When singer/songwriter Carrie Underwood flew to Los Angeles six years ago after making it to the second round of American Idol, Fox TV network's talent competition, it was her first trip on an airplane. Fast-forward to 2010, and the shy girl who grew up on a farm in Checotah, Okla., has blossomed into one of music's most glamorous women. Along the way, she has racked up 10 No. 1 singles, collected five Grammys, and become the youngest member of country music's Grand Ole Opry.
Underwood's critically acclaimed tour to promote her third album, Play On, kicked off in March and will run through the end of the year. Yet despite all the accolades, Underwood remains almost bizarrely normal -- honest, levelheaded, and extremely grounded, thanks to a protective circle of family and friends. Even on the road, she tries to keep her life as consistent as possible.
"Growing up, I always thought musicians would wake up at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, play a show, and party all night," says the 27-year-old. "It's not what happens at all! There's a lot of work and planning, and no partying. Which is fine -- I'm not a big partygoer anyway."
This is typical down-to-earth Underwood. Her close family includes two older sisters and her parents. (Dad was a paper mill worker; mom was a teacher.) She sang at church and local fairs, but she planned a career in broadcast journalism. While she was still taking classes at Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla., she decided on a whim to audition for Idol. We all know what happened next: Persnickety judge Simon Cowell predicted that not only would Underwood win, but her music would outsell that of all previous Idol winners. He was right.
Now that she is a full-fledged superstar, Underwood knows that much is at stake if she were to get sick, so she does everything she possibly can to stay healthy.
Being in peak physical shape is especially crucial for Underwood these days -- not only so she can continue to deliver her trademark high-energy, sultry performances, but because she will soon tie the knot with Ottawa Senators hockey player Mike Fisher. (The couple was not married as of press time.)
In her classic low-key fashion, Underwood wants cupcakes instead of a wedding cake, and hopes that her beloved rat terrier, Ace, can be the ring bearer.
How Underwood Stays Healthy on the Road
But Underwood has found that maintaining her well-being on a mega-tour is not easy when the road is a minefield of sleep deprivation, fast food, and grimy venues. Even though she sometimes stays in posh hotels, she occasionally finds herself in places that compel her to keep her shoes on inside her room.
"Here's my test," she says. "My dog travels with me everywhere. If he licks the floor a lot, or tries to roll around and stuff, the socks stay on. It's totally mental -- I'm sure it's fine. I mean, growing up I used to run around with no shoes on, just outside everywhere. I was a disgusting child."
She is also careful when it comes to food. The longtime vegetarian orders room service once a month at most ("it's expensive!") and avoids fast food entirely. "It would be very easy to just go eat that all the time. But if I don't know what's in it, I don't eat it. That's my rule," she says firmly. Instead, she hits the grocery stores in major cities and stocks her tour bus with healthy fare like yogurt or microwavable oatmeal.
"I've become a wonderful microwave expert in my years of travel," she says with a laugh. And she has no problem making a sandwich in the bus and toting it into her hotel. "People say, 'I don't have time -- I just grab a hot dog on the street,'" she says. "I know better. It takes about five minutes to make a sandwich to take with you someplace."
Heading to the supermarket, by the way, is one of Underwood's favorite ways to stay grounded. "It's a very human thing to do, and that's why I love it so much," she says.
"When you're out on the road, people see you as a performer -- not necessarily first and foremost as a human being. So it's really nice to go and do things that people do!" She laughs. "I always hear, 'You shop yourself?' I would hate to see the day when someone else had to buy my groceries for me."
More Healthy Road Rules
Along with healthy food, Underwood makes sure that she -- and everyone on her tour -- has plenty of water. "In our catering area we have this huge table of supplements for people -- little things like vitamin C, echinacea, stuff like that, because if one person gets a cold, everybody's getting a cold." And she regularly hits the local gym. "If I can wake up and I go get a good cardio session in," she says, "a class at a gym nearby, or me on the treadmill, I'm happier throughout the day."
She also tries to get plenty of rest, but that's not easy on the road. Her post-show ritual is basically the same every night: She boards the tour bus, swabs off the makeup, and tries to climb into bed by midnight. But as the bus speeds toward her next destination, her head is buzzing from the show, and adrenaline is coursing through her veins. Who can sleep?
"I'm still kind of on a high," she says. "The show is so loud and there are so many lights that it's kind of hard to come down off of that sometimes. But you get used to it. And before you know it, when the tour's over, I'm going to go home and have trouble sleeping in a bed that's not going 70 miles an hour down the road."
Carrie Underwood and Panic Attacks
The energy Underwood gets from the crowd is gratifying, but when she's offstage, large numbers of people can be harder to handle. The previous day, she was in an elevator in a hotel that was hosting a big convention. "Every floor we stopped on, we'd cram more people in, and by the time we were done, there was just a ton of people," she recalls.
"So I start thinking about all the bad things that can happen, and I'm like, 'I've got to get off the elevator, I need to get off the elevator.'" She laughs. "Of course, I made it down to the ground level. So it was OK. But I was just like, 'No more stops, please, no more stops!'"
Underwood has said that when she was in high school, she suffered from panic attacks. Christmas shopping, in particular, "seemed to be my worst nightmare," she says. "I'm a big personal space person. You know, if you go to the restroom, you use the stall that's not near anybody. Or if you're in the gym, you go to the treadmill where there's space in between you. And it seemed like in crowded situations like that, people would just completely violate your personal space. So whenever I'd be in stores and there would be people touching me and kids running around, I couldn't take it and I'd have to leave."
David D. Burns, MD, clinical psychiatrist and author of When Panic Attacks: The New, Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your Life, says that being in crowds is a common trigger for a panic attack. More than 6 million Americans are affected by panic disorders, which often begin in late adolescence, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
These attacks, says Burns, are characterized by "feelings of extreme terror that seem to come out of the blue. The feelings quickly reach a crescendo and then typically disappear within 10 or 20 minutes, leaving you feeling terrified and ashamed, and wondering when the next attack will strike again."
Panic Attacks: A Treatable Disorder
Along with anxiety, physical sensations of a full-blown panic attack can include dizziness, a racing heart, tightness in the chest, a churning stomach, and tingling skin. "At the same time, you have the intense belief that something terrible is about to happen," he says. "You think you're on the verge of dying, passing out, going crazy, or losing control. These distorted negative thoughts actually trigger the feelings of panic."
Many panic attack sufferers, he says, mistakenly think they have a medical problem, such as a heart attack or stroke, "and they spend years going to emergency rooms and cardiologists before a proper diagnosis is made."
Fortunately, panic disorder is one of the most treatable anxiety disorders; drugs, cognitive behavior therapy, and exposure therapy can all help, Burns says. "In most cases, people can be 'cured' more or less completely in just a few sessions, without any medications, using some of the newer techniques."
Underwood says her panic attacks are now well under control, but when she shot to fame on American Idol, she had to adjust to groups of excited fans. "They feel like they know you and they love you and that's wonderful -- they're excited to meet you," she says. "It just took me a minute to be able to figure that out and to be able to allow people into my space."
Carrie Underwood on Being a Star
The singer loves that her music has touched so many. She mentions Temporary Home, a poignant tune she co-wrote for Play On that depicts people in difficult but transitory situations, including a boy in a foster home. "It's amazing the masses that songs like that can reach," she says. "I was reading a letter from a kindergarten teacher who said that one of her students said this was his song because he was in a foster situation. He was about to be adopted. So that makes me feel good. It's things like that that make you realize it's great to do the fun songs that people can sing along and dance to, but those are the ones where you're kind of leaving a legacy."
Many of her fans say it's hard to hear Temporary Home without an emotional reaction. "I get a lump in my throat when I sing that song every night," she says. "Last night, I was really glad the crowd was singing because I was having trouble with it." During another part of the show, her emotions swung in the other direction.
"We had a giggle-fest onstage," she confesses. "Afterward, I felt like I had to address [the crowd] because they were going to be like, 'What was going on during that song?' So I told them I got the giggles and said, 'You always get them at the worst times, like when you're in church.'"
For Underwood, that's about as wild as it gets on the road. It's safe to say that this is someone who will never be tossing a TV through a hotel window. "You see celebrities all the time who have good families, they had a good home life, and then somewhere along the way, things just seemed to fall apart," she says.
"I have people around me who are very honest with me, and if I ever start doing something stupid, I feel like they'd tell me."
Still, Underwood is keenly aware of how spoiled celebs get. She'll never forget a moment during American Idol when she heard a nearby contestant murmur that she was thirsty. Two seconds later, a staffer sprinted over with some water. "It was the first time I realized, 'Wow, people will do stuff for you.' So I think it would be very easy to just become a little brat." She laughs. "I'm not saying I don't have my bratty moments. But I've always had those!" She's the youngest of three girls, after all, "so I get a little 'spoiled' pass."
Overall, Underwood's philosophy is to accentuate the positive. She knows that to stay healthy, an upbeat attitude is just as important as eating her vegetables and getting some rest. "It's a lot easier to focus on the negative," she says. "It really, truly is. But when you take a moment to think about all the good things in your life, you become happy. And I think happy attracts happy. So to me, it's really important to wake up in a good mood. Because I feel very lucky."
De-stressing for Success
It's likely that very few people have a more pressurized lifestyle than Underwood, yet she manages to stay calm and centered (and rarely gets sick). Here's how she does it.
Get physical. A good workout is a stress-buster. "Cardio makes me feel good, it makes me happy. It really makes a noticeable difference."
Eat well. Let food be your medicine rather than supplements. "I'm not a huge pill taker, because I feel like our bodies are designed to take what we need out of food. So I don't want to make my body deficient and make it depend on what I take. I'd rather eat and drink things that are good for me."
Soap up. Washing your hands prevents colds. "I'd rather take preventive measures than get sick and try to battle things off. So I do wash my hands quite a bit."
Doze off. Naps aren't just for toddlers. "I enjoy naps but only on days off, because I can take, like, a three-hour one. I'll take a nap if it's just a total rainy day off and there's nothing you can do anyway."
Give back. Doing good deeds boosts your well-being. "People think, 'I don't have time to volunteer,'" she says, "but there are little things you can do to make the world better and raise awareness, whatever your passion is. Like if you go to facebook.com/Pedigree, you can become a fan, and they'll donate a bowl of food to a shelter dog. That's a free meal, and it took 30 seconds of your life."
Underwood's stress is also diminished by spending time with her beloved dog, Ace, who, she says, is almost a child to her. He's no mere pet: He has his own fan club, and he even helped her pick out the white jumpsuit she wore to sing the national anthem at this year's Super Bowl (he sniffed a few piles of outfits before settling on the winner). "Ace is my constant," she says. "I'm in a new hotel every day; he's the same. He's always glad to see me whether I've had a good or a bad day."
This makes perfect sense to Rebecca Johnson, PhD, RN, director of the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the University of Missouri. "I can't imagine someone in Carrie's situation not having a pet with them," she says.
"Pets have a way of providing something real when perhaps many things in our lives may seem temporary or vulnerable. Stress relief and unconditional love: What could be better for someone with such a demanding lifestyle?"
Underwood, an advocate for many animal causes, including Pedigree's Adoption Drive, says there are many studies that prove pets can lower your stress level. Johnson couldn't agree more. "Research evidence clearly shows that interacting with a companion animal is associated with lowered blood pressure and cortisol, or stress hormone, levels," she says. "In fact, these benefits are especially helpful with episodic stress -- stressful events or situations.
"But even beyond that, pets provide unconditional love and acceptance of us. They don't need us to perform perfectly to be worthy of their love. To them, we're always 'stars.'"