It's two in the afternoon on a Friday, and Fergie Ferg is at Pastis, an enduringly trendy French bistro in Manhattan's meatpacking district. She's seated outside, which is a little risky in the meatpacking district because there are always celebrities floating around — a moment ago Penélope Cruz strolled up in an extraordinary amount of makeup, looked around and wandered off — which means there's always paparazzi lurking. A sexy blond star with a hot single, "London Bridge," who's one-quarter of one of the biggest hip-hop groups in the world, the Black Eyed Peas, and who's got a hot actor boyfriend, Josh Duhamel — all that adds up to honey for shutterbugs. Even now, across the street, there's one shooting Fergie through a telephoto lens. But Fergie doesn't notice. She's too busy making up words.
"I love imitating instruments," Fergie says of her vocal style. "Sometimes you can't understand what I'm saying because I'm going for an instrumental sound. It would ruin the sound if I pronunciated correctly." Fergie favors linguistic mash-ups, like that portmanteau pairing of "enunciated" and "pronounced." Earlier, she unveiled her new favorite: risiculous. "When something is so, so sick, it's risiculous," she says. "It's sick and ridiculous. Risiculous. See, I have my own dictionary." When asked if she's a tomboy, she says, "I'm not that categorizable, if that's a word." It's not. "But it is in my dictionary. OK? Sometimes I can be tomboyish, and sometimes I can be girly. It depends on what mood I'm in. I like the balance. That whole woman/little girl thing, I like to play both of those."
Thirty-one-year-old Stacy Ferguson's natural uncategorizability is why one moment she's tomboyish in a sporty tank and Adidas running shoes, dancing like one of the boys, and then a lady in heels, a Betty Boop-ish flirt who winks seductively, blows kisses and says breathily, "Bye, you." Growing up in suburban Southern California, just outside L.A., she had friends who went to the beach and listened to Guns n' Roses, and cholo and chola friends who'd listen to oldies and go cruising. "I was always kind of eclectic in my tastes," she says.
Fergie is all about the contradictions, the little enigmas. She was a good girl, an A student, a self-proclaimed people pleaser, who grew up and became a crystal-meth addict. (The ring she wears through her right eyebrow is a present she gave herself five years ago when she kicked meth.) Her debut single, "London Bridge," is built around a shadowy metaphor. When she says, "How come every time you come around my London, London Bridge wanna go down," what exactly does "London Bridge" mean? Is it panties? A body part? She resists a direct answer: "It's ambiguous." But even so, you get the sense: It's a sexual euphemism. It's not clear, but it's not complicated.
More contradictions: She's in a rap group and she's rapping on "London Bridge," but her debut album, The Dutchess, certainly isn't a rap album, and she doesn't call herself a rapper. The Dutchess includes a wide swath of flavors, from the fun not-rapping of "London Bridge" and "Fergalicious," inspired by J.J. Fad's "Supersonic," to pillow-talk R&B ballads, rockers and reggae-tinged grooves. Fergie rhymes, she sings, she chats, she stops in the middle of "Clumsy" for a speech, she does whatever she wants, 'cause she's uncategorizable.
"I'm not claiming to be a battle MC," she says. "That's not where I'm taking this. This is just paying homage to artists like Roxanne Shanté, Monie Love, Salt-n-Pepa, J.J. Fad — women I looked up to." Fergie loves hip-hop, but she has always known she's an outsider. "In junior high I was fascinated by gangsta rap," she says, sipping a caipirinha. "I was suburban, yet I had glimpses from where I lived. I'm hearing all the stories about what was going on in East L.A. and South Central, looking at it from the outside. I think I come from a whole generation of that. That's why a lot of people can relate with me, because they lived that, too. Seeing it but not really living it. So there weren't any of the negative consequences to the guns and all of that. It was just interesting and sexy."
Today, Fergie is wearing oversize black bug-eyed glasses, a droopy gray low-cut shirt, thigh-hugging shorts and a necklace with a tiny replica of brass knuckles. Her long blond hair hangs down past her shoulders with a modern scruffiness — you know, that I-didn't-do-my-hair thing. She looks over the Pastis menu and lays eyes on the homemade mushroom ravioli with sage, walnuts and brown butter. She's a tiny girl, a size two, who works out every day and gets meals delivered to her by a diet service so she doesn't have to think about what she's eating. Still, she struggles to stay on her diet and often cheats. She licks her lips and says, almost in awe, "Brown butter." Then a moment later, to herself, "Ferguson, behave." She orders the baby chicken, no brown butter.
Stacy Ferguson was born and raised in Whittier, California, and as young as four or five she loved performing for herself in the mirror. "She was always dancing for everyone," says her mom, Terri Jackson. "We'd go to the county fair and she wasn't in the shows or anything, but she'd just hop up on a makeshift stage and sing and dance." To this day she still performs for the mirror. Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas says, "She'll dance in the hotel by herself. I'll call her up and she'll say, 'Yo, I'm having a dance-off!' 'With who?' 'With myself!' She looks in the mirror and goes at it."
At six, she discovered concerts. "I saw Tina Turner, second row, with my dad. She pointed at me. That was big. I love how she was energetic and raw. Those early impressions tell you how things are supposed to be. I've taken a lot of that with me."
At seven she decided what she wanted most in life. "I was going to have an album and that was it," she says. "I told my mom that's what I was going to do. She said, 'OK. As long as you get good grades.' " Both of her parents are teachers. "My dad was a high school teacher — football, geography, vice principal, detention. My mom is a speech therapist and teaches special ed."
As a child, Stacy did TV commercials, was the voice of Sally and, later, Lucy in several Charlie Brown specials, appeared on Married . . . With Children, and at eight began five years on the syndicated variety show Kids Incorporated. "In Kids Incorporated, I'm in the studio at eight years old, behind a microphone, learning the techniques. I was a little adult. I had to be professional on the set — you can't break out into a tantrum, so I learned. I always wanted to appease and put on a strong face and not let anyone know if there was something bothering me."
In her early twenties, she and two girls from Kids Incorporated formed a band called Wild Orchid and released two albums on RCA that went nowhere. She wanted to quit to do a solo album but didn't know how to tell the girls because people-pleasing had been burned into her personality.
At one of Wild Orchid's last shows, they opened up for the Peas. "I got my grind on in the hallway," she says. "I approached Will.i.am and I said, 'I'm leaving this group soon, and I'm doing my solo album.' " The seed was planted, but as Wild Orchid continued to die slowly, she grew depressed and ended up seeking refuge in the club scene. She did a little Ecstasy, then a lot. "It started on the weekends and graduated to all the time," she says. "Me and my girlfriends would get ready, go out to the club, come home, change into my faux-fur coats and my sunglasses and rent a limo — spending all my child-actor money — and go to the club Garage that would start at 6 a.m. and dance till 12. Then I graduated to crystal, and it started being more about going to Home Depot at four in the morning and getting crafty at home. It became less of a fun thing and more of a habit." Her mom saw her get thinner and thinner as addiction set in. "I noticed her losing a lot of weight," her mother says. "I was like, 'Wow. Good for you. Wish I could do that.' And then it started to be more and more, and it was, 'Are you OK?' "
One night Fergie pulled her car to the side of the road and in a few minutes wrote a song called "Losing My Ground": "I woke up short of breath but I've still got a long day ahead of me/I don't know what day it is but tell me 'cause I gotta know who to be/Is this me up in the mirror?" She brought it to the girls in Wild Orchid. They took one look and arranged an intervention. "So I lied," she says. "I came up with the quickest explanation I could: bulimia. Everyone around me knew, and I didn't care. I just didn't want them to ask me questions. I became more and more isolated, and it became more and more dark. One day I started not knowing who I was, and there was this little voice inside of me — God or my conscience — and I had a conversation with me: 'Either go this way or that way. Which road do you wanna choose?' " She called her mother and said, "I'm in trouble, and I need to get out of this place."
For two weeks she lived with an ex-boyfriend who helped her detox and then, at twenty-five, moved back in with her parents. "I came clean with everybody and started my life over," she says. Nowadays she doesn't do hard drugs but still drinks. (She blames an infamous incident when she peed her pants during a San Diego concert last year on "being buzzed" and having no time to use the restroom. At her album-release party in New York in September, she was teetering on her heels all night.)
After a year of drug abuse and decadence, she had collection agencies after her. "The trust fund of money I'd made as a child actor, I had to use that to pay off all my credit-card debts. Tens of thousands of dollars." She had to scrape like never before. "I started living off of unemployment and hustling, getting my grind on, seeing if there were any writers I could work with, any home studios I could get into."
After a year, she hooked up with the Black Eyed Peas. The Peas' third album, Elephunk was nearly complete. The group's mastermind, Will.i.am, had only to finish a song called "Shut Up." "I said, 'I need a girl on this who sings hard,' " he recalls, " 'that isn't a girly girl but is raw. Not raw like ghetto, but like some Pat Benatar.' " A friend suggested Stacy Ferguson. Will remembered her pitching her solo album to him and invited her up to the studio. "She sang, and I was like, 'Wow, that was dope. You wanna put a harmony on it?' " he says. "She was like, "You want a third or a fifth?' I was like, 'Whoa! You know that knowledge shit! Why don't you put a third on it and we'll put the fifth on it later, 'cause that'll make it sound dissonant.' She said, 'Well, I could put the fifth on bar two, and on bar three I could go in unison.' I was like, 'Wow! I'm fuckin' wit' you!' "
Slowly, she grew to become a friend of the Peas. "We'd be in the studio till the wee hours," she says, "and we'd go to clubs and go out dancing, and we started becoming this family." The timing couldn't have been better. Elephunk — spurred by the single "Where Is the Love?" — sold more than 8 million copies, and the Peas circled the globe several times over before cutting the even bigger Monkey Business. They're one of the most popular hip-hop groups in the world — this summer they played for 150,000 in Moscow's Red Square — but in America their blend of hipness and corniness makes them loved by many and an annoyance to many others. Everyone in the group has had twists and hardships in their lives (Apl.de.ap grew up poor in the Philippines and came to America knowing no English; Will struggled to get his family out of the projects while still a teenager; Taboo had his first child at age seventeen), but their music isn't about struggle or edge. Instead, it embraces pop. Will knows that because of this, people question his blackness. When he met the Game, who grew up gang-banging in Compton, Game thought Will was from London.
Fergie refuses to pay much mind to those who dis her. "There's a song on the album called 'Pedestal,' " she says, "which is my answer back to people who don't do anything with their lives but stay on the Internet for hours and talk shit about me. You just sit there and rip me apart, but I bet you didn't know that I went to hell and back. Bet you didn't know that. So this is a question to them: What are you doing with your life?"
Fergie and Will finally got down to making her solo album in 2005. Most of The Dutchess was recorded on the road, in a tour-bus studio — Will loves leaving the stage and going right to work on songs while the energy of the crowd is still with him. Earlier this year the group took two months off from touring, a rarity for the Peas, and rented a house studio in Malibu. "It's got horses there," Fergie says. "It's very different than tour life. It's serene and peaceful, and I could be alone and get into those intimate feelings I wanted to express on the record." She'd held on to "Losing My Ground," reworked it and put it on The Dutchess.
When the solo album was nearly finished and "London Bridge" reached the top of the charts, the weight of all that has happened — the childhood dream almost lost forever and then recaptured, the band that fell apart and the band that helped her succeed, all the work and tears of a child star-cum-adult-failure-cum-adult star — it all came upon Fergie at once. "I was in California at Josh's house," she says, "and I looked at my Sidekick and it says, 'You're #1 on Billboard Hot 100.' " Her eyes become shrink-wrapped with tears remembering the moment. "Going Number One on Billboard has been a dream for so long. I started crying, bawling really. It was a happy cry but . . . I felt like I was seven again. I started going over my life, all the ups and downs, everything that I've worked for. And finally this." She wipes away a tear. "It's ridiculous."