Sex, God & Katy Perry

How did a fire-and-brimstone-preacher's daughter become America's sexiest pop star?

August 19, 2010 10:55 AM ET
Sex, God & Katy Perry
Photograph by Mark Seliger for RollingStone.com

The other day, Katy Perry was Googling herself again. "Any artist who says they don't Google their name is a big fat liar," she says. Perry is shrewd about her online image, with 3,062,173 followers on Twitter and a long-standing friendship with Perez Hilton, who has boosted her for many years. She was on her laptop, which she calls her office—she has no other, not even at her home, a 1920s triplex in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles that she cleans obsessively—when she noticed a bunch of online gossip sites were reporting that she had called Miley Cyrus' new look "Britney Spears all over again" at the MuchMusic Awards in Toronto. "It's worse. Look at those outfits. It's bad."

Photos: Katy Perry's Best Looks

 Now, Perry had said nothing of the sort—or, at least, nothing she meant for anyone to overhear. This required immediate action. She quickly tweeted a response: "I never said shit bout my girl Miley. I love that ho."

Perry knew that what she was doing was weird. "It's a little gross," she says. "I'm sure no one knew or cared about that line about Miley. When you look at other celebrities' Twitter feeds and see them posting about something they read about themselves on a Google Alert, it's like, 'Uh, maybe you should stop Googling yourself every day, the world does not spin around you.'" But Perry mainlines attention the way her fiance, Russell Brand, once did with heroin (and now does with attention), so she found the entire interaction to be deeply satisfying. Not only did hundreds of gossip sites report on her tweet, but she had also managed to publicly call 17-year-old Miley Cyrus a "ho." That was naughty. That was walking the line. That was exactly the kind of moment that Perry lives for.

In fact, on a recent morning in Santa Barbara, her hometown, there are a lot of moments like this, as Perry waves her Starbucks iced coffee around and squawks like a dirty-minded Big Bird, full of exhortations like "OMGZ" and talk about how her porn-star name would be "Peaches Mountain" because that's the name of her first dog and the street on which she first lived. She's attired in an outlandish get-up she calls her "drag-queen outfit": five-inch leopard-print Louboutin heels, a purple dress so skintight it leaves no room for underwear and an Oscar-night heaping of bling, including an engagement ring with Nick Cave's line THE ONE THAT I'VE BEEN WAITING FOR inscribed on the back. An international camera crew is following her today for a segment about celebrity neighborhoods, and as they soundcheck, the director, an earnest British fellow, leans in to share tips about appearing on camera—though Perry clearly doesn't need them. "Just refer to the camera like a friend," he says, his face tense with concentration. "Not a best friend, but a friend."

Perry cocks her head. "Like a Facebook friend?" she drawls. "Someone whose wall you look at from time to time but never fuck?"

And so it goes the entire day, with Perry quoting lines from Showgirls and shrieking her hellos to curious passersby while she keeps up a steady patter about her girlhood, one spent surfing, skateboarding, churchgoing and throwing yard sales on her lawn. She talks about sneaking into a Radiohead show in high school, works her "Wonder Woman twirl" and drops some info about her positive outlook on life: "No matter who someone is, or what their reputation is in the media, I try and give him the benefit of the doubt, and then it's up to him to screw it up." Between takes, she's as friendly as can be, ad-libbing with the camera crew and kibitzing with the knot of female producers. But even during this kind of casual small talk, she just can't help herself—she needs her shot of attention.

Video: Katy Perry's Sexy Rolling Stone Cover Shoot

"I did my hair Who's That Girl blond once, and it was just wrong," she says giddily, in a discussion of various hairstyles. "Black just makes sense for me. My natural color is like... like..." Perry looks around, but she doesn't see anyone with the exact same hair color. So she starts to pull up her skirt. "You can just see it here!" she says.

Thankfully, she drops the hem before she gets the whole way up. But for a second, it was anyone's guess whether she would.

A couple of years back, it seemed like Perry might be a flash in the pan, with her banged bob, Fifties bustiers and painfully mainstream songs about kissing a girl, waking up hung over in Vegas and guys who are hot and cold. But somewhere along the way, she figured out a way to hold the world's attention—even if it means ejaculating whipped cream from her breasts. This month, Perry will put out Teenage Dream, a solid second album of mostly danceable love songs and complaints about dudes who made her feel bad in the past. "The record came really easily, in six months," she says. "I was just ready." Plus, the album's first single, "California Gurls," a silly pep-squad song with a video set in Candy Land and featuring a bizarre cameo by Snoop Dogg, has become the anthem of the summer. "OK, 'California Gurls' is not genius," admits Perry. "It's not my opus. But it's catchy as fuck, and it's a great summertime song."

That's Perry, always seeking to amuse and entertain. But after spending a few days around her, her brassiness starts to fade. Underneath, Perry's just a good girl. She's only had a few boyfriends, says that casual sex "grosses me out" and barely drinks or experiments with drugs. "I took mushrooms once while dressed up like a robot at a Daft Punk concert, and I had to throw myself into the shower fully clothed afterward," she says.

In fact, though some may consider her music to be highly processed pop, for Perry, it's the most edgy and dangerous art she can think of making. Unlike some pop stars, Perry isn't selling a manufactured faux rebellion that exists in a separate realm from her real hopes and desires, the ones that are buried in service of a marketing image. There may be no one, outside of teenage girls—the fan base she seems most interested in reaching—who finds Perry's music more radical and titillating than Perry herself.

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