When American Idol premiered 15 years ago today, on June 11, 2002, it had two hosts, one well-known judge in Paula Abdul, a British pedigree and a fetching premise: One talented singer would be plucked out of obscurity and become...

A star!

The success of that quaint premise would end up changing the entire entertainment landscape, turning unscripted programming into must-see TV and send networks racing to find their own flagship competition shows to add to the mix.

In fact, ABC just went ahead and picked up American Idol for itself after Fox decided it was time to pack it in after 15 seasons.

The question of whether ABC's version will be a shell of its former self (basically an extension of the conversation that started around season 13 or so) or whether Fox foolishly gave up on a classic is still to be answered.

Brian Dunkleman, Kelly Clarkson, Ryan Seacrest, American Idol

Kevin Winter/ImageDirect/FOX

Not that everything was perfect right out of the gate. The show didn't need two hosts. Ryan Seacrest had brought his earnestly frosted '90s hair with him. No one quite knew what this acerbic Simon Cowell character was about yet. And it was on during the summer—a situation Fox immediately remedied the following season once the network knew it had a hit on its hands.

Simon Cowell, American Idol


Irrefutably glorious and cringe-worthy moments would pile up over the years. Eventually Seacrest was the only ringmaster left from the original show, with Randy Jacksonopting to leave after 12 seasons. The formula persisted. On every season premiere, right up until the end, Ryan's introduction and then the strains of the theme song never failed to delight. It's no one's fault that there are just so many darn shows now, many only in existence because Idol came first, that it became hard to get that excited about an entire Idol season.

Or maybe it's Idol's fault. Its last year at the top of the prime-time ratings, 2011, was also the year The Voice premiered.

Fault is such a strong word.

Yet in American Idol's earliest days, there was nothing like it. More polish would be added, the production would become slicker in due time and the show would start firing on all cylinders a few seasons later, when in 2005 it became the most-watched series of the year (the two nights a week it was on were No. 1 and 2), despite only being on from January to May (half of the barely still in existence "traditional" TV season). 

But it was Kelly Clarkson's triumphant sprint to the finish line in 2002 that started it all. She's the first one, out of all of the aspiring stars who would follow in her wake, to come out of nowhere and become exactly what Idol promised its winners they'd become.

In honor of the anniversary of one of the biggest TV game-changers of all time, this is Kelly's inaugural American Idol journey:

American Idol, Kelly Clarkson

J. Viles/FOX

The first round of auditions were held in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Dallas, Seattle, Atlanta and Miami. Roughly 10,000 people tried out.

"The numbers were nothing like what they are now," executive producer Ken Warwick told Billboard last year, "but it was good enough. We got Kelly Clarkson out of it, didn't we?! There were fewer people, but the talent level was a bit higher because no one had ever done it before."

A then 20-year-old Clarkson tried out in Dallas at the Wyndham Anatole hotel, wearing a strapless denim top she'd crafted herself out of a pair of jeans. The Burleston, Texas, native had already moved to L.A. and back after not being able to make a living as a singer during her first go-round. She waited tables, worked as an extra and came across "expert" after "expert" who told her she needed to lose weight, her voice wasn't right, blah blah blah. When the apartment she'd been sharing caught fire in 2002, she tried living out of her car for a bit, but then decided to cut her losses and go back to Texas.

Her outfit and sweet demeanor caught the producers' attention outside the audition room, and she was one of the bunch who got a little extra face time with the camera before her tryout. 

"I'm going to be a fashion designer if this doesn't work out," joked Clarkson, who had been working as a cocktail waitress and a part-time Red Bull promoter in Texas. "Call it a hunch, but we don't think Kelly's going to need that plan," ye olde co-host Brian Dunkleman intoned as she went in to meet the judges and audition with a few bars of Madonna's "Express Yourself."

"I love that song. I worked on that song, Madonna, you did a very good job," Randy offered, prompting immediate snickers from Paula and Simon, who were already used to Randy's name-dropping ways.

Have we forgotten that Kelly's one of the few hopefuls to ever get Randy out of his chair—and into the spotlight, no less? "Not in a trillion, billion years will this man ever make it to Hollywood," Simon observed.

However, none of this was seen on Idol's series premiere. Clarkson was cute and talented, but as a vocalist she didn't stand out all that much—and she ended up being the only eventual winner who wasn't featured during the regional audition round. (She was obviously worth the highlight by the time American Idol Rewind aired in syndication in 2010.)

During Hollywood Week (which aired the day after the premiere), Kelly wowed almost everyone with her unaccompanied rendition of Vanessa Williams' "Save the Best for Last."

But yes, that was Simon saying quietly at the judges' table, "I just don't like this girl."

Despite Simon's reservations, Clarkson made the top 30, from which only 10 would move onto the live shows.

"I honestly don't know what to say," the still-unforgiving Simon told Clarkson after her semifinal performance of "Respect." "You have a good voice. But I couldn't remember you from the previous rounds, other than the fact did you not swap places with Randy?" His memory jogged, he added, "That's the only thing I can remember."

Still, Kelly advanced. Joining her from her group of 10 were Justin Guarini and A.J. Gill

So, the inaugural Idol top 10 consisted of Clarkson, Guarini, Gill, Nikki McKibbin, Tamyra Gray, R.J. Helton, Christina Christian, Ryan Starr, Jim Verraros and EJay Day.

With that, Simon Cowell's reputation for getting it right every time was born.

But now it was up to America to actually pick up the phone—there was no other way to do it yet—and vote.

When the top 10 performed on July 16, 2002, Motown Week, Kelly—powering through laryngitis—went with Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell's "You're All I Need to Get By."

And that was indeed all she needed, because even Simon complimented that she had just "raised the game."

Which merited this reaction from the stage:

Kelly Clarkson, American Idol Season 1, GIF


As well as this proposal from a fan:

American Idol, Kelly Clarkson

Kevin Winter/ImageDirect/FOX

The next night, she found out she had made the Top 8.

The following week, '60s Week, Clarkson's rendition of "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" became one of her signature Idol performances.

Top 7, '70s Week, she didn't fall into the disco trap, choosing Ben E. King's "Don't Play That Song (You Lied)." By then, she had three fully sold fans at the judges' table, Simon having forgotten his initial issues with "remembering" who Kelly was.

By the end of July, she had a Patsy Cline-reminiscent quality to her voice and Cowell was predicting she'd never forget her fans if she made the big time.

Justin Guarini survived landing in the bottom 2 that week to sing another day.

American Idol, Kelly Clarkson


Top 6, Big Band Week, Clarkson warbled Betty Hutton's "Stuff Like That There." Paula called her a "triple threat," someone she could picture on TV, on film and on stage.

Top 5, Burt Bacharach Week (Idol also was fairly instrumental in teaching a new generation about the classics, while also providing entertainment that parents and grandparents wanted to watch too).

Kelly's rendition of "Walk on By" didn't earn the highest marks—Randy went with "not your best week," Paula started with "interesting choice" and Simon focused on had she'd already proven herself.

Simon also claimed that, at first, "we didn't pick up on you early in this competition," though it wasn't exactly "we," was it?

But Clarkson was safely into the Top 4, two songs apiece, '80s and '90s.

"It's Raining Men" was a crowd-pleaser, as it always is pretty much wherever it's sung.

Her second song was Céline Dion's "I Surrender," impressing even Randy, who spent 12 years decrying the difficulty of singing "the big three," Céline, Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. Simon even said Kelly had put herself in the same league as those divas.

It was around this time that Idol producers revealed that about 100 "phone phreaks" had set up software that was allowing them to auto-dial in as many as 10,000 votes apiece at a time. But Fremantle Media insisted the robo-votes were "statistically insignificant" when it came to the overall total of votes being dutifully phoned in properly.

Meanwhile, Clarkson went through to the Top 3, but it was the end of the road for Tamyra Gray, an early favorite whom all of the show's head honchos had picked to go all the way from day one.

Instead, Kelly, Justin and Nikki were the last contestants standing.

After the big hometown visit, where she was shocked to find hundreds of people cheering outside her old high school, Kelly went with more Céline, "Think Twice"—a song choice that the judges weren't loving.

But she ended the show on a high note, or many high notes, with Badfinger's "Without You."

And into the finale she went, with Justin Guarini—who, along with Tamyra, had been an early pick to make the finale.

On Sept. 3, 2002, Clarkson sang three songs: "Respect," again, and the two songs penned specially to be either finalist's debut singles, whoever won—"Before Your Love," and the song that stole all the thunder, "A Moment Like This." Guarini sang both of them, too (could you imagine that still being a thing, having to watch two performances each of the same two songs, neither of which you know?), and then they teamed up for "It Takes Two."

The next night, Sept. 4, 2002, nearly 23 million people watched Kelly Clarkson be named the first-ever winner of American Idol.

Her emotion-choked performance of "A Moment Like This," which she kicked off with an ecstatic shriek, remains a live TV moment for the ages.

Hundreds of thousands of people have tried out over the years, and billions of votes have been cast, including 110 million that first season (by phone!).

American Idol, Kelly Clarkson

Kevin Winter/ImageDirect/FOX

And after 15 seasons, Kelly Clarkson—mistaken for just one of the pack early on—remains one of the most famous and enduringly successful contestants in Idol history. She's sold 25 million albums and won three Grammys (including Best Pop Vocal Album in 2006 and 2013), three MTV Video Music Awards, four American Music Awards, two ACM Awards, a CMA Award and more.

So it's no wonder The Voice snatched her—and fellow Idol alum Jennifer Hudson—up to be a coach next season, meaning she'll soon be commanding her own swiveling chair. A reminder of just how big American Idol got—so big, it was no wonder that everyone wanted a piece.

Clarkson's 2015 album Piece by Piece marked her final contribution to the six-album contract she signed with RCA Records as part of her Idol prize, meaning she's only been untethered from her Idol-instigated obligations for barely two years.

Before Fox announced that the show's 15th season would be its last, Rolling Stone asked Kelly, who had performed multiple times on Idol over the years, if she was interested in returning to where it all began as a judge.

"I actually love the mentoring process," said the singer, who was a few months away from getting pregnant with her second child at the time. "It was nostalgic to be there—it was the same hallway that I was warming up in 13 years ago, when I was 19. It did make me feel a little old. But it was really cool. When I went on that show, I thought maybe I would end up being a backup singer for someone. So I couldn't have wished for more."

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