept in her car for a few days until she had enough money to drive back home to Texas.

That was in 2002, around the time "American Idol" was hosting auditions for their opening season. She nailed the audition and made it to Hollywood for the final rounds of the competition.

Kelly Clarkson performs on American Idol in 2002
Kevin Winter | Getty Images Entertainment | Getty Images

At the time, with "Idol" new and untested, "nobody knew if anyone was going to watch it," says Clarkson. While she was excited to advance to Hollywood, she assumed the show would flop. Even if it did, she figured, "I'd at least make enough money to where I could … just get everything going again."

The show did not flop. And Clarkson won, which launched her career.

She owes part of her success to the fact that she was broke and started with so little, she tells Raz: "I think when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose, so you walk in and you're like what do I need to do to get this job? I think when you're at the bottom, you're vulnerable, you're open and you're willing — you're not too cool for anything because you can't afford to be. So I think that helped me, honestly."

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