|Christina Aguilera felt caged by her sugar pop image. As she records her new album, a darker, edgier artist is finally breaking loose.
If you think that Christina Aguilera is a diva or a power bitch - as many in America's tabloid media clearly do - she's not entirelysurprised.
"I read this story," she says, "that was like 'Christina Aguilera threw a tantrum because her room wasn't perfect.' I don't know why I got pinned with that image. I think maybe some people saw me, in the past, interacting with certain people not in a healthy, good way." Her entourage has left her room at the Mercer Hotel in New York, and now that we're alone, she seems all too happy to talk about what sets her off.
"I used to get so angry - I felt really caged for a while on tour because people were handling me in not a cool way. Like right after the Video Music Awards, I was rushed in a helicopter to do this little show on the Internet - but it wasn't on my schedule; no one told me about it. All these things were going on behind my back."
Aguilera spent much of the past three years as a money making machine. A lot of people surrounding her got used to pushing the pop princess with the golden throat hard. Too hard. Twenty-three million records (and four number one singles) worth of too hard.
"For a while," she says, "it was to the point that I was losing my voice and I thought I was going to have to be hospitalized if I kept working myself into the ground. I ended up getting really introverted. I wasn't happy." People who see an unhappy, sulky pop star assume that she's an ungrateful, self-absorbed little ninny. "But nobody knows what's really going on," She says, "I need to eat, I need to sleep, and sometimes those things weren't considered. It was like, 'When do you think I'll have time to go to the bathroom?' That wasn't on the schedule."
Those uncool people who overscheduled her are, thankfully, history - she's got a new management team. Now Aguilera is working to wipe out her other image problem: that she's merely a prefab MTV starlet, a manufactured pop confection for the TRL set.
"When you're new to recording," she says, "and you get signed to a label, people decide what you're going to be, but you're so excited to be doing it, period. Then you realize, 'Man, I don't know if this is what I really want.'" With her new record (as yet untitled and due for release in late summer), much of which she's writing and producing herself, Aguilera is backing away from her bubblegum reputation. "Now I'm getting to do my own material and let people know that there's an artist behind the singer."
She cites R&B legend Etta James as a particular inspiration for her new direction. "I did a cover of hers, 'At Last' on tour, and I'm doing one on my album: 'I Prefer You' - a sassy uptempo song."
Now 21, Aguilera has been belting out big songs for the masses since she was a little kid. Growing up in suburban Pittsburgh (her father was in the military and "wasn't home much" so most of the parenting was done by her pianist/violinist mother), Aguilera first grabbed the spotlight by singing at local events, which led to an appearance, at age 8, on Star Search. (She lost, but the following year got to sing the national anthem at a Steelers game.) By 12, she'd landed in the New Mickey Mouse Club's now legendary class of 1993 (Britney Spears, NSync's Justin Timberlake and JC Chasez and actress Keri Russell were castmates). After singing "Reflection" on the soundtrack for Disney's 'Mulan' - which earned her a Golden Globe nomination at 18 - Aguilera rocked to international fame with her first single "Genie in a Bottle."
"Now people are going to get to see the real me," she says, because her record is packed with lyrics inspired by her own struggles - with love, family traumas, and particularly, artistic integrity.
"I'm growing up," she says, "and getting vocal about what I want to do." She mentions her sometimes outlandish fashion and make-up statements as one way in which she's becoming her own person.
"I'm not conservative," she says, laughing. "I cannot walk into a tattoo or piercing place without getting something done. This [pointing to her bottom lip] is my latest one. I got it in Atlanta. My friend wanted to get her nose pierced, and I was like 'Well shoot, I'm going to get my lip pierced!"
How many piercings is that now? "Eleven. I'm not going to tell you where they all are, but you'll probably imagine."
It's a far cry from her early days (if you call the late 90's "early days"). When she was first signed to her label, Aguilera says her look - wardrobe, hair and make-up - "was basically monitored by RCA representatives to make sure it was cool. Everybody wanted their all-American girl." She pauses, then lets out another generous laugh.
"Maybe that's why I'm rebelling!"
Not that she's unwilling to occasionally make a compromise. Her performance at the closing ceremonies of the Olympics, for instance, was low-key - by Aguilera's standards - in keeping with the organizers wishes. "I was really mad, though, that a lot of people thought that was my comeback performance. It wasn't."
"My comeback performance," she wants you to know, "will be explosive!"
Who? Christina Aguilera
What? Allure's May cover, shot by Michael Thompson
Where? Lux Studio in Manhattan
When? January 30th
Why? After a year of collaborations with artists like Pink, Mya, Lil Kim and Ricky Martin, the three-time Grammy winner has finished her fourth album, scheduled for a late summer release.
Wake-up call: Ponytailed and make-up free, Aguilera arrived at 11:30 am in clingy white velour warm up pants and a brown hooded sweatshirt with the word Xtina on the back.
Hair Peace: "We were trying for a natural look - no bright colors or curls," said New York hair stylist Serge Normant. After misting Aguilera's hair with a flaxseed styling spray, he blew it dry with a flat brush and ironed it straight. A dab of hair serum added shine. "It's different than what she's used to," Normant said. "But she was open to it."
Prim Rose: Make-up artist Scott Andrew smoothed pink blush onto Aguilera's cheeks and swiped rose lipstick and sheer gloss onto her lips. To make her eyes stand out, he chose a few shades of mauve eye shadow and mascara and lined her upper and lower lids with black pencil.
Hostile Makeover: Andrew and Aguilera disagreed only once. "She wanted me to cover up her freckles," he said, "but I think they're beautiful." (The diva won in the end.)
What a Girl Wants: Aguilera skipped the catered lunch - lentil soup, spinach ravioli, and roasted vegetables - and went for a fast food fix instead. For lunch it was a six-inch Subway turkey sandwich; for late afternoon snack, she had McDonald's Chicken McNuggets.
Sleeping Beauty: On the eve of the shoot, Aguilera went club hopping at Manhattan hot spots Lotus and Bowery Bar. Even her blaring Busta Rhymes CD couldn't sustain her night owl's energy - she dozed off during her manicure.
- Courtney Watson
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