Denise Truscello/WireImage.com
Chris Willman
July 20, 2007 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Kellie Pickler is living proof that ”polarizing” works. There’s something to be said for the fact that so far, she’s the lowest-ranking American Idol finalist to have a gold album. Her small-town-Southerner persona — which she freely describes as ”obnoxious” — is the kind that was destined to inspire heated love and impassioned dislike almost from the start, as was her choice of genre, country. But the season-5 viewers who did fall for her couldn’t help but feel she was their new best friend. And she made good on that trust with Small Town Girl, an album with an unusually strong selection of savvy country material that belies how hurriedly the whole thing was recorded.

Her current single, which is just about to break into the country top 10, is ”I Wonder,” a ballad about growing up without the mother who abandoned her when she was still a toddler. It’s an honest tearjerker, even if you don’t know its autobiographical truth — but who with basic cable doesn’t? Pickler’s life has rarely been without some kind of family drama, and there may be more in the offing. In this interview, she alluded to more that might be about to appear in the news — and sure enough, days after this interview was conducted, the National Enquirer published a story about how the singer’s long-estranged mother is looking to reunite with her. Perhaps Pickler’s sophomore album will have an ”I Wonder, Part II” that picks up that story.

In the meantime, though, she’s out on the road opening shows for Brad Paisley, with performances that evidence real star power. ”People relate to [her] honesty and the fact that there’s no pretense,” says SonyBMG Nashville chairman Joe Galante, who’s guiding her career as well as Carrie Underwood’s. ”And the fact is, by the end of this year, she’ll have a platinum record. On the Paisley tour, she’s hitting 12,000 people, and doing 70 to 80 dates. That’s almost a million folks.”

During a week off from the tour, Pickler sat down in her label’s Nashville offices to discuss the making of her album, what she hopes to do even better on the next one, the hazards of returning to Idol, and what, exactly, she has in common with Britney Spears.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When you went in to meet with the SonyBMG people after the Idol season ended last year, do you think anything about you surprised them?
KELLIE PICKLER:
They saw exactly what they saw on TV, but a lot more, because I was just so loud and excited. [Laughs] I was more obnoxious in person than I was on television, so I think they were a little like, Whoa! The greatest compliment that Joe [Galante] has ever given me was that he kind of sees a little Dolly in me. And that means the world to me, because I’ve always been the biggest Dolly Parton fan. She’s my definition of an American idol. When I was little, one of my best friends from home gave me this nickname Picklebutt — oh, I hated my last name with a passion — but now I’m like, Thank you, Lord, that my last name starts with a P, because when I go into Best Buy, I’m right beside Dolly Parton on the shelf! That’s the greatest thing ever.

You were hustled into the studio practically overnight, right?
You can ask any Idol that was on tour with me last summer — I didn’t sleep at all on that tour. We had 60 shows in less than 90 days, so we were booking it to the next city after each show. And every day we had off I was songwriting or recording. Sometimes I would go to the studio after a concert, if [there was an appropriate facility] in that city, and record till 2 or 3 or 4 in the morning, then get right back up and [on the road] with the Idols. Because we set a date that the record was gonna come out, Oct. 31, and everything had to be done at least two months before. I was literally writing on the phone with songwriters back in Nashville, before I even met them. It was nuts: ”I don’t know you, but I’m gonna pour my heart and my soul out to you on the phone, and we’re gonna write a kick-ass song.”

NEXT PAGE: ”There’s a lot of songs that I really liked and didn’t put on the record, because I was so worried about what other people were gonna think, and I regret it.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How happy are you with Small Town Girl — did it get the reaction you wanted?
KELLIE PICKLER: You can’t go through life expecting to please everyone, because you’re gonna be let down. You have to ultimately be happy with what you see in the mirror. Yes, the fans are the ones that keep us employed. They voted me to where I am today, and I give them so much credit. But when I had songs pitched to me, I was so worried about certain lyrics in particular songs — like, ”How is this mom gonna feel about her 5-year-old listening to this song?” There’s a lot of songs that I really liked and didn’t put on the record, because I was so worried about what other people were gonna think, and I regret it.

It’s funny… We were riding in the car a while back, and out of nowhere my 7-year-old brother said, ”Kellie, there’s a cuss word in your song.” And I’m sitting there thinking, What in the world is he talking about? I said, ”Honey, there is not a cuss word in ‘Red High Heels.”’ He said, ”It’s not that one. You know which one it is.” I’m sitting here, literally singing through my whole record… Finally I said, ”What word is it?” And he goes ”I’m not sayin’ it.” This went on a while. And I said, ”Well, what song is it?” And he said, ”No. 4 [‘Didn’t You Know How Much I Loved You’]. ” And I was like, ”Ohhhhh, there’s a part in there where I say the D-word.” And he said, ”Yeah.” Just like, I’m a little disappointed. I’m like, Okay, thanks, I guess I’m grounded now!

So you think about that kind of stuff, and you don’t want to upset anyone. But I do have some regrets about some songs I didn’t put on there. Maybe as I grow and make more records, my fans will grow with me and give me the chance to show certain sides of me that Idol didn’t. Everything on this record is honest, every song on there I relate to, even if I didn’t write it. But I do want this next one to be a complete spin around, like, ”Wow, I didn’t know this about her.” I want people to leave in shock — to think, Really? I’m all about that. I like controversy.

One thing I’ve seen some fans say about you on message boards is that you’ve gotten too glamorous now.
Too glamorous? I’m wearing jeans with holes in them! Ask anyone in this building. Glamorous? Phhhfft. I mean, tell that person thank you, that’s a compliment, because I’ve never been called that before. Usually it’s like, ”Are you sure you’re not a man?” Because I belch and fart like a man, better than any of ’em.

What kind of material are you thinking about for your next record?
I just really want to get more in-depth, how I really feel about things. This record came out last October. There’s so much that’s happened to me in this past year that will definitely make it on the next album that I think a lot of people will be shocked [about]. I’ve got one heck of a life to write about, that’s for sure. I’m sure you’ve read the papers, and there’s so much that doesn’t make the papers, which is probably a good thing. And I’m sure it won’t be too much longer before [the other stuff] makes it, too. It is what it is. But yeah, less filtered [on the next album]. I think I’m gonna just go in and [say], ”Here I am, this is me — the other side. The dark side!” I’m kidding.

You’ll come back with dark hair, maybe?
Gothic all the way. Voodoo dolls and all. It’s funny you say that. Because I have this dark wig that I put on, auburn-colored? I’ve always wanted red hair. Reba McEntire — I love her hair. At shows, after I sing, I put my wig on and I change clothes, and I go out and I’m actually in the audience on the front row singing with the fans, as a fan, and I watch Brad’s show. It took three shows for Brad to realize that it was me down there. Because he was like, ”God, this girl keeps coming to all the shows and she’s wearing the same thing.”

You get a kick out of being in disguise?
I was at the concession stand, buying a hot dog, and I had my wig on, and the guy behind the counter was like, ”Has anyone ever told you you look like Kellie Pickler?” And I went, ”Who? Never heard of her.” He got [indignant], like, ”Well, she just played!” I’ve even been in my sweats… This sounds really mean, I shouldn’t have done this. I just wanted to go in and — I’ll be honest with you — buy a box of tampons and get out of there. [Laughs] I’m back home in Albemarle, North Carolina, and the last time I was in the store, it was freakin’ nuts. It was like they announced over the intercom, ”She’s in aisle 3! Sic her!” So I go in there, I have a box of tampons in one hand, and this little boy is running up to me wanting my autograph. So I signed it — on the box of tampons. This little boy is gonna have a complex! [Laughs] And then I’m starting to walk down the aisle to check out, and this lady who works there, she’s like, ”Gosh, you look just like Kellie Pickler!” I went, ”Who?” [And] she just wrung me out: ”Well, you’re in Albemarle, you should know who she is.” I just ran and checked out and went home. I should have said yes, but I just didn’t feel like it that day. Cramps and all — I’m like, just leave me alone and let me go home! That’s probably the meanest I’ve ever been.

NEXT PAGE: ”To tell you the truth, I don’t even have any panties on right now. I don’t care! Let’s focus on things that are important, and let people be happy.”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What was it like going back on Idol this year to sing ”I Wonder”? Sometimes it’s hard after being on that show for artists to come back and present themselves in a new way.
KELLIE PICKLER: I missed everybody so much that it was good to catch up. But it is a little scary, because it’s been a year since everyone saw you, and everybody expects you to look and be exactly the way that you were when you left. A lot’s happened in a year. I went from working at Sonic Drive-in, where I made $2.15 an hour, roller-skating burgers out for a living, hoping tips would be good that day, nobody caring about me — all they wanted was their food. And overnight, you’re on 40 million TV sets. You think someone’s not gonna change when that happens to them? You’re automatically gonna put your guard up. I’m very flattered that people actually are interested in me. But I went from nobody knowing anything about me… Yeah, everyone in Albemarle knew my mom wasn’t around and that my dad was always in trouble, but nobody cared. Now it’s on the front page of every paper: Kellie Pickler’s dad is going to court tomorrow. Now all of a sudden people are interested in it. Of course I’m gonna change as a person when I have to deal with the fact that my 7-year-old brother goes to school and has kids come up to him now saying, ”We just saw your daddy, he was on the front page of the paper, he’s back in jail.” I try to respect my family, and I don’t want to hurt them. I don’t want them to disown me. I’ve been saying since the beginning, you can’t make everybody happy — but I’m still guilty of trying.

Yeah, going back on the show, people are gonna say great things about you, and people are gonna say bad things about you.
Reading all those horrible comments that people made about me — it hurt my feelings, but at the end of the day it was like, I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m just growing. I’m just developing into a woman.

There were a lot of negative comments?
Oh yeah, there were so many mean things, like ”Oh, she’s so fat now, she’s gained 20 pounds.” It was so judgmental. How can you say such horrible things about someone? I couldn’t sleep at night knowing that I gave someone a complex like that. I could never say anything bad about Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan or the girls you see that are being completely scrutinized in the press. You just never know the situation. I have people saying I have an eating disorder because I’ve lost weight. I did gain 20 pounds last year, but [after losing it] I’m not even as small as I was when I auditioned for Idol. Then there were rumors that I was pregnant…. There are some mean people out there that don’t have anything better to do than talk bad about other people. Yeah, it hurts.

There was also just this big thing [in the Enquirer]: ”Kellie and Jessica Simpson are new BFFs!” [It said] we were out at a club in Dallas — on a night I was actually playing in New York with Brad — and she was pouring her heart out to me about John Mayer, and I told her that he hit on me. I’ve never even met either one of them! So if I’m ever bored with my life, I can just pick up a magazine and go, ”Actually I just went partying with Jessica Simpson last night!”

How do you feel about the Kelly Clarkson controversy? It seems like there are a lot of people rooting for her to fail right now, for some reason.
I’m honestly a really big Kelly Clarkson fan. And I love how she stands her ground. I respect the fact that she said, ”I really want to do it my way this time. I just want to see what it’d be like to put out my music the way I want it to be.” She could have done a record the exact way that the record label wanted her to do it — there’s still gonna be people out there that don’t like it. Either way, you can’t win for losing. We’ve got more important things going on in the world today than whether or not you like somebody’s song on their album. There’s a freakin’ war going on…. [but world issues] are not being given half as much attention as Britney Spears for not wearing panties. Who cares? If the girl doesn’t want to wear panties, leave her alone. I’d rather focus on my troops that are dying for me so that I can actually sit here and have this conversation with you, and homeless kids that are in shelters, than whether or not Britney has panties on. To tell you the truth, I don’t even have any panties on right now. I don’t care! Let’s focus on things that are important, and let people be happy. Let Kelly absorb — she just made a record, let her enjoy that moment of being able to turn on the radio and hear her song. Let her enjoy her work and her passion.

I wouldn’t want my little brother to grow up and be one of those people that points fingers at everybody. I want him to be someone that prays for everybody. You know? And he does. I wish people could be more like my 7-year-old brother.

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