"Catch my breath, no one can hold me back," Kelly Clarkson once belted. "I ain't got time for that."
It was 2012 when the songstress delivered the lyrical thesis. Already a decade after her pioneering American Idol win in 2002, Clarkson had managed to propel her initial success in the Wild Wild West of reality talent competition into a career that continues to thrive to this day.
With the debut of her album, Meaning of Life, on Friday, the star with the velvety pipes currently has eight studio albums to her name (six of them have gone platinum), three Grammy Awards and 10 more nominations, and is among the top earners in American Idol alumni history. As history shows, not every winner can say the same.
Still, Clarkson managed to rise to the top—not just among her Idol competitors, but in the once foreign world of Hollywood. While several of her fellow victors saw success with their debut records, they weren't able to maintain that momentum beyond the initial finish line. Clarkson, on the other hand, kept fans singing along single after single as her star power spread.
While the mom of two is not the only American Idol winner with serious pipes, her talent still very much warrants mentioning. Whether she's belting an octave above, riffing through melodies or simply serenading fans with her smooth sound, there's no denying the woman has incredible music ability. Paired with the right songs, she found the sweet spot—at the top of the charts. With 11 top 10 songs—three of them reaching #1—Clarkson dominated the radio year after year with hits like "Stronger," "Since U Been Gone" and "My Life Would Suck Without You."
Despite the commercial success, the songstress didn't let the industry strip away her authentic character. A goofball Texas native with a humble attitude, Clarkson felt just as much like your BFF as she did a musical powerhouse one, five, 10 years into her career.
As the fans who first met her as teens grew up virtually with her, they faced the challenges of adulthood together—including learning how to stand up for yourself. When faced with having to work with Dr. Luke after she specifically asked not to, Clarkson refused to take a writing credit on a song next to him even if that meant losing out on "millions."
"I was making a point to the people working with me going, 'This is how much I didn't want to do this.' I don't care about the money. I don't care about, 'Oh, you're going to be the most famous person ever if you do this,'" she explained to Z100's Mo' Bounce. "That's not what holds weight in my life."
When famed record producer Clive Davis allegedly insulted her music writing, she rose above. As she wrote in 2013, "Growing up is awesome because you learn you don't have to cower to anyone—even Clive Davis."
That genuine, relatable connection with her fans only strengthened personally as she got married, became a mom and fought off public attacks about her weight.
"There are just some people who are born skinny and with a great metabolism—that is not me. I wish I had a better metabolism," she told Redbook in 2015. "But someone else probably wishes they could walk into a room and make friends with everyone like I can."
She was right. While the music never waned, fans fell just as much in love with the lady behind the lyrics. As fellow pop stars gripped tightly to their shiny, seemingly perfect veneers, Clarkson openly addressed her mishaps, whether she was mispronouncing former President Barack Obama's name or laughing off her first film, From Justin to Kelly.
"I have a little joke with our nanny, because she told me she loves that movie. She was like, 'My roommate and I used to watch it all the time! I'm totally going to show your daughter From Justin to Kelly,'" Clarkson told Rolling Stone. "I'm like, 'I will fire you.'"
Now, fifteen years after she first performed "Express Yourself" for Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul and Simon Cowell at her American Idol audition, the star has once again put in the work and released The Meaning of Life, an album to encapsulate the resilient woman she continues to be, now free from the record label she once described as her former "arranged marriage."
While there's no clear-cut recipe for post-Idol success, Clarkson managed to already have all of the right ingredients—talent, identity and drive.
Like she sang herself those years ago, "No one can hold me back."