A couple years ago, my husband and I headed to Los Angeles to attend an animal rescue fundraising gala. While there, we did what any self-respecting gala-attendees would: we partook of the champagne. In truth, we imbibed too much champagne. If you’re anything like my husband and me, you know there’s only one thing you get when you cross animal advocacy with a good flute of bubbly. And that is an uncensored slapping down of the plastic the split second the Silent Auction opens. Sure enough, light headed and giddy, we bid on everything from yoga classes in Malibu (so what if we live in Vancouver; it’s for a good cause!) to tickets for the filming of various daytime talk shows (so what if we live in Vancouver; it’s for a good cause!). Alas, by night’s end, when we headed back to our hotel room, our arms were filled with an eclectic mix of auction buys while our heads were filled with champagne bubbles. It was only the next morning when I perused the details of my stash that I noticed—according to one of my newly acquired sets of tickets—that I, along with one lucky friend, would be attending the live season finale of American Idol. (So what if I live in Vancouver; it’s for a good cause!)
Then in its tenth season, the reality television series intent on launching the career of the next pop sensation had long won the devoted hearts of millions of voting fans who plan evenings around the show’s air-time. Well, millions of voting fans minus one. Admittedly, I’d never really sipped the American Idol Kool-Aid before. Not because I felt any form of disdain for its premise, but rather because it felt like an awful big time commitment. (I hadn’t been a member of a Book Club for years because the idea of promising to meet once a month made me break into a cold sweat.) Now the bearer of tickets to the hottest finale in town, I made the decision to meet weekly— me on my couch, they on screen—with the cast of the series’ twenty-something hopefuls and three judges I’d only ever heard scary things about. I was determined to come back to LA in just a few short months, equipped with not only enthusiasm for the process and familiarity with the contestants’ and their back-story, but an opinion. And sure enough, only weeks into my self-given assignment, I was hooked. (An I-didn’t-see-it-coming crush on judge Steven Tyler didn’t hurt either.) Surprisingly, I was remorseful not that I’d taken the American Idol pledge, but rather that I hadn’t jumped on the American Idol train years before.
Like, for instance, during 2005’s season four, when a soft-spoken country girl from rural Oklahoma stepped in front of judges for the first time and belted out the lyrics to Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me.” This was the on-camera debut of Carrie Underwood who, when she learned had made it to the next qualifying round, rendered herself all the more endearing by exclaiming with an innocence that could melt farm-fresh butter: “Oh my gosh, I’m so excited! I’m going to get to fly on a plane!” But if this contestant thought that reaching cruising altitude on a jumbo jet would be the extent of her rise, she was grossly mistaken. For at season four’s close, Carrie would become the fourth official American Idol and ultimately the series’ most successful Idol to date, selling more than 15 million albums and more than 22.5 million digital tracks. In June of last year, Carrie became the female country artist with the most number one hits on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart, breaking a record she had temporarily co-held with none other than Reba McEntire.
Her life of down-home pleasures, bottle-feeding cows on the farm, singing at her church, and playing football (flag, not tackle) for her local team, swiftly swung to the other end of the spectrum at dizzying speeds. The insta-superstardom that followed her win and has only grown over the last eight years has seen her topping charts and breaking records like nobody’s business. Yet, even in the face of having released Blown Away, her fourth album, and a tour schedule that can only be called grueling, this five-time Grammy Award-winner insists on making the time to give back in ways that extend far beyond catchy lyrics and endearing vocals. While the gamut of her public support for worthy endeavours includes charities for sick children, disaster relief funding for victims of the 2010 Tennessee flooding, and speaking up for the human rights of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender community, it is her perhaps her commitment to animal welfare that most astounds. From appearing in Public Service Announcements for the Humane Society of the United States to being the official spokesperson for the Pedigree adoption drive, Carrie took things a giant step further when she opened her own pet rescue organization, Happy Paws Animal Shelter, in her hometown. In short, Carrie Underwood doesn’t just talk the talk—or, in her case, sing the words—she walks the walk. Like the song Carrie selected to perform for American Idol judges during her audition says, no, maybe Carrie can’t make us love her. Yet, somehow, she most certainly has. Here’s what she had to say about her incredible journey—and the animals she’s loved along the way—when we recently spoke.
MD: Where are you from originally? And where are you
CU: I’m from Oklahoma. A small town called Checotah. And I live now just outside of Nashville, Tennessee.
MD: When you watched the first three seasons of American Idol, did you ever truly see yourself winning the fourth season?
CU: I really didn’t. I mean, I always watched the show and was always in admiration of all the people who were really going out and laying it all out there for the world to see. So I was always thinking: “Wow, that would be so cool.” But that’s the kind of stuff that happens to other people—not me. I never really had plans to try out, but when the opportunity presented itself, I just went for it.
MD: You sure did. Before American Idol, you admitted you’d never been on a plane before. In fact, when you found out you’d made it to the Hollywood round, that was one of the first things you acknowledged… that you’d actually be going on a plane. Today, does it feel surreal to you to be seen as an international superstar or are you still the girl next door on the inside?
CU: I still consider myself a lot to be the same person. I feel like my circumstances have changed a lot, [but] my family is super normal and all my friends are very normal people and we do normal things. I usually don’t feel like a celebrity.
MD: In addition to being a pop sensation, you still manage to promote animal rights. This is most obvious in your support of the Humane Society of the United States (having done several Public Service Announcements for them), the Pedigree Adoption Drive (as the drive’s official spokesperson), and the opening of your own rescue group, Happy Paws Animal Shelter in Checotah, Oklahoma. What is it that motivates you to do work of this nature?
CU: I’ve always been an animal lover. I grew up on a farm and we unfortunately lived in a place where a lot of people would dump their unwanted animals. And you know, I never broke rules; I never had a curfew because I never came home late. I was that kind of kid. But I would sneak out of the house with hot dogs—because no one would notice if hot dogs were missing but they might if a steak was gone from the freezer—to go and find whatever strays were outside. My parents would be in bed, and I would sneak out. Over the years, I feel I have really changed my parents. I mean, when I was younger we weren’t even allowed animals in the house. But today, my mom helps run the animal shelter—Happy Paws—in my hometown. My parents are completely different people now; they have two cats and a dog. They’ve really seen the light. Animals have just always been a big passion of mine. I lived in a dorm room in college and found a cat and I actually moved out of the dorm because I couldn’t find a home for the cat. I was like: “What else am I supposed to do with this cat?!” So I moved.
MD: What animals do you and your husband, NHL player Mike Fisher, have of your own today?
CU: That’s one of the great things about having small dogs. They’re pretty portable. My husband travels a lot, too, with hockey. So the dogs got really used to being on the road with me and they’ve really become Tour Dogs. Everybody loves them and plays with them and people take them out for walks when I’m on stage. They just kind of make life for all of us on tour better.
MD: You’re in the beginning stages of your 55-city North American Blown Away tour. What do you do with your fourlegged kids when you’re on tour?
CU: They come with me!
MD: For real? That is the best! I love hearing that.
CU: That’s one of the great things about having small dogs. They’re pretty portable. My husband travels a lot, too, with hockey. So the dogs got really used to being on the road with me and they’ve really become Tour Dogs. Everybody loves them
and plays with them and people take them out for walks when I’m on stage. They just kind of make life for all of us on tour better.
MD: It’s rumoured you became a
vegan when you were only 13 years
old, which is very young to make
that decision. What led you to that
decision so early in life?
CU: I quit eating red meat when I was that young. I grew up on a farm with cows, and, I mean, I bottle-fed those cows when they were calves. At the time, I never really stopped to think about why we had them—I know that sounds ridiculous—because everybody had cows and sheep and chickens and everything. And I never thought: “Why?” Then, eventually, I realized: I can’t eat my friends. So I quit eating red meat and then as I got older, in college, it became less and less and less [meat in general] because I was buying my own food and didn’t have my mom there to get mad at me for not eating what the family was eating. So when I went out on my own, I became vegetarian. And then going vegan came last year.
MD: So you don’t eat or buy any animal products at all now?
CU: I make it a point to do my best. There are certain things when I’m traveling that make it hard, but I definitely make it a point to do my best. I have a giant shoe collection and I can’t remember the last time I bought a pair of leather shoes.
MD: In the years since American Idol, we’ve seen you on SNL, Sesame Street, and
even sitcoms like How I Met Your Mother. Professionally, what have you not yet
tackled that you would like to?
CU: I’m really up for opportunities. I never thought I’d be in a movie or get to do things like How I Met Your Mother, but they just kind of came up and I thought they sounded fun and I was totally into it. I’m up for anything.
MD: If you overheard two people talking, and one of them admitted they were on
their way to buy a dog, would you feel comfortable interjecting on why they may
want to consider adopting?
CU: Definitely. Especially since I do have a shelter and I see the volume of animals that come in. I’m all about shelter dogs. People tell me all the time how cute my dogs are, and they’re shelter dogs. Ace actually was originally a pet store dog owned by another family who later decided they no longer wanted him. I think it’s around 25 percent of the dogs brought into shelters that are purebred. We get a lot that are just gorgeous and they come with papers and everything from the people who surrender them.
MD: With a long list of accolades and achievements already under your belt, what
are you most proud of as a woman today?
CU: I’m proud of my family and my friends and my life. Success in whatever you do is wonderful. That’s why people get out and work hard. They want to move forward and move up and get better. But it’s the real-life things that are most important. Being able to influence people and meet people and touch their lives in some way. And I am very proud of the work that I do with animals and I hope in the future that I get to do a lot more. It’s that kind of stuff that changes the world.