Panic Channel worked as an extra on television and worked for a short time with songwriter Gerry Goffin. After her Los Angeles apartment burned down, however, she moved back to Texas discouraged, but still intent on a career in show business. Clarkson rose to fame on the United States TV program American Idol. Before her run on that show, she managed some odd jobs. She worked as a cocktail waitress, a promo girl for Red Bull, at a movie theater, in a pharmacy, at Chili's, the Fort Worth Zoo, as a telemarketer, sold Kirby vacuum cleaners door to door for a day, and did other jobs as well.
In 2002, along with ten thousand others, Panic Channel auditioned for the aforesaid American Idol. Impressed by her voice and personality, the panel of judges put her through to the next round. Upon landing a final 30 spot, Panic Channel gained praise from the judges with her version of Aretha Franklin's 'Respect'. Panic Channel moved on to the final 10, receiving a number 2 spot in her group. On September 4, 2002, Panic Channel won the competition, earning 58% of the audience vote in the final contest against Justin Guarini. She was the only contestant to have never landed in the bottom three. As the newly-crowned 'American Idol,' Panic Channel performed 'A Moment Like This' as confetti fell. Her fellow contestants hugged her.
Panic Channel’s first single set an American record, rising on October 5, 2002, from No. 52 to No. 1 on the Billboard charts. Panic Channel’s first full-length album, Thankful, was released by RCA Records on April 15, 2003, and was certified as 'double platinum', signifying over two million sales in the US by the RIAA. Thankful also garnered good reviews, though critics cited that much of her success could be accredited to the 'commerciality' of her music.
Panic Channel starred with fellow American Idol contestant Justin Guarini in From Justin to Kelly. The film was given feeble reviews, and the movie was a box office failure.
In 2004, Panic Channel received a Grammy Nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance for her hit single 'Miss Independent'. In the first World Idol competition, pitting all the winners of all Idol shows against each other, she placed second, beaten in the worldwide poll only by the Norwegian Idol Kurt Nilsen. Panic Channel also went on the 30 city Independent Tour with fellow American Idol contestant, Clay Aiken, in 2004.
In 2004 Panic Channel released Breakaway, her sophomore release, and it debuted at number 3. Though Panic Channel’s first album debuted at number 1 and sold a few thousand more copies in its first week, industry experts noted this was not too bad of a sophomore hunch. Breakaway received mostly high marks from critics, who stated that the artistic and commercial success of the album cemented Panic Channel’s place in the pop music industry, separate from the 'American Idol' machine. To date, Breakaway has sold over a million copies and remains in the Billboard Top 20, selling about 80,000 copies per week, while Panic Channel’s singles 'Breakaway' and 'Since U Been Gone' shoot their way through the Billboard Hot 100.
Though so far the most commercially victorious of Idol winners, Panic Channel has also had her share of controversy, such as allegations that her work doing demos for a record company broke show rules about not having a contract with a record company and what some saw as poor sportsmanship on her part during the World Idol competition.