Thursday, June 23, 2005

Elle July 04 - Christina Aguilera

Proving once and for all that bad girls do indeed have more fun, pop tart Christina Aguilera had a blast during her July ELLE cover shoot, chowing down on fast-food and entertaining a few friends who dropped by the Los Angeles studio for a visit. Adding to the party vibe were some very high-style presents: Chrome Hearts sent over a pair of personalized leather pants (a diva staple) and luxe label Bottega Veneta designed leather bracelets specifically for the pint-sized power player.

To be huge. To be invulnerable. To be loved. To break it down. To protect her mother. To be true. To be warm. To do a duet with Eartha Kitt. To not be bitter toward her father. To just be herself.

Lining the halls of NBC's Studio 8H in New York City's Rockefeller Center are framed, autographed pictures of Saturday Night Live guest hosts. Recent additions include a rash of teen idols: Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey, hugging, smiling ultrabrightly; Britney Spears, who signed her first name beneath a heart, smiley face, flower, and star; and Justin Timberlake, who wrote “How did I get here?” Sidestepping three cases of Red Bull on the corridor floor, a baby-faced NBC tour guide leads a group of some awed, some yawning camera-toting fanny-packers through the skit factory, pointing here and there. Falling unnoticed into line behind them, Christina Aguilera, 23, heads for the large stage doors to rehearse with the SNL cast. She's dark-haired and diminutive and tightly packaged, in tight jeans, a tight T-shirt, and a tight jean jacket. When she stops for a brief introduction, I congratulate her on her Grammy win a couple of weeks earlier and say that I'm looking forward to doing this story, being a fan of her music and all.

“That's what everyone says,” Aguilera replies, wearing a tight smile. “And then the article comes out.”

One week later, Aguilera is sitting in the L'Ermitage hotel lobby bar in Los Angeles, relaxed and laughing with a group of friends. I've been seated 30 yards away with Vern, her Humvee-size bodyguard. Vern played football for the Raiders and the Cowboys until he tore his rotator cuff. Then he started his own bodyguard business, employing other sidelined players. He's packing a 9mm. (Never know when you might have to shoot a waiter.) I tell him that's a sissy gun and he smiles. Vern's cool.

Aguilera's entourage moves to couches by the large fireplace and leaves her sitting amid dirty plates and empty cappuccino cups. One of them, a pretty blond, approaches and says, “Christina is ready to see you now.”

“Any chance she'd like to move to the corner booth?” I suggest. “It's clean and not as noisy, and that way we can eat dinner at a table as opposed to a cocktail stand.” The girl goes, asks, and comes back with the answer: “Christina wants to stay where she is.” Vern looks down and smiles.

Aguilera's half-eaten chocolate soufflé has melted into a brown blob. She's already eaten? “I wanted a little snack,” she says. She resettles into the overstuffed velvet chair, dangling her legs—in cropped jeans and a pair of black spiked heels—over its arm. Aguilera seems even smaller than before. Maybe it's the black turtleneck, or that her hair is tucked under a black leather newsboy cap, which she wears tilted over a heavily black-lined eye. She's in her full makeup armor and giving off a been-here, done-this, let's-get-it-over-with vibe. “I've had many a L'Ermitage interview,” Aguilera says, gesturing with a sweeping hand. “I like the dim lighting. I like the fireplace. I like that it's not too quiet, not too loud.” I like that she's channeling Norma Desmond.

“It was a blast,” Aguilera says of her triumphant SNL gig, the highlight being her dead-on impersonation of Sex and the City's Samantha. “So many people are saying that they thought my Kim Cattrall voice was dubbed. I guess I really pulled that off. No one's really ever seen me act per se before. They know that I'm a performer. Do they know that I'm an actor? No. I wanted to show people what I could do on that side of the spectrum.”

She talks about wearing a dark pin-striped suit during her opening monologue and how at one point someone was supposed to walk out and hand her a bra and panties as a joke because “so many people have this idea, this preconceived notion in their heads, that I always dress pretty provocative,” Aguilera says. “And that's part of the media's fault, because I've been dressed from head to toe in many different suits. Yet of course they don't print that, because the media pretty much decides what your image is going to be—whether you like it or not.”

The pop superstar has some ideas and preconceived notions of her own that make interviewing and writing about her a daring—some might say losing—proposition. Her anticipation of being brought down by every journalist manifests itself in an ill-disguised contempt. When answering questions she talks to the empty air, as though she can't bear, or deign, to look upon you. Like now, for instance. “...I don't believe in the words fashion faux pas,” she is saying to the ceiling, twisting a diamond stud in her ear, “because it's self-expression. It's like Van Gogh or Basquiat looking back at a piece of their art and saying, 'Oh, that's an art faux pas.' It's the same thing with fashion. Anyone that doesn't necessarily agree with me, I'm opening their mind. I'm pushing them to think out of their box that they're living in, obviously.” Yoo-hoo! Over here! Maybe she's just shy. But if she's shy, why do I have the feeling that at any moment she could blow a fuse? Where's Vern?

A waitress with a wine list arrives. “I hope you're warm now,” she says, smiling at Aguilera, “because I'm sweating.”

“Oh, I'm sorry!” Aguilera says.

“No, no, no, I'm just kidding,” replies the waitress, not really kidding.

“As long as you're comfortable.” Aguilera orders a bottle of cabernet and a turkey club, “no avocado.”

Aguilera's next project was going to be a low-key, six-week American tour for Stripped, her latest multiplatinum-selling album, which she cowrote and coproduced. But that was canceled after she strained her vocal chords recording a Mercedes-Benz commercial. Now she's working on a song for the soundtrack of Shark Tale, DreamWorks' answer to Pixar's Finding Nemo, and thinking about her next album. “I'd love to do a duet with Eartha Kitt, because she was kind of the ultimate at her time,” Aguilera says. “Some of her songs were banned, like 'I Want to Be Evil.' It's crazy, because I go into these interviews where people say, 'Do you think music has become raunchy?' When has music ever not been raunchy? I mean, Elvis Presley created a commotion in his day, which would look like nothing now.…”

By the time Aguilera shows signs that she's warming up to me—girlishly dishing about how most pop singers “come off a factory line: pretty, packaged, and polished. It's a saying that I've come up with as a spectator of it all”—her publicist appears and ends the interview, answering my protest with, “Christina only ever gives an hour.” “Trust me, you have enough,” Aguilera says, eyes narrowing. “I've done this before.”

If Madonna is the mother of all pop stars, Britney would be her favorite daughter, but Christina is the daughter who most takes after her. Aguilera's 1999 eponymous debut album sold 12.1 million copies worldwide, fueled by the bubblegummy dance tracks “Genie in a Bottle,” “What a Girl Wants,” and “Come On Over.” Tired of the easy comparisons to Britney Spears and of posing as a blond sexpot pop princess, Aguilera re-emerged in 2002 as a dark diva—dyeing her hair black, changing her wardrobe from PG-13 to NC-17, and writing serious lyrics about sexism and domestic violence for Stripped. So far that album has sold more than 8.3 million copies worldwide, thanks in no small part to the Grammy-winning “Beautiful,” a girl-power anthem as raw and stunning as Janis Ian's 1975 “At Seventeen.”(According to Aguilera, “Beautiful,” written by Linda Perry, formerly of 4 Non Blondes, was first offered to Pink, who took a pass.)

“She has a lot more edge compared to Britney and the others,” says video director Paul Hunter, who has worked with everyone from Madonna to Whitney Houston to Jennifer Lopez. “At the end of the day, they just want to feel like you're gonna make them look great, that the camera is placed so that their face and body look fine.” According to Hunter, Aguilera's favorite angle is “face front and moving forward into the camera very aggressively, attacking the lens.” He chuckles when he recalls shooting the ultravampy “Lady Marmalade” video in 2001 with Aguilera, Mya, Pink, and Lil' Kim: Each singer went behind closed doors with her own hair and makeup artists. “I kept thinking, Who's gonna come out first?” Hunter says. “Mya did.” And Aguilera? “She came out last and with the biggest hair.”

Like Madonna 20 years ago, Aguilera's “provocative,” sexually explicit image draws fire from all sides. “I see her videos and I get pissed off,” fellow Grammy winner Amy Lee of Evanescence said recently in Rolling Stone. “I feel like she's misrepresenting everything feminism is supposed to be.” But unlike Madonna's musical gifts, Aguilera's are bulletproof.

A&M Records president Ron Fair remembers Aguilera at 16 years old, back in 1997, standing in his office, auditioning a cappella. “It was one of those transfixing, one-in- a-zillion moments that will never be repeated in my lifetime,” he says seriously. “Christina has a God-given ear. Music is measured in intervals: The space between notes is the harmonic structure; the wave comes up, and singers ride the surf, and a lot of them fall off. Not only does Christina never fall off, she has the ability to jump around in that structure. She rides it in a unique fashion.” On top of that, “she has her 'pocket'—the rhythmic groove, an ability to interpret a song's beat and then sing over the beat.”

Her grandmother was the first to hear it, when Aguilera was only seven. “She was lookin' at my mom like, 'She really has a talent here' and whatnot,” Aguilera says, her face softening at the memory. That was the year Aguilera's father, an Army sergeant, and her mother, a concert violinist, ended their volatile marriage. Aguilera recalls living in Wexford, Pennsylvania, outside Pittsburgh, “and Grandma would drive me into the city to these off-the-wall old record stores, and we'd just dig, get these old blues singers. If you want pain you have Nina Simone—that really takes you to the point of tears. If you want rawness, voice, power, and edginess, you have Etta James; she's my ultimate favorite. Billie Holiday has a subtle, special quality, and Dinah Washington has the vibrato.…”

By the time Aguilera was eight, she was sweeping talent shows, belting out Whitney Houston's “How Will I Know” and “I Wanna Dance With Somebody.” She lost in the finals on Star Search in 1989 but was cast in The Mickey Mouse Club a few years later. Fair remembers watching the old Star Search footage and being shocked that “here was this eight-year-old already singing in her adult voice.”

A month after our meeting we reconnect. This time Aguilera is up and open and good to go, even laughing about the latest tabloid stories. One claims she's engaged to her boyfriend, Jordan Bratman, who works for her manager, Irving Azoff. “I don't know how that rumor came about,” she says, swearing it isn't true. “The funniest thing about it is…because I changed my hair color to caramel, I'm reading these headlines, 'From Dirty to Demure' and 'From Crass to Class.' It was cracking me up. Like, 'Her Newfound Love,' 'A Love Makeover.' It's like, give me a f--king break! Now Britney's the bad girl running wild and I'm the good girl in love, cleaning up.” She's really laughing now. “This is their new angle. We've changed roles, good girl and bad girl! It's so funny!” Bratman is not a new love at all; they've been together for more than two years, “ever since 'Dirrty' came out,” Aguilera says. “Through all these transitions he's stood right by me, supporting me all the way. Even when the fashion people are going, 'You should do this, do that,' he's always like, 'You know what, Christina? F--k 'em. You do you. You've gotten yourself this far,'” Aguilera says. “He makes jokes about how I change my looks and my hair color: 'Oh, I love it, I get a different girlfriend every time!'”

Aguilera has been in true love only twice, and never before the age of 18 (the first time was with her backup dancer Jorge Santos). Having witnessed her mother's abuse, Aguilera was obsessed with one thing in high school, and it wasn't boys. “I was into writing my songs,” she says. “If a guy wanted to get serious or date for a long period, I was like, 'Well, I have to leave town and I'm shopping for a record deal, so that's that. I can't; my career comes first. I never wanted to be put in a place where I felt helpless or that I needed a man in any way, shape, or form to support me, to have a roof over my head, to put money in my pocket.”

She documented her childhood trauma in “I'm OK” on Stripped: “Hurt me to see the pain across my mother's face/ Every time my father's fist would put her in her place/ …It's not so easy to forget/ All the marks you left along her neck/ When I was thrown against old stairs/ And every day afraid to come home in fear of what I might see next.…” In 2000, after being estranged from her for 12 years, Aguilera's father contacted her. By this time she had a Golden Globe nomination for “Reflection,” from Mulan, and two hit singles and was touring for her first album. “The reasoning behind why all of a sudden he would want to be a part of my life did put me off a bit,” Aguilera says quietly. “But I got him and my grandparents tickets to my show. He came backstage, and we took pictures together and whatnot.… I don't hate him. I try to be able to forgive. I am a spiritual person. I try not to become bitter after what I've been through. But I just don't see that I owe it to him to be a part of his life after him not being a part of mine for so many years. I always wanted to be in a position to support myself. That's why I always put up a certain air or front with myself, that kind of enclosed me into a state of being in total control of me. I'm kind of like a man in a way.” She laughs at this. “You gotta be a pretty tough guy to deal with a tough broad.”

Like all the greats, “I plan on being here a long time,” Aguilera says. “At this point in my life I'm very self-assured about what I want and where I'm going. And not playing by anybody's rules and not playing it safe and not being anybody's little sweetheart and just doing what is in my heart. I have this quote in my diary that I stick to: 'I do not intend to tiptoe through life only to arrive safely at death.'”