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When that something better did come along, Clarkson did something unusual for a reality-show contestant--she let her 15 minutes elapse. Thankful wasn't released until seven months after her big TV moment, giving her and RCA records chief Clive Davis time to figure out how to balance the expectations of people who wanted an Idol souvenir with those who demanded signs of artistic growth. The finished product was a pleasant trifle that alienated no one and produced a deserving hit, Miss Independent, but it didn't earn Clarkson much capital with RCA or her management firm at the time, 19 Entertainment. (19, the company owned by show creator Simon Fuller, has the right to sign any Idol contestant; another contractual obligation. It had no comment on this or any Clarkson-related matter.) "To be totally honest," says Clarkson in her gentle twang, "the problem was I wanted to write a lot of my own songs on Breakaway. Nobody else wanted me to. So there was a big ol' fight."
Davis, who discovered Whitney Houston, Alicia Keys and more than a dozen other platinum acts, says, "I always encourage people to write their own songs, but in the pop arena, where the career is totally dependent on hits, you get skeptical. Artists with great voices like Melissa Manchester and Taylor Dayne could have had much longer careers if they didn't insist on writing their own material." Clarkson doesn't think of herself as a pop singer--"Rock is what I love," she says--and she's been writing songs since her teens, but rather than argue over labels or abilities, she and Davis, 72, reached a détente. Clarkson wrote or co-wrote six Breakaway tracks, including one certifiable hit, Behind These Hazel Eyes, and the rest were collected from world-class song doctors and produced by studio veterans. "I'm 100% happy with my album," says Clarkson. "I just think it's funny that all these middle-age guys told me, 'You don't know how a pop song needs to sound.' I'm a 23-year-old girl! But I was fighting those battles alone."
A month after Breakaway's release, Clarkson decided she needed backup for any future conflicts. She and 19 amicably agreed to sever ties--"I love Simon Fuller, but how can somebody you've seen five times in three years really look out for you?"--and Clarkson signed with the Firm, a Hollywood management company whose clients include Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lopez. "A lot of artists tell their managers not to think short term, not to think about the next big check," says Firm CEO Jeffrey Kwatinetz, who handles Clarkson personally. "But when push comes to shove, they want that check, and they want it now. Kelly asked us to plot out a 20-year career, and she's not afraid to sacrifice to get it."