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Kelly Clarkson had been waiting a lifetime for a moment like this. At least it seemed that long to the singer, as she recently crashed in her Dallas-area apartment for the first time in months. "I sat in the bed for two days straight," says Clarkson. "It's wonderful to sit and not have a schedule. Scheduling gets real old, real fast."

It's also a necessary evil as Clarkson attempts the leap from American Idol to American idol. She aced the competition last September to become the first Idol winner and topped the charts two months later with "A Moment Like This," but her real test arrives with her just-released debut album, Thankful. "I'm terrified," says Clarkson, 21. "I can sing in front of millions of people and not be nervous at all, but release an album and it makes me a basket case."

She somehow kept her nerves in check during Thankful's marathon 15-18-hour recording sessions. "She came totally prepared and never complained once," says RCA Music Group senior vice president Steve Ferrera, who produced "A Moment Like This" and two tracks on Thankful. With a mix of rock, soul, R&B and a duet with Idol's Tamyra Gray, Thankful "is about not being pigeonholed," says Clarkson. "I wanted to name my album Pigeonhole This. They didn't like that idea."

What the powers that be did like, however, was the idea of reteaming Clarkson with Idol runner-up Justin Guarini. The pair recently wrapped the film From Justin to Kelly, a romantic comedy-musical due out June 13. "We have that brother-sister relationship," says Guarini. "If I started dragging a bit, she would start hitting me. We make each other laugh."

So did tabloid stories about a romance between the pair (flatly denied by both), which appeared frequently during filming. "My mom called up and joked, 'I'm so mad I didn't get a wedding invitation,' " says Clarkson, who has suggestions for future faux stories about her life as a diva. "I'd love to pose for a picture looking angry, and be like, 'Kelly was upset because she didn't get her Frosted Flakes.' "

Still, Clarkson is thrilled by the attention. Growing up in Burleson, Texas (when she was in grade school, dad Steve, 52, a car salesman, split with mom Jeanne Taylor, 51, an elementary-school teacher), "there were always worries financially," she says. When she was in seventh grade, her junior high's choir director heard her singing in the hallway and encouraged her to pursue music. But after graduating from Burleson High School in 2000, "I was sending out demos, getting doors slammed in my face," says the singer, who worked three jobs (including comedy-club cocktail waitress) to pay for her apartment and car. She moved to L.A. last April, but when her new apartment burned down that same day, "I decided to cut my losses and go home."

Before she could unpack, best friend Jessica Huggins, who had paid for her record demo, suggested she attend Idol's Dallas audition the following day. "She said, 'Just go sing and blow everybody away,' " says Clarkson. Tired and still wearing the clothes she had driven home in, she did just that. "She had that candid, cute, bubbly charisma and charm," says Idol host Ryan Seacrest. Five months later, in front of 23 million viewers, she was crowned the winner.

Since then, "I haven't seen any difference in her," says Idol judge Simon Cowell, who is also an executive with RCA Records, which is releasing Thankful. "She's still insecure, still talks a lot, but there's no arrogance." She hasn't splurged on herself but bought a Corvette for pal Huggins. "We used to have to pay for pizza with pennies, so it's cool to be able to give back," says Clarkson.

Next, she's gearing up for a summer tour. "Right now she's wherever they need her," says mom Taylor. Her schedule leaves her with little opportunity for romance ("I'm so busy, it would be unfair"), but she's found time to catch Idol's second season. Her pick? Ruben Studdard. "I love his voice," says Clarkson. Post-Idol, she's just hoping that fans still love hers.

Jason Lynch
Mary Green and Mark Dagostino in New York City, Alexis Chiu in Los Angeles and Alicia Dennis in Austin

  • Contributors:
  • Mary Green,
  • Mark Dagostino,
  • Alexis Chiu,
  • Alicia Dennis.