(I originally wrote this piece 10 years ago this month, while editing American Idol magazine. It is probably my favorite piece of magazine journalism, and Carrie Underwood is definitely the most put-together female performing artist I’ve ever known. So much is revealed in this interview, conducted two months before her debut Some Hearts LP and ushered in one of music’s greatest careers. She is not only an exceptional singer, but an exceptional woman and role model for girls and teens globally. For good reason.)
The Country Girl’s Cinderella Story
Years after giving up her dream of being a star, Carrie Underwood decided to drive to St. Louis to audition for AI4. Now, she lives the greatest wish of millions of fans who selected her as the new American Idol while sticking to her simple, hard-working roots.
By Robert Yehling
Here’s a Cinderella story with a country twist. The blonde-haired girl leaves the glass slipper in the clover meadow of her adolescence and heads to college to prepare for adult life. There is no prince, no palatial ball, no castle. Then something happens: the glass slipper finds her, in the form of an American Idol audition. Of course the shoe fits. A year later, she’s a rising star in Nashville, America’s newest sweetheart, and a young woman whom all mothers would want their daughters to emulate.
If you’re worried that Carrie Underwood will strike midnight, don’t: The new American Idol’s career is in full ascent. It’s only been six months since we finally saw her cut loose when Ryan Seacrest made the winning announcement – “I will never forget that moment, that excitement, the fans in the audience screaming. How could I not let go?” she says. In that time, she’s cut an album, racked up a pair of major endorsements, headlined Idols on Tour, and considered countless offers from the entertainment and business worlds. The heroine of this fairy tale has met her destiny: life as a star in the 21st century.
“This whole experience reminds me of something I’ve heard quite a few times: ‘If you want to make God laugh, make plans,’” Carrie says. “My life is completely different in every single way possible. I’ve had to re-evaluate everything. What I was going to do before, I’m not going to do now. I’m going to be a singer for at least the next little while. There’s no more planning things out as I was doing last year at this time.
“The big change for me is that now my goals can be much, much higher than what they were a year ago, which were trying to find a good job out of college, work my way up the ladder – the typical business plan – find somebody, get married, have a family. Now it’s make an album, do well on it, so I can make another album, touring, promotion. After I’m hopefully an established artist one day, people will know me not just because of being an American Idol but because they’ve been hearing me a lot on the radio, and what I’ve done as a solo musician.”
How does a charming, highly intelligent and gorgeous 22-year-old country girl from Checotah, Oklahoma handle this sudden fame and fortune? Especially when you consider that she hadn’t flown on a plane until she headed west last November for the Hollywood Auditions? Or that she would much rather wear t-shirts or light blouses and jeans than alluring skin-clinging outfits (as she made clear to Skechers when they chose her to follow in the footsteps of noted sirens Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera)? How does she go from raising farm animals and studying for broadcast journalism finals to dealing with record company executives, television interviews, officials from Hershey’s and Skechers, career agents, press agents, countless people screaming “You’re
the greatest, Carrie!” and exhausting tour schedules synchronized to grueling recording schedules?
Therein lies the secret to Carrie Underwood’s climb to the top of American Idol and how she conducts her life from this point forward. Behind the blonde hair and brown eyes, reserved demeanor and remarkable voice is a woman who understands how to remain calm in the midst of storms. She’s very friendly and a joy to talk with, because she can handle countless conversation subjects while switching back-and-forth between the maturity of a grown woman and the doe-eyed enthusiasm of a girl on the rise. From a crisp tone of voice that broadcasts confidence and self-assuredness to the way she moves, Carrie exudes coolness in the greatest sense of the word.
She also knows she wants and how fortunate she is that her dream circled back to be reclaimed. “I’m a thinker, not a big dreamer. Every little kid wants to be famous, a movie star, a music star, whatever,” she explains. “About 99 percent of the time, it never happens. As a little kid, I used to pick four-leaf clovers out in the pasture and my wish was always the same: ‘I want to be a music star.’ But as I finished up high school, my thoughts were, ‘What makes me special?’ After high school, nothing had happened, so I figured it was time to grow up and get a job. It was important to go to college, learn a trade. So I did that, and then my childhood dream comes true. Life is pretty funny.”
Carrie prides herself on sticking to her core values, personality and interests, some of which raise eyebrows. She grew up bottle-feeding cows on an animal farm in a meat- and-potatoes family, but she is a committed vegetarian and recent honoree of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). “I love to go fishing with my friends, but I always throw them back,” she says. She became the new American Idol by performing country music – Rascal Flatts, Martina McBride and Patsy Cline are favorites – but she’s a huge Green Day fan who plays guitar, piano and drums. She lives in one of the most rooted, earthen parts of the country and conveys pure radiance with every smile, yet her favorite movies are Star Trek: The Next Generation and a host of old horror flicks: Halloween, Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th and Alien.
Then there is her reserved emotion. Farm life is doubly hard work: In addition to raising animals and crops, and synchronizing life to planting and harvesting seasons, the parents often hold full-time jobs. Stephen and Karen Underwood both worked outside jobs – Stephen at a paper mill and Karen as a schoolteacher – while tending to the farm and raising daughters Shanna and Stephanie. By the time Carrie came along, her sisters were teenagers and vital workers on the farm. They supported and nurtured her singing, first at church, then in local talent competitions, later in high school music programs. However, there was little time for deep discussions or displays of emotion. “We don’t really show our emotions; we’re not big huggers,” Carrie says. “We’re kind of a quieter family. For good or bad, I have a lot of my dad’s personality traits, and he’s a stoic man who gets things done. I really don’t get real excited about anything. A lot of times, I think that people’s emotions should remain within. You seem to have a lot more power and energy that way.”
There’s a flip side to being unemotional: It’s hard for audiences to connect with you. Despite possessing the best voice on the show – Simon Cowell told a KTTV interviewer in Los Angeles that Carrie’s voice stuck utmost in his mind from several thousand people who auditioned before he, Paula and Randy in 2004 – Carrie heard the loud whispers about her stoic stage presence throughout AI4. While she strictly adhered
to unofficial Rules 1 and 2 of succeeding on American Idol – “Be true to what you do best, and be your most authentic self” – she also ran the risk of being voted off as more flamboyant finalists like Bo, Constantine, Vonzell, Jessica, Nadia and Mikalah whipped up live audiences each week.
“It kind of kept people from really getting to know me, because I didn’t share my emotions as readily,” she recalls. “That’s not such a good thing. I’m definitely working on being more personable. For the first time in my life, I’m dealing with people who live and work at a completely different level, so I put myself out there more. It sure helps that the competition aspect’s gone and that type of pressure is off.”
While Carrie might be a rising superstar to America and the world, she is still a country girl, although people in Checotah and neighboring Muskogee refer to her as “our Carrie,” in the sweet and inclusive way locals regard fellow residents who hit the big time. She illustrated the ever-humbling vibes of going home. “As soon as I got home, my mom told me to clean my room. I was just joking, ‘Mom, the new American Idol doesn’t clean her room,’ and she said, ‘This one does.’ To my family, I will always be Carrie and not the American Idol. I never want that to change.”
Within a month of winning American Idol, Carrie stared into her potential in the recording and entertainment world. She became the newest jingle girl for Hershey’s –
the commercials have been on TV since July – and also signed with Skechers. The first print ads were timed for back-to-school. “I was really surprised to get these endorsements so quickly,” she says. “Hershey’s was really into the image I want to portray. The same thing with Skechers – they target younger people. Plus, I’m really happy to get free shoes and free chocolate. Those are two of a girl’s favorite things!”
Then she laid down a vocal track. With her 19 Recordings/Arista Records single, “Inside Your Heaven,” one of the three songs she sang in the Final Show, she became the first country artist ever to debut at #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. It also was the first country song to go #1 on the Hot 100 since Lonestar’s “Amazed” in 2000. While selling more than 170,000 copies, “Inside Your Heaven” also topped the Pop 100, Country Singles and Singles Sales charts in July.
Never one to rest on her laurels, Carrie began working on her album during the Idols on Tour, flying to Nashville on her off days. “I don’t want to be one of those people who goes, ‘I’ve achieved the most amazing thing I’ve ever done, so I can cruise now,’” she says. When the tour concluded in September, she returned to Nashville. She’s moving into barely charted territory: Among previous American Idol finalists, only Josh Gracin has broken through in Nashville, but that came two years after he competed. Meanwhile, Carrie attracted America’s huge country music fan base to the show, and is delivering an album to them. Even at the Season 5 auditions, the shift was evident: Numerous country singers turned up from San Francisco to Boston. Everyone who watched her perform with Rascal Flatts on the Awards Show knows that she has superstar written all over her. Sales of her debut album could go through the roof, especially since it comes out in time for the holiday shopping season.
Down the line, she hopes to better reflect her eclectic musical taste. But for now, she’ll stick to her strength. “I definitely see myself on tour singing different songs live, but the album is going to be country first,” she says. “We’ve talked about Rascal Flatts and various people doing little parts, but nothing is set in stone. I’m basically living in the
studio, sleeping in there if I have to, until it’s done. I’m young, and this is my chance. I’m not about to let it slip away.”
It’s fitting that Carrie’s big break came on television. For the past four years, she prepared for a television career at Northeastern State University in Tallequah, Oklahoma. She also managed to keep her vocal chords tuned, singing in a country music show and finishing in the top three for two straight years in the Miss NSU Scholarship Pageant.
However, becoming the star of entertainment shows and talk shows wasn’t on the agenda – nor were pageants. “I’m not a pageant girl,” she says. She saw her future existing as a news producer, director, assignment editor, or in delivering stories and commentary like her heroines, Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters, “the people who have been there forever and have overcome a lot of obstacles on their way to the top. For a long time, no women were in there. It would’ve been impossible for me to do what I do without them.”
Once Carrie made it to the Final 12, the American Idol producers became familiar with her career aspirations. The producers take a keen interest in Idol contestants’ life goals, even as they work together to fulfill the dream of becoming a recording star. In Carrie’s case, they met one of their own. “The producers were really helpful,” she recalls. “They knew I was interested in a broadcast journalism career. I asked a lot of questions; I paid attention to little things. I like taping things, being behind camera, doing things like editing snippets and segments, stuff like that. They were always so good to answer my questions. I wasn’t asking about my place on the show; I was trying to get some tips from the pros on how good shows are produced, how they come together.
“You know those little snippets they showed about us? I came to the point where I knew what they were looking for. Later, people said how ‘naturally’ good I was at it, how I made things move better and I sounded better. Well, the truth is that I studied this in school, then studied how the producers of the show were doing it.”
The other side of celebrity is a constant request for interviews. While it sounds fetching and glamorous, it can quickly wear down even the heartiest of souls. Carrie conducted daily interviews during Idols on Tour, and will be doing the same before and after Christmas to promote her album. During press conferences, she often studied interviewers for that future day when she might join former Idol finalists Kimberly Caldwell and LaToya London in the TV world – or move beyond that. “I’m totally learning how to interview other people right now by watching the way they interview me,” she says. “I sit there sometimes thinking, ‘Would I ask that question? What different kinds of questions would I ask?’ What I really like – and what I would do if I was interviewing someone – is when people already know something about me and they really get in there, make me think about my next answer. What I don’t like are really boring questions.
“Thanks to my experience on American Idol, I got a lot more comfortable with the camera. Now I have to sing a lot on TV programs and stuff. I’m doing different media circuits and talk shows, and I find I’m a lot more prepared.”
There’s another goal in mind: Getting her degree from Northeastern State. Carrie has about nine hours remaining – less than a semester – and is working with the university to take the classes off-campus. She is also hopeful that through her experience
on American Idol, she can convince the school to credit her. “Certainly, I hope they count my experiences with the show as an internship!”
Carrie’s interest in broadcast journalism replaced her dream of stardom. It also stemmed from another ingrained reality of farm life – always make back-up plans .You never know what storm, drought, shift in the market or other unforeseen calamity will come your way, regardless of whether you’re running a farm, headlining concert tours or starting a new job. Even now, as her career heads toward a stratospheric height that could shoot past Kelly Clarkson, Carrie keeps her contingency plan at her side.
“What if, for some strange reason, I couldn’t sing anymore? I always want to have things going for me, where singing doesn’t have to be my entire world. I want to have the freedom to branch out and do other things. Certainly, music is the most important thing right now. But I went to college and intend to graduate because another career is very important to me. There’s a ton of things that make me happy, and I plan to experience them.”
Carrie will race forward thanks to the huge launch that American Idol gave her, and millions of us will watch her and buy her CDs. While her life reflects many of our dreams and fantasies come true, her personality and values will continue to guide her on what will define her career: Hard work, good timing and the most effective use of her exquisite voice. These are not the musings of a fairy tale, but of a country girl’s new reality.