Country star Kelsea Ballerini on love, heartbreak and starting over

In the beginning of every concert on her 10-city “Heartfirst” tour, Kelsea Ballerini validates her fans.

“I just want you to know,” she says, “that in this room, for the next 90 minutes, you are seen, heard, loved and accepted.”

And at every show, the huge crowd roars its approval.

Ballerini doesn’t just hit the shimmering high notes, she’s fluent in the language of therapy. As one of a growing number of celebrities addressing mental health, the multiplatinum country pop singer-songwriter is disarmingly honest about her personal struggles and insecurities, whether she’s mourning the end of her marriage to Australian country music star Morgan Evans or reflecting on her teenage eating disorder. With the recent release of her fifth studio album, “Subject to Change,” the unfiltered 29-year-old star connects with her audience again on an emotional level. 

Dress, $4,425 at Versace.com; Pomellato Iconica ring in 18-k rose gold, $3,500; Vhernier Freccia necklace in 18-k rose gold with rock crystal and mother-of-pearl, $54,650, and Freccia earclips in 18-k rose gold, $8,750
Dress, $4,425 at Versace; Pomellato Iconica ring in 18-k rose gold, $3,500; Vhernier Freccia necklace in 18-k rose gold with rock crystal and mother-of-pearl, $54,650, and Freccia earclips in 18-k rose gold, $8,750. All jewelry (throughout) at London Jewelers, 2046 Northern Blvd., Manhasset, LI.

“I feel like as I’ve opened up about my life, the conversation has changed,” Ballerini tells Alexa, as her tour is wrapping up. “After the show every night, I went out and talked to people. I’ve really tried to create a safe place and a community over the years that feels like if you want to cry, cry; and if you want to laugh, laugh; and if you want to drink, drink.”

The two-time Grammy nominee has plenty of successes to toast. In the last year, she won a pair of Country Music Association Awards, published a moving poetry book called “Feel Your Way Through,” scored her fifth No. 1 single on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart and became a face of CoverGirl makeup. 

At the same time, Ballerini was navigating heartbreak. She filed for divorce from her husband of nearly five years in August, calling it a “deeply difficult decision,” then five weeks later moved out of the modern Nashville, Tenn., farmhouse she once shared with him.

Kelsea Ballerini performs onstage during The Heart First Tour at Radio City Music Hall.
Kelsea Ballerini performs at NYC’s Radio City Music Hall during her Heartfirst tour.
Getty Images for ABA

“It’s a process, and there’s a lot of feelings involved in grief, and for me, obviously by the time that becomes public knowledge, there’s a lot that even happened to get to that place,” she reflects. “There have been times in the last couple of weeks where I want to curl up into a ball and not walk on stage. It helps to be busy, and it helps being busy doing what I love to do. Yeah, it helps the sting.”

Ballerini’s new music is about love, loss and growing up, with catchy odes to female friendship and wild nights out. “I did a lot of self-assessment on this record, evaluating my friendships and evaluating my relationship at the time,” says Ballerini, who is warm and funny in conversation, even when she’s being introspective.

“It’s a process, and there’s a lot of feelings involved
in grief, and for me, obviously by the time that becomes
public knowledge, there’s a lot that even
happened to get to that place.”

Ballerini on filing for divorce from her husband of nearly five years in August

Her sense of humor comes through on “You’re Drunk, Go Home,” a high-spirited bop about jerks hitting on women in bars. Two of her artist besties, singers Carly Pearce and Kelly Clarkson, join her on the girl power anthem, and the trio is slated to perform the ballad live tonight at the CMAs in Nashville.

“I wrote it, and I was like, ‘Who could add some sass and some wit to this?’” Ballerini recalls. “My first call was Carly — we go way back, and I just adore her. And then I thought, ‘Who’s from a different world that would add something?’ I texted Kelly in the morning, and she did vocals that night.”

“Animalier” dress, $6,510 at Etro.com; Leo Pizzo earrings in 18-k yellow and white gold with diamonds, $8,275; Bulgari Serpenti Viper necklace in 18-k rose gold with diamonds, $41,600
“Animalier” dress, $6,510 at Etro; Leo Pizzo earrings in 18-k yellow and white gold with diamonds, $8,275; Bulgari Serpenti Viper necklace in 18-k rose gold with diamonds, $41,600

Clarkson ended up laying down the track after a few drinks. “I’ve never, ever been inebriated while singing something,” she explained on her talk show. “And [now] I am while singing ‘You’re Drunk, Go Home!’ It’s a great song!”

Ballerini touches on her marital strife and the disappointing end to a boldface friendship in the autobiographical “Doin’ My Best,” the much-ballyhooed tune where she appears to call out one-time collaborator Halsey: “I was friends with a pop star / I put ’em on Track 4, but / Wish I could take it back, I would’ve never asked / If I knew we wouldn’t talk anymore.”

Knit top, $1,950, and blouse, $3,495, both at Brunello Cucinelli, 136 Greene St.; London Collection necklace in 18-k yellow gold with diamonds, $10,330; Buccellati Blossoms “Daisy” earrings in silver with opal, $4,000, Eternelle band (Ballerini’s left hand) in yellow and white gold with diamonds, $14,500, and Eternelle “Rombi” ring (Ballerini’s right hand) in yellow and white gold with diamonds, $13,000
Knit top, $1,950, and blouse, $3,495, both at Brunello Cucinelli, 136 Greene St.; London Collection necklace in 18-k yellow gold with diamonds, $10,330; Buccellati Blossoms “Daisy” earrings in silver with opal, $4,000, Eternelle band (Ballerini’s left hand) in yellow and white gold with diamonds, $14,500, and Eternelle “Rombi” ring (Ballerini’s right hand) in yellow and white gold with diamonds, $13,000

Ballerini clearly wishes the controversy would die down. “I’m learning — and this is a hard realization that I’m struggling with — that people like clickbait,” she says. “It’s simply not the point of the song, and it’s certainly not the point to ever shade another artist, let alone someone I respect and I know as a human. That song in general is just about taking ownership of my life and the things that I acknowledge may have seemed messy or noticeable over the years.”

An only child, the singer grew up on a farm outside of Knoxville, Tenn., the inspiration for her hit 2020 song “Half of My Hometown” that she recorded with Kenny Chesney. Her father, Ed, was a sales manager for a country music station while her mother, Carla, worked in marketing for a Bible publisher. Her parents divorced when she was 12, and she was court-ordered into therapy. She began writing songs to make sense of her complicated feelings.

Faux-fur coat, $9,500, skirt, $3,600, and bra, $850, all at Gucci.com; “Filipa Crystal” pumps, $1,195 at GiuseppeZanotti.com; Buccellati Unica ring in 18-k yellow and white gold with diamonds and ruby, $44,500; Pomellato Fantina earrings in 18-k rose gold with diamonds, $13,500, and Catene necklace in 18-k rose gold, $29,500
Faux-fur coat, $9,500, skirt, $3,600, and bra, $850, all at Gucci; “Filipa Crystal” pumps, $1,195 at Giuseppe Zanotti; Buccellati Unica ring in 18-k yellow and white gold with diamonds and ruby, $44,500; Pomellato Fantina earrings in 18-k rose gold with diamonds, $13,500, and Catene necklace in 18-k rose gold, $29,500

Already battling a negative body image, Ballerini developed bulimia in high school. In a poem titled “Kangaroo,” after a cruel nickname mocking her shape, she describes bingeing and purging, taking diet pills and working out excessively. She recovered at 18 and remains healthy, but writes that “it is a process to find self-love.”

An event that forever changed her happened seven days into her sophomore year. Ballerini witnessed a school shooting in the cafeteria. She pays tribute to the 15-year-old victim in the wrenching poem “His Name Was Ryan”: “I think about him often, who he could have been.” She continues to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, and is triggered by loud noises and sensitive in crowds. 

Cardigan, $1,960, and trousers, $1,110, both at Missoni.com; Moschino heels, $1,025 at Saks Fifth Avenue, 611 Fifth Ave.; Vhernier Calla necklace in 18-k rose gold, $22,450, and Calla bracelet in 18-k rose gold, $18,250; Pomellato Iconica ring (Ballerini’s right hand) in 18-k rose gold with pink tourmaline, orange and blue sapphires, tsavorite, red spinel, blue zircon, tanzanite, demantoid and amethyst, $5,500, and Iconica ring (Ballerini’s left hand) in 18-k rose gold with diamonds, $6,550, and Iconica earrings in 18-k rose gold, $7,200
Cardigan, $1,960, and trousers, $1,110, both at Missoni; Moschino heels, $1,025 at Saks Fifth Avenue, 611 Fifth Ave.; Vernier Calla necklace in 18-k rose gold, $22,450, and Calla bracelet in 18-k rose gold, $18,250; Pomellato Iconica ring (Ballerini’s right hand) in 18-k rose gold with pink tourmaline, orange and blue sapphires, tsavorite, red spinel, blue zircon, tanzanite, demantoid and amethyst, $5,500, and Iconica ring (Ballerini’s left hand) in 18-k rose gold with diamonds, $6,550, and Iconica earrings in 18-k rose gold, $7,200

The summer after the tragedy, Ballerini moved to Nashville with her mom to pursue her musical dreams. In 2015, she unveiled her debut album, “The First Time,” to critical acclaim, becoming the only female country artist to hit No. 1 with three consecutive singles from a freshman release.

Two years later, she dropped gold-selling “Unapologetically,” then served as a coach on Season 15 of “The Voice.” Her third album, “Kelsea” landed in March 2020, just as the world was shutting down due to COVID-19. Even so, the project went gold, and Ballerini unleashed an irresistible remix of her hit song “Hole in the Bottle” with friend and mentor Shania Twain. Unable to tour because of the pandemic, she recorded a stripped-down take on “Kelsea” named “Ballerini.”

Moschino dress, $1,880 at Saks Fifth Avenue, 611 Fifth Ave.; Roberto Coin earrings in 18-k white gold with diamonds, $15,900; Pasquale Bruni Petit Garden necklace in 18-k white gold with diamonds, $14,900; Leo Pizzo ring (Ballerini’s right ring finger) in 18-k yellow and white gold with diamonds, $13,750; Picchiotti Xpandable ring (Ballerini’s right index finger) in 18-k white and rose gold with diamonds, $13,500, and Xpandable ring (Ballerini’s left middle finger) in 18-k white gold with diamonds, $15,500
Moschino dress, $1,880 at Saks Fifth Avenue, 611 Fifth Ave.; Roberto Coin earrings in 18-k white gold with diamonds, $15,900; Pasquale Bruni Petit Garden necklace in 18-k white gold with diamonds, $14,900; Leo Pizzo ring (Ballerini’s right ring finger) in 18-k yellow and white gold with diamonds, $13,750; Picchiotti Xpandable ring (Ballerini’s right index finger) in 18-k white and rose gold with diamonds, $13,500, and Xpandable ring (Ballerini’s left middle finger) in 18-k white gold with diamonds, $15,500

Now that her tour is over, she’s excited to hang out with her beloved “sweatpants friends.” Like her father, who’s fourth-generation Tuscan with an Italian sense of hospitality, she enjoys cooking. “Come sit down at the table, let me feed you, let me give you wine,” she says of the family dynamic. “It’s the community in that culture. I spent two days in Florence, and I just remember walking around and feeling so connected to that place.”

She also loves Italian fashion — the strapless emerald-green Dolce & Gabbana gown that she wore to last year’s Academy of Country Music Awards is a favorite — and playing dress up on photo shoots. “I’ve always been such a girly-girl and felt like fashion is another way to express yourself and have creative freedom,” says Ballerini, who describes her personal style as “girl next door with a little Gucci.”

The multiplatinum country pop singer-songwriter is disarmingly honest about her personal struggles and insecurities.
The multiplatinum country pop singer-songwriter is disarmingly honest about her personal struggles and insecurities.

The 29-year-old star released her fifth studio album.
The 29-year-old star released her fifth studio album.

Kelsea Ballerini
The two-time Grammy nominee has plenty of successes to toast.

Ballerini’s new music is about love, loss and growing up, with catchy odes to female friendship and wild nights out.
Ballerini’s new music is about love, loss and growing up, with catchy odes to female friendship and wild nights out.

Looking forward, Ballerini aims to decorate her house, get ready for the holidays and paint a few pictures, even if they’re not frameable. (“I’m simply terrible at it,” she says with a laugh.) She’ll also pen new poetry and music and is interested in directing or writing for a TV show.

“For so long, I felt like I had to be one thing: I’m a country singer-songwriter. As I’ve gotten older or had a little bit of success, or whatever it is, I keep asking myself: ‘What else? You can be more than one thing. Who else are you?’”

She’s figuring out the answer. Honestly.


Photographer: Eduardo Rezende; Editor: Serena French; Stylist: Anahita Moussavian; Photo Editor: Jessica Hober; Fashion Assistants: Madeleine Shepherd, Madison Cheng-Trpisovsky, Alycen Humphrey-Case ; Hair and Makeup: Kelsey Deenihan at The Wall Group using CoverGirl; Manicure: Aki Hirayama at Tracey Mattingly; Location: Zanotta House New York




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