It's not as if we expected anything less than, you know, a moment like this. But when Kelly Clarkson took the stage at Los Angeles' Dolby Theater Oct. 14, kicking off her third go-round hosting the Billboard Music Awards with a rendition of Whitney Houston's "Higher Love" backed by percussionist Sheila E., a cappella group Pentatonix and a whole virtual choir of singers—my word it was moving.
It was, as she'd promised in an interview just a day earlier, the perfect respite from the seemingly inescapable negativity that 2020 has brought. "We're just honestly trying to give everybody something a little normal," Clarkson explained. "People are used to watching the Billboard Music Awards every year so we're trying to keep that coming for everybody and provide the escapism that we all desperately need."
While she allowed that there would be some obvious changes, talent performing to largely empty theaters becoming the norm in these days of coronavirus, "We're definitely going to be catering to the times a bit and we have a powerful message," she continued.
"We're not trying to make everybody cry or be more depressed about 2020. We've done that enough. It's more of like uniting people and connecting people and you know, music has a very healing power to it and the power to connect people and that's really what we're focusing on for the opening."
Who knows better than the breakup anthem queen herself that what doesn't kill you makes you stronger?
And even if the newly single 38-year-old isn't standing a little taller these days, she's still standing—and in 2020 that counts for quite a bit. Four months after a divorce filing that shocked not just her dedicated fans—used to hearing Clarkson describe husband Brandon Blackstock, 43, as the perfect partner who still gave her "those goosebumps"—but even her inner circle, she's back on her grind.
As the recent lawsuit brought on by her soon-to-be ex-father-in-law (and possibly soon-to-be former manager) Narvel Blackstock's company proves, the OG American Idol is set to make bank this year with gigs on The Voice, her own eponymous talk show and a partnership with e-commerce site Wayfair.
Plus, like, most working parents, she's currently maneuvering the challenging tightrope that is fulfilling her work obligations while keeping her two youngest, River, 6, and Remington, 4, happy and at least somewhat well-educated.
Throw in navigating the new normal of co-parenting and operating as one half of an estranged couple and, let's be clear: It's a lot.
"I mean, it's no secret. My life has been a little bit of a dumpster," Clarkson admitted in a candid September interview with Sunday Today host Willie Geist. "Personally, it's been a little hard the last couple months."
But as she marks what would have been her seventh wedding anniversary Oct. 20, she's already in the process of so movin' onnnnn (yeah, yeah), translating all that pain into the new music we'll all be rocking out to next year and relying on her squad to help her through the rest.
"I have really great, you know, family and friends that are there for me," she told Extra in a recent interview, Voice costar Gwen Stefani, a woman who's definitely been there and handled that, at her side. "But I think the difficult thing for me is it's a very hard thing to navigate, to be able to be honest and share your story, so maybe you can help someone else, but at the same time protecting these little kids that you adore and they're the most important thing to you."
To that end she's recruited a team of experts to guide them all through it. "We have a lot of help, as far as like, therapists or child psychologists because we want to do it right," she noted. "I definitely want to do it right. You know, everyone's sad and it's okay to be sad. It's really hard. But it is what it is."
Before she could reach that stage of acceptance, though, there were some heavy-duty emotions to absorb. It was just late May, after all, that she was copping to some intense baby fever while gazing at talk show guest Gordon Ramsay's youngest. But while she was confessing that she so wanted another child, Blackstock, also dad to Savannah, 18, and Seth, 14, from his first marriage, was "like, 'No! We have four!'"
So if the seven days between Clarkson gushing over "chubby little legs and the little face" and filing paperwork to end her marriage felt like a quick swerve, you're not alone.
As the musician put it, kicking off season two of The Kelly Clarkson Show Sept. 21, "2020 has brought a lot of change also to my personal life. Definitely didn't see anything coming that came." Equally baffled, her inner circle found themselves exchanging text messages marveling at the fact that such a seemingly solid partnership—Clarkson even thanking Blackstock for "convincing me to do @KellyClarksonTV show" as she accepted her Best Entertainment Talk Show Host Daytime Emmy in late June—could crumble so quickly.
"It came out of nowhere," one insider told E! News. "It's all so sad for the kids. They were always such a loving family. It never seemed like they had any issues."
Add in the fact that their separation came mid-pandemic after some three months of holing up in their Montana ranch, Blackstock filling in as lighting and audiovisual technician on Clarkson's show as they dealt with bored little ones, cabin fever and—in one unfortunate March pipe-freezing incident—no plumbing and, frankly, a girl could use a minute.
"That was not fun," she told the Los Angeles Times in September of dealing with the "turd of a situation" brought on by COVID. As she was doing her level best "to smile and light up America's life," she continued, "I'm just wanting to drown myself in the creek next to me."
And it wasn't just the global pandemic of it all. "This has been really hard as a working parent, because I'm still doing all the same jobs...I'm just doing all the jobs, and it's just been exhausting honestly," she confessed to Glamour UK in June. "Plus, you know, cooking every meal and cleaning nonstop after toddlers and teenagers. I'm trying to be a healthy distraction."
All the while, she was having to remind production staff and other team members, "like, 'You hired a mom, and I'm not an absentee mom. Like, I'm a full-on mom.'"
And she's kept her crew front of mind since going public with the split. She gets that people are crushed to see another celebrity couple give it their all and then decide they're better off apart, but she can only focus on the emotions right in front of her.
"While people feel, 'Oh my gosh, what a loss ...' imagine how it is in the epicenter of the storm," she noted to the L.A. Times. "It's a lot to process and deal with, just as a family. So because it's not just me, I probably won't go too deep with it."
Because she's worked hard to build up the type of family she'd dreamt about after her own father left when she was a kid. And her success as a mother meaning the world to her, she's not about to risk her little ones—not to mention millions of strangers—becoming privy to any upsetting details.
"What I'm dealing with is hard because it involves more than just my heart. It involves a lot of little hearts. We have four kids," she explained on her show. "And divorce is never easy. And we're both from divorced families so we know the best thing here is to protect our children and their little hearts."
And while she's offering up hugs and scheduling counseling sessions, Clarkson is dealing with her own emotions in a very on-brand way. "My mom told me to start writing and that's actually how I get my feelings out," she shared. "So I probably won't speak about it too much, but you definitely will hear it musically probably, that's how I became a songwriter. Music has always been my outlet to help me get through difficult times and this year, I've been listening to a lot of music and I've also been writing a lot of music as well."
In other words, her forthcoming album is going to be lit.
"My whole next record is obviously just kind of about a relationship in the sense of how beautiful and how puppy-love it can be and intimate and all you hope for," she shared on Late Night With Seth Meyers in September. "And then the reality of it sometimes, and it just kind of goes on this whole ride and it's just very honest."
Honest and far more cathartic than, say, plowing through a bottle of red and a pint of Chunky Monkey as you delete entire albums of photos off of your phone.
"I don't know how anybody goes through something this traumatic, any kind of loss, honestly, without having some sort of creative outlet or therapy or something," she continued. "Cause it's so—it's a lot. And especially this year with already a lot. You didn't need to add any kind of cherry on top of the dumpster fire we're all experiencing."
So while she absolutely would have been justified throwing herself a pity party, instead she tossed some damp towels on the whole mess and found a silver lining.
"I think I wasn't feeling that creative at first until my personal life just took a nosedive," she allowed to host Seth Meyers. "It's very therapeutic for me, so that's how I've always been able to kind of process everything. I'm so thankful for the gift of being able to do that. Because keeping all of that in while going through something so huge, and everybody around you going through something so huge, and there is just a lot of weight with decisions and everything. That was really helpful for me."
So, yeah, some days she's just powering through and others she's powering out your next favorite anthem—recovering from any type of loss generally not a straight line from heartbreak to totally happy.
"It's funny, I actually told my therapist recently, 'I have no idea how one goes through any kind of huge life change, like a divorce, that doesn't have some kind of an outlet,'" she told the L.A. Times of her coping strategy. "I am very lucky. Even from my childhood, my mom told me I had a problem expressing my emotions and all these things when I was really young and that I should start writing. So that's me expressing it. I usually leave it in the songs and that's usually my therapy."
At times it works. And for all the others, well, that's what wine and ice cream are for. "It's just like people dealing with the pandemic," she reasoned. "Some days are fine, you're laughing about it and there's comedic things about it—in a dark comedy kind of way—but then there are other times that are so low that you just don't know if you're going to get picked back up. And then there's other times when you're like, 'OK, fresh start.'"
As a wise woman once said, "What doesn't kill you makes a fighter."