Katy Perry isn't sure why she's crying. she was picking up speed on the treadmill at the rear of her immaculate, humidified, fresh-flower-adorned, Chanel-carpeted dressing room in a Newark, New Jersey, arena, pushing past the ache in her choreography-battered knees, not thinking about anything in particular, and there they were: tears, a whole mess of them. She lets it pass, wipes her eyes, feels much better afterward. But the cause remains mysterious: "I'm done with my period," she says later, unprompted. "I'm not PMS-ing!"
Showtime is approaching, and she's leaning back in a pink director's chair with your name here printed on the back. "Sometimes the only way to let it out is to have your own personal cry," Perry says. (Though not too often: "I thought I had my tear ducts removed a long time ago," she adds later.) She's fresh from a shower, wearing a pink polka-dotted bathrobe, facing a mirror festooned with 10 light bulbs, while her makeup artist, a slim young man named Todd Delano, paints layers of crimson onto her lips. There is white powder under each of her huge sky-blue eyes, to catch all the glitter he will apply.
She's on the 11th date of her North American tour, with 90 or so shows to go, a number she doesn't like hearing out loud. She's both star and caller of nearly every shot, from wardrobe to the tiniest shift in backup harmonies. And being the boss, it emerges, is hard. "I have a mlot on my plate," she says, checking her face's progress in a handheld Hello Kitty mirror. "Things can get monotonous. Sometimes it gets overwhelming. A lot of people want things from you. But it's fine! It's called trade-offs. You have this dream, and then the dream becomes reality, and what comes along with it is you run a company. It's the fine print of the dream that you didn't know was there."
Before her run, she'd been lying on a table in her dressing room, with acupuncture needles in her sore knees. "Every show day, from the moment I wake up, it's just prep for that night," she says. "It's like I'm a Kobe-beef cow. I get acupuncture, massage, cupping, cranial sacral work, which connects the energy through your spine. I work out, I stretch. I never skip that. You never see me at Barneys before a show."
(Even her friend Neil Patrick Harris, who starved himself for his Broadway stint, was surprised to learn what it takes to be Katy Perry. "You quickly recognize just how devoted she is," he says. "It's all very impressive and made me realize how seriously she's taking this. It's not what she's doing; it's what she does.")
Perry is pretty sure that larger forces are also at work tonight. "I saw online that it's a full moon," she muses, her voice slightly muffled by the lipstick applicator. "Full moons are notorious for erratic emotions. I mean, it's not 100 percent scientific, but a lot of studies show higher crime rates, higher chaos." Maybe she's a werewolf? "No. Your body is 80 percent water – it's responding to that. I never cry on the treadmill!"
"I cry when I look at a treadmill," Delano shoots back, as if Bruce Vilanch is feeding him lines through an earpiece.
There's a knock at the door. It's her longtime bass player, Josh Moreau, an exaggeratedly chill California dude with long dark hair he keeps pushing behind his ears. "What's up, bro?" asks Perry, whose own hair is, for the moment, pulled into a punishingly tight ponytail, which her hairstylist will supplement with extensions.
"I had a question for you," Moreau says. "Do you mind, if, like, at the beginning of the show, I put my hair back? It just gets in my face."
Perry considers this. "You look so rock & roll with your hair down."
"No one sees me!"
"Listen, Samson," she says, "you're the funky one who decided to grow your hair out. I think it's sexier down. I'm dying for all the rock & roll I can get." She adds, unconvincingly, "I don't want to be the boss of your hair."
"I love that he even asked," says Delano, working on Perry's eyelids.
"I didn't want her to yell at me afterwards!" Moreau says.
Then it's on to other business, which she takes just as seriously: Perry checks out some pictures of women Moreau met online – she's agreed to hand over some comped tickets so he can entertain one of them at a future show, and even offers a meet-and-greet invite to "seal the deal," in Delano's words. "That girl's cute," she says of one prospect, flicking at his phone with sparkle-nailed fingers. "But she seems a bit basic."
The same accusation has, from time to time, been lobbed at Katy Perry. She's a pretty, grown-up white lady, a curvy-but-skinny bombshell with a big, adaptable voice – not art-damaged like Gaga or po-mo freaky like Miley or uncannily dewy like Ariana Grande. She's also the most consistent hitmaker of the past half-decade. Her last album, Teenage Dream, won her a record-setting five Number One singles, and there have been two more so far from her latest, Prism. Her current Top 40 song, the lightweight, disco-y "Birthday," is a straight-up ode to screwing ("Let me get you in your birthday suit/It's time to bring out the big balloons") that somehow ends up being kid-friendly – an odd but essential part of her aesthetic.
"It's all kind of a cheeky innuendo," she says. "I love plays on words. I love puns. I love double-entendres. I'm, like, a freak for language. It's kind of what Pixar does-ish." Really? "They're not as bad as I am, and I'm not comparing myself to Pixar, OK? But they know how to entertain both the adult and the child, and so do I." Her highly entertaining live show walks the same line: At times, it's like a BuzzFeed list come to life, complete with segments devoted to cats and Nineties–pop nostalgia.
Perry turns 30 in the fall. She has been famous now for six years. "The vultures are circling," she says with a laugh, though she's not kidding. Her use of Asian and other cultural tropes has come under increasing scrutiny; reporters have staked out her fundamentalist-preacher father's old-time-religion sermons (so far, they caught him saying stuff about Jews and money – he apologized). "They can circle as much as they want," she says. "I'm not doing anything wrong, and I live a real, somewhat integrous lifestyle." (You know what she means.)
Her consistent success can work against her. "I am a singer-songwriter masquerading as a pop star," she says, but her chart dominance (often, but not always, assisted by Dr. Luke and Max Martin) can make her seem more like a human hit factory. "I don't think she gets enough credit for her career being her vision," says Bradford Cobb, one of her managers. "Katy really A&R'd her own albums." The acerbic cultural critic Camille Paglia called her a "manic cyborg cheerleader," and, yes, at a quick, distant glance, Perry can come off as a queen bee, an alpha girl, a singing Heather. Or maybe she's Tracy Flick, strutting down the high school hallways of pop, ripping down rivals' campaign posters on her way to one chart triumph after another.
"I'm very grateful for fans' support, but I'm not thirsty or desperate."
Spend a few days with her, though, and all of that starts to seem way too easy. For one thing, it's crazy how sane she is. There's no Neverland in her future. "I'm not, like, a crazy, 'I'm gonna die for my fans' type," she says. (It is, perhaps, not a complete coincidence that she is almost directly quoting Lady Gaga, whose chart success she fully eclipsed this album cycle.) "Some people are so dramatic about it, and you're like, 'Honestly, you're not the Second Coming. You're just an entertainer.' I feed off fans' energy completely; if it's a great crowd, I'm more likely to perform better. But I have my family and my friends, and that's important love. I'm very grateful for fans' support, but I'm not thirsty or desperate."
She pays regular visits to a therapist, and not just to deal with the aftermath of her 2012 divorce from Russell Brand. "That's a safe place for me to actually work out everything that's going on inside by a person that knows me as Katheryn Hudson," she says. "Not as Katy Perry. I would say anyone that's in this business should be doing that regularly – to have that kind of accountability, because you get to a place where, like, no one holds you accountable. You can do anything you want, and it's so destructive."
Soon, Delano is done with the makeup, and she looks like Katy Perry, with robust false eyelashes and what he calls "a statement lip." There are layers now between her skin and the world. She used to talk about not liking how she looked without makeup, which raises the issue of whether she feels more like herself right now.
Delano's eyes light up: "I like that question!"
She shrugs it off. "It's just an exaggerated version of myself," she says, with elaborate patience. "I'm still myself. I'm just wearing makeup! It's presentational, really." She ducks into an adjacent room, changes into a silver, Judy Jetson-ish skirt and top, and trots off to her nightly meet-and-greet, where she'll find cause to cry for a second time today.
A few days earlier and nine miles across the Hudson River, Perry is backstage at Madison Square Garden, getting ready to play her second-ever show at the venue.
On the wall way outside the dressing room are framed pictures of legends at their Garden shows: Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, Beyoncé and, right by the door, Perry herself. On her way out, she leans in, smooches the Beyoncé picture and gives it a little I'm-not-worthy bow. She locks arms with a visiting friend, Allison Williams, of Girls fame (they met through Perry's ex-boyfriend John Mayer, who is friends with Williams' fiancé), and heads off at a rapid clip.
In the deep shadows behind the stage, lit only by a neon glow of her backup dancers' Tron-like gladiator outfits, she forms a prayer circle, asking Cobb, her boyish manager, to lead the night's blessing. "Pray loud and pray for our protection," says Perry, who needs it – she flies above the crowd and balances on precarious platforms. ("It's a physically testing show, so anything could happen. I could slip.") They pray. Perry counts to three, and everyone yells, "New York City!"
The show goes well; she doesn't slip. That night, she celebrates by heading back to her hotel, dyeing her hair green for a photo shoot and going straight to sleep. She wakes up around noon, as usual, and does 20 minutes of Transcendental Meditation. "My ex-husband actually introduced me to it," says Perry, who's giving her entire tour staff the chance to learn the practice from her teacher. "It was the best thing I got from that whole situation, actually." Pause. "Or one of the best things. It saved my life. When I do it, I feel like I'm opening up holes in my brain, like – what do they call it – neural pathways."
It's early evening, and she's back in her suite at the SoHo Grand, fresh from her photo shoot. She had her makeup touched up afterward and her nails redone. She's wearing a spiked choker necklace, a plaid top made out of something like hemp that matches her new hair, and a purple micro-miniskirt with black leather boots – she calls it "soft grunge," and it looks a lot like something Angela Chase might wear in My So-Called Life, a show she's never seen. Her parents didn't let her watch that kind of TV.
On the bed, there's a teddy bear that she carries from hotel to hotel; in her closet, there are at least a dozen pairs of shoes and 30 or 40 outfits on hangers. Her five-month-old puppy, Butters, a sweet-tempered little mutt the exact shade of the Chewbacca chew toy he carries around, is skittering around the wood floor. He has a miniature backstage pass attached to his collar.
"We can watch the sun go down together," Perry says, faux-kittenishly, heading out to the suite's terrace, with its panoramic view of midtown. She takes a seat on one of the terrace's white fluffy chairs, cracks open a can of green tea and looks out at the city. "I never went to college," she says, taking a sip. "I never even went to high school. I would totally go back to high school if that was an option. First semester of my freshman year was the only thing I went to."
She got her GED right after that, at 14 or 15, and started pursuing a music career. "I discovered all of this at nine years old and was pretty persistent," she says. "Chinese-water-tortured my parents every day." She smiles, gesturing to the skyline. "So far, it looks like it's gonna work. The whole dream."
Which is not to say she's satisfied. "I'm on a level, but I'm trying to get to another level," she says. "I guess it would be a dependable level, you know? Where people are like, 'I can trust that this person is putting out the kind of music that is interesting.' I just want to be around, you know? I want to have a career. And I'm always planning for the future. I started a record label, which kind of transitions me into being a boss and a CEO and having a company. You know, real adult shit." (She laughs and corrects herself: "stuff.") "No more dipping the foot in the pond of pop. Cannonballing!"
"If I didn't want to kick-ball-change anymore, I know one day I will make an acoustic record. I'm not always going to fit in my costumes, but I'm always going to fit behind my guitar. That feels very much like home to me."
There is another dream, too, a sort of fallback that looms large for her. She started her career as a guitar-toting singer-songwriter (a Christian one, at first), and someday she wants to go back. "It's always ready to poke out," she says. "It's always in my back pocket. If I didn't want to kick-ball-change anymore, I know one day I will make an acoustic record. I'm not always going to fit in my costumes, but I'm always going to fit behind my guitar. That feels very much like home to me. And if there are any people that have questions about me, I'm like, 'Oh, well, here's this.'"
"I'm not always going to fit in my costumes, but I'm always going to fit behind my guitar. That feels very much like home to me."
It comes up a lot, this plan. Icing her knees after the Newark show, she proclaims, "My next record is going to be acoustic." But truth is, it may be a while. "I mean, she told me that she was going to make an acoustic record before Prism," says Cobb. "But when there are no more challenges, the acoustic record will be her challenge."
"I'd love to make that record with her at some point," says Dr. Luke. "But that's something she can do when she's 35, or when she's 40, or when she's 50. Right now, to be Katy Perry, and to be the number-one pop star in the world? That's a pretty awesome job. If you just go hand me an acoustic record, when you turn on the radio, you're not going to hear that as much."
Perry recently got to spend time with Madonna, who hasn't made her acoustic record yet either. "You have to really prove that you're an authentic person, and can be trusted, to be in a circle of friends with her," Perry says. "Which I totally understand. You have to really guard your heart when you're on this kind of level. You can't just have weirdos around you, strange people that want to suck your blood. Because everybody wants to be on your dick, you know? So you have to be very 'What are your motives? Why are you here? What do you want from me?'"
Perry abandoned all this carefully tended rational behavior when she got engaged to Russell Brand after dating him for just three and a half months. He requested the divorce via text message while she was on tour, and her illusions died hard. As she chronicles in the Prism track "By the Grace of God," she felt momentarily suicidal. "It was emotionally traumatic for me," she says. "It was the death of a dream. I was in fairy-tale land, and the reality of it wasn't so. But I don't really like talking about it anymore, because it feels like a thousand lifetimes ago, and also it makes me look desperate, like I need it for attention."
A UNICEF-sponsored visit to Madagascar after the split helped wake her up. "I was at a point of self-pity," she says. "And then I went there and I saw their situations, the young women. I thought I had kind of been in the emotional-abusive thing, and then I looked at them, and they were physically abused, emotionally abused, pregnant while being abused and, you know, selling fruit, figuring out how to survive. It was a humbling experience for me. Not to compare my situation, but just to be like, 'OK, let's put things into perspective here.' It's like your parents saying it to you, you know what I'm saying?"
The air is growing cool, the Chrysler Building's crown is glowing, and rosy tendrils are curling around the clouds. Perry takes a breath. "This pink tide is seeping in," she says.
By her late teens, Perry was breaking with her parents' strict Pentecostal faith, but there was no dramatic moment of change. She first had sex at age 17 in the front seat of a jeep, with Jeff Buckley's Grace on the stereo, a milestone that had little to do with the state of her faith. "People that are Christian still lose their virginity, P.S.," she says. "And people that make gospel records! I was never a member of the Jonas Brothers! I was never part of the purity ring. It was an eventual shift from, like, 17 to 23, actually. It was one small sin at a time." Even in gospel-era interviews, she cited secular artists like Fiona Apple as influences.
Around that time, she somehow got her father to drop her off at the studio of Alanis Morissette producer Glen Ballard, who signed her to his label. "She had a kind of unshakable sense of herself," says Ballard, who saw her time on the Christian circuit as her equivalent of bar-band years. "Look, an audience is an audience, man," he adds. "Christians, Muslims, it doesn't matter. You play music for 'em, and they either get it or they don't." Ballard got her a fashion endorsement deal, and they traveled the world. "We went to Fashion Week – people were photographing her and they didn't know who she was."
Ballard's record company, Java, had deals with Def Jam and then Columbia, and neither label showed much interest in Perry. Her initial look and sound were rock-influenced, with a distinct Alanis tinge to her vocals. Cobb took her on as a client during the Columbia period. "Katy had a reputation in Los Angeles as a really promising artist, a very young, impressionable artist, wide-eyed," says Cobb, who saw her in the vein of "maybe Chrissie Hynde, maybe a little Joan Jett."
But one day in 2006, Perry told her manager, "I think I'm going to go a little more pop." Recalls Cobb, "I had to ask, 'What do you mean?' And she said, 'Pop star.' And I had to ask her to define that further, and she says, 'Like Britney Spears.' I nearly fell off my chair. You know what it is? She likes to challenge herself. You tell her she can't do something – well, she's going to do it."
Back in Newark, Perry is finishing her meet-and-greet when she encounters a sweet, skinny little boy. He's wearing a homemade yellow T-shirt with "I met Katy Perry" on the front, and inspirational lyrics from her single "Roar" on the back. "You're seven years old and you're a Katy Perry fan?" she says, bending down. She signs a poster for him: "You're the coolest." "How long have you been waiting to do this?" she asks. "A long time?"
"Longer than that!" he says.
The boy is here with his family, and after a while I notice his dad is wearing a pin from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. "He knows all of your songs," the father tells Perry.
"Want to get some pictures?" Perry asks. The boy breaks into a "roar" pose, making his little hands into lion claws. Her anthems – "Firework" and "Roar," so far – feel like the best of what Perry does. They're pure empowerment, concentrated bursts of inspiration, like four-minute Oprah episodes. "I never go out to write it, but it definitely is a feeling I get," she says. "A full-body physical feeling. But when I'm writing these anthemic songs, usually I'm in a really low place, and it's almost like this little angel on my shoulder trying to push me forward and encourage me and be like, 'You can do it. Find your voice, find your strength,' blah, blah, blah. There's a self-motivational person inside of me that crawls out via song, but usually I'm just writing those songs because I, too, need that inspiration and encouragement."
As Perry invites the boy's family to move in for pictures, she happens to glance at one of her managers, the usually stoic Ngoc Hoang, who's choking back tears. Perry smiles at the kid. "I'll be right back!" she says, with great, forced cheer, and sprints out of the room before he can see her crying. A long minute passes, and she returns and takes the pictures. Back in her dressing room, she gets information on the young fan – he may need a heart transplant but is stable for the moment. "I don't really know what condition they're in," she says, sniffling. "So I always think the worst. It's cruel and unusual punishment – meet a Make-A-Wish kid, in full makeup, before a show!" She plops down in her makeup chair – Delano has to fix her eyes.
Five months ago, Perry helped out with her sister's home birth, filming it and serving as assistant doula. She talks about having her own kid someday, a plan that sounds more concrete than the acoustic album. "I see that my sister is completely devoted to this kid, 24 hours a day," she says. "And, so far, the little girl is so alert, so aware, so conscious, so beautiful, so happy, and I want to be doing that in the right time, and that's not in the next two years, you know? Maybe it's in a five-year plan, but I need to really be able to focus 100 percent of my attention on it. I don't really want to take the child on tour. Not until, like, birth through five is over."
She also would need a guy in the picture, no? "I don't need a dude," she says, bringing up her friend NPH and his fiance, David Burtka. "I mean, Neil and David, their twins are beautiful. It's 2014! We are living in the future; we don't need anything. I don't think I'll have to, but we'll see. I'm not anti-men. I love men. But there is an option if someone doesn't present himself."
Outside the Ritz-Carlton in Montreal on a drizzly Tuesday afternoon, there's a gaggle of excited teenage girls and a few sketchy full-grown men. They're waiting for Perry, who's in town for a show. She had a rare day off yesterday, which she mostly spent with Harris and Burtka – they had sushi so fancy that, like Perry herself, it was the beneficiary of acupuncture treatments.
Using some kind of secret elevator, Perry appears from behind a curtain at the rear of the hotel's marble lobby, where she's going to eat breakfast and talk a little. She sits in a thronelike chair ("I feel like a king!") and eats her usual on-tour breakfast: oatmeal with almond milk, a little honey and a side of turkey sausage. She's wearing a backward baseball cap, sweatpants and a Rodarte sweatshirt with rohearte written on the front; her makeup is lighter than usual, and she looks very young. I ask about something she said onstage in Newark: "Sometimes I don't feel like a pop star."
"Half the time I do, and half the time I don't," she says. "I mean, yesterday, when I was riding bikes, just with my hat on backwards, I went to McDonald's by myself and ordered my own cheeseburger!"
Though she's rumored to be dating the producer Diplo, Perry sort of denies it. "Does it look like I could be dating anyone right now?" she says, referring to her busy schedule. "Am I sexting people? Yes, OK?" She backpedals. "No, I don't sext. I intellectually text. I intellext."
Her taste in men, she acknowledges, may be problematic. She says she and Mayer were very similar – "We'd talk and talk" – but stops short of explaining what went wrong: "Some people are, you know... some people really..." She cuts herself off. "I'm just not gonna talk about it."
But in general, she says, "I'm interested in colorful personalities. Look, I can't be perfect. I don't know. I think you love who you love. You learn over time. I mean, each one has been different. I tweeted the other day that I'm just looking for the prince that fits my glass Jordans slipper." As she speaks, a tall man with long, curly white hair is approaching: It's Brian May, who played a show with Queen in town last night.
"Maybe this is your prince," I whisper. She laughs. The two of them chat away. "I just ache all over," May says. "You just don't know what hurts most – is it the knees or the feet or the fingers? People don't realize."
"My knees are the same way," says Perry.
"We did two hours 20 minutes last night," May says.
"That's a little much, bro!" says Perry, as they exchange goodbyes. (As for the "bro": "I think I called the president that, too," she says.)
"I know I'm not pop-star-lame and I'm not hipster-cool. I'm somewhere right in the middle."
We turn to the issue of her alleged cultural insensitivity. She's been criticized for having big-bootied mummies dance in her tour (one critic called them "hyper-sexualized caricatures of black women's bodies"); dressing up as a geisha at the American Music Awards and a stereotypical, yarmulke-wearing Jewish comedian in her "Birthday" video; and for including a split-second scene in her "Dark Horse" video in which a guy wearing a pendant that reads allah is disintegrated (she ended up altering that one).
"When you're this high up on the mountain," she says, "the wind blows, and people are looking for any avenue to make sure I fall off? They want to be able to have control, to make sure, 'Well, we brought you here, so we want to take you down to this notch.' As far as the mummy thing, I based it on plastic surgery. Look at someone like Kim Kardashian or Ice T's wife, Coco. Those girls aren't African-American. But it's actually a representation of our culture wanting to be plastic, and that's why there's bandages and it's mummies. I thought that that would really correlate well together." In any case, she's not apologizing, and she kept the dancers in her show. "People would just love to make it a thing so that I would have to put out a public apology so that they feel like 'We've got control of her success.' It came from an honest place. If there was any inkling of anything bad, then it wouldn't be there, because I'm very sensitive to people."
She knows the rules are changing, that "cultural appropriation" is increasingly uncool, but she's not thrilled about it. "I guess I'll just stick to baseball and hot dogs, and that's it," she says. "I know that's a quote that's gonna come to fuck me in the ass, but can't you appreciate a culture? I guess, like, everybody has to stay in their lane? I don't know."
Another criticism of her spooky "Dark Horse" video and performances is of less grave import: Internet theorists are convinced it's filled with Illuminati imagery, indicating her membership (along with Jay Z, Gaga and, presumably, Weird Al) in some shadowy group that controls the world. "Listen," she says, "if the Illuminati exist, I would like to be invited! I see all that shit, and I'm like, 'Come on, let me in! I want to be in the club!' I don't even know what that club is! It sounds crazy. These weird people on the Internet that have nothing to do find, like, strange triangles in your hand motions. I guess you've kind of made it when they think you're in the Illuminati. But listen, I believe in aliens, so if people want to believe in Illuminati, great."
She does wonder if people understand her, and she really hates the idea of being seen as pop's head cheerleader. "I'm not," she says, biting into a sausage. "I'm the class clown's assistant. That's who I was in high school. I mean, they called me over-the-shoulder boulder-holder, and I wasn't that cute. I looked like a square – a rectangle, actually – because I was going through my teenage awkward phase.
"People like to create characters," she muses. "There are villains and heroes and dumb girls and smart girls, savvy girls and hip girls – and they create these characters like a soap opera. I love it. I don't know what my character is yet. I have this kind of small indie side to me, too. Like, I know I'm not pop-star-lame and I'm not hipster-cool. I'm somewhere right in the middle."
So, is her story just beginning, then? She turns uncharacteristically solemn, pondering it. "It's up to God," she says, "and if I can stay true to myself."
I ask what life is all about for her, and that one she answers fast, like it's easy. "I just want to bring joy to people's lives," she says, and looks up from her oatmeal. "Because life is really too fucking hard sometimes.""