How did a fire-and-brimstone-preacher's daughter become America's sexiest pop star?
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."
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.
"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.
That's because Perry, for all her talk about her porn name, has embraced a version of femininity that is more innocent than any other female pop star except for Taylor Swift. She's not playing with bondage like Rihanna or claiming that she can't be tamed like her favorite ho—Perry's work is about the search for true love and the mishaps along the way, even if she sometimes slips in the word "cock" or "penis." In fact, when she put out her first big hit, "I Kissed a Girl," she became so nervous about confessing that she'd performed the act that she claimed never to have actually done it. "I was worried about the Girls Gone Wild thing, and that's not what that song was about," says Perry. "I had one girl who was my best friend at 15, and I was obsessed with her. She had cooler clothes, and she was so cultured and styled. I would stare at her putting her lip stain on her gorgeous lips. I think I had a mad girl-crush."
It takes a couple of hours each day for Perry to achieve her look, which is a little bit burlesque and a little bit Japanese teenager—she's been a devotee of Japanese kawaii (cuteness) culture since her parents housed Japanese exchange students when she was growing up. Of today's pop stars, only Lady Gaga wears more makeup. Every day, when she expects to be seen, Perry pencils her eyebrows, goops on "tranny foundation" and applies oodles of eye shadow, lipstick and fake eyelashes (her real hair color is dirty blond). "I used to have eyelash extensions, but those only work for three weeks, or maybe a month if you really baby them," Perry says, as two stylists flutter around her while she's on a break from an appearance on MTV. "You can never blink and must lie very carefully at night on your little geisha pillow." She turns her chin from side to side, taking stock of her face, so different than her real face, which has no boldness or sharp angles, even though it is also quite attractive. She doesn't think so, though, and often mentions that she finds it unappealing. "Russell is the cute one," she says. "I'm just... different."
Yes, Russell Brand—or as she likes to call him, Rusty Braunstein—he of the hairy décolleté and ribald humor, the former heroin addict who claims to have, at one time, slept with 80 women a month. The two of them are now a celebrity power couple, somewhere between the wattage of Speidi and Brangelina, fame fully within their grasp despite Perry's slender oeuvre and Brand's two Hollywood movies in which he plays the same character. Truth be told, they seem as smitten with themselves as they are with each other.
Still, they're fun and kooky, and we might as well be amused by the spectacle, as they're not taking it too seriously either. Not a week goes by without one tweaking the other in the press: On Perry's refrigerator, she's even hung a clip from a celebrity magazine in which she calls Brand a "total bridezilla" who wants "everything monogrammed" for their wedding. In retaliation, Brand told MTV that Perry resembles a "flatulence factory—the pop hits that she fires out of her mouth are nothing compared to what comes out the other end of her." "Which is not true," says Perry, pouting a little. "I've farted a lot in my life, but never once in front of Russell."
Yet, to hear Perry tell it, they are perfectly matched—the wide-eyed 25-year-old American and the 35-year-old jaundiced Brit. "Russell's so sensitive and sweet," she says. "The Russell that people know from the media is not him at all." The couple met on the set of Get Him to the Greek two years ago, before reconnecting at rehearsals for the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, whereupon Perry engaged in the time-honored mating ritual of throwing a water bottle at Brand's head. He tried to take her home from an afterparty, but she refused, insisting on dinner instead. "Nothing happened afterward," she says. "But Russell had a copy of his book in the car, and I was intrigued. I asked him to sign it, and when I got home I read what he wrote: 'You are a mermaid, and I am drowning.'"
Perry was so moved that she decided to do something spontaneous: She invited Brand on vacation to Phuket, Thailand. "When we met in the lounge, I was so nervous," she says. "It was the most nerve-racking thing I've ever done!" It took another couple of weeks for her to become totally sold on Brand, though. "I realized this man knew what would make me happy," she says. "He was really watching, and listening, and paying attention."
As it turns out, Perry was equally interested in attention as a kid. "Katy is a middle child, so she always tried to stand out," says her older sister Angela, an event planner in L.A. "Our whole family is like that, in a way. We love entertaining people, putting on a show." But Perry's method of seducing others is quite different from her parents'. That's because they're born-again evangelical pastors and "traveling ministers," which means they book seminars and prayer circles at any church that will have them around the country, though they are now based in Oceanside, California. They banned Katy from attending coed parties and dances, didn't sign her up for sex education in school and forbade most pop culture, including magazines, TV and movies in the home. "It was not a 'kumbaya' atmosphere," says Perry. "I knew about hell from the moment I understood a sentence. I had felt boards with Satan and people gnashing their teeth."
Unlike many evangelical Christians, the Hudsons had secular—and bizarre—lives in their youth. (Perry has taken her mother's maiden name to avoid confusion with Kate Hudson.) In their "B.C.," or Before Christ, days, as her mom likes to call them, Perry's father, Keith, was a hippie ragamuffin who went to Woodstock, told Katy that he dealt acid for Timothy Leary and played tambourine onstage with Sly and the Family Stone. But one night, alone in an apple orchard in Wenatchee, Washington, he had a revelation in which passages from the Bible played out before his eyes. "Who knows if those visions were remnants of something else?" says Perry.
Perry's mother, Mary, grew up as the wild child of a wealthy Santa Barbara family. (Her brother, Frank Perry, became a Hollywood director of films including Mommie Dearest.) She even hung out one evening with Jimi Hendrix—"I'm like, 'Mom, you should've gone for it,'" says Perry. "'I could've been Katy Hendrix, a more legit rock star.'" Mary married a race-car driver who had lost his leg in a motorcycle accident, and together they moved to a macadamia-nut farm in Zimbabwe. She told Perry they snuck jewels back in his leg for their antique-dealing business to avoid customs. After the marriage broke up, Mary relocated to the U.S. and worked as a reporter for ABC radio, interviewing Jimmy Carter and Muhammad Ali before covering Christian tent revivals. At a Las Vegas revival run by Keith's sister, a former Folies Bergère showgirl, Mary fell in love with God and Keith at the same time. Her family cut her off. "My mom's half brothers convinced her parents that she had lost it because she had become a Christian," says Perry. "So she had to do her own thing."
Freelance ministry is not a particularly lucrative line of work, and Perry's family often struggled. "Sometimes we ate from the same food bank we used to feed our congregation, and I was very embarrassed by that," she says. "We had the food-stamp moment too, but I don't like to talk about that. I don't want to come from the place of 'Hey, relate to me, I use food stamps.'" The rules at home were not only strict but also nutty. "I wasn't ever able to say I was 'lucky,' because my mother would rather us say that we were 'blessed,' and she also didn't like that 'lucky' sounded like 'Lucifer,'" says Perry. "Even the Dirt Devil as a vacuum—didn't have one. Deviled eggs were called 'angeled' eggs. I wasn't allowed to eat Lucky Charms, but I think that was the sugar." She winks a little. "I think my mom lied to me about that one."
At times, her parents' congregation comprised five people in a hotel room, and the Hudsons spent their days passing out pamphlets, but they never doubted that they were on the right path (Perry's father has four tattoos, all of which read JESUS). "My mom and dad practice 'tongues and interpretation' together—my dad speaks in tongues, and my mom interprets it," says Perry. "That's their gift." The three children, including Katy, spoke in tongues as well. "Speaking in tongues is as normal to me as 'Pass the salt,'" says Perry. "A lot of religions use meditation or chanting as a subliminal prayer language, and speaking in tongues isn't that different—it's a secret, direct prayer language to God. If I felt intuitively that I had to pray for some situation, but I didn't rationally understand it, I just let my spirit pray for it."
Praising the Lord through song in church was normal to her too, but she never thought of it as a career—at least not until she was nine, when Angela came back from a trip to her godparents' with a new perm and a gospel demo tape. But singing was always Perry's "gift," at least that's the way her parents saw it, and they supported her once she decided she wanted to pursue it professionally. She began performing at the local farmers' market two days a week, collecting change, and proved to be gifted at impromptu speechifying too: In an old video of a performance that she shows me, she grabs a mic to inform the crowd, smiling from ear to ear, that "if you don't live your life for Christ—I'm just going to say it—life is pretty empty, and, well, there may be no reason to live at all."
By the time Katy was 13, her parents were chaperoning her to Nashville to pursue a gospel-singing career, and she managed to put out a record on a small label a couple of years later. One of her promotional posters, in which she seems to be screaming in ecstasy, features her in a spiky-haired "lesbian haircut"—at least that's the way she describes it today—with a lot of rubber-band bracelets on her wrists. "I was Christian but modern," she says. But Perry had a secret: She wanted to be a pop star, too. "Whenever I went to a friend's house, I would immediately turn on MTV," she says. "The other kids would say, 'Why are you watching this? Let's do something else,' and I would be like, 'No. I have to watch.' It was all about Gwen Stefani's 'Don't Speak' and 'Just a Girl,' Alanis Morissette and Shirley Manson for me."
Perry started to question the path she was on. Her Christian label shut down, and, she says, "My gospel career was going nowhere." She started to write songs about love—and boys—on her guitar. And those weren't gospel songs. "Letting go was a process," she says. "Meeting gay people, or Jewish people, and realizing that they were fine was a big part of it. Once I stopped being chaperoned, and realized I had a choice in life, I was like, 'Wow, there are a lot of choices.' I began to become a sponge for all that I had missed—the music, the movies. I was as curious as the cat." She smiles. "But I'm not dead yet."
Perry remains close with her parents. "In their prayers, they might wish that Katy was the next big Christian singer, like Crystal Lewis," says Angela. "There was a little moment of shock when she came out as a star a couple years ago, but they've handled everything really well." Her parents still proselytize against pop culture, and Perry tries not to throw her personal life in their faces, never talking to her mom about sex or anything like that. "I only told her I'd had sex when I played a game at my cousin's bridal shower at 21," says Perry. "I was like, 'Hey, I'm not a virgin anymore.' Then I said, 'Mom, can you pass the deviled eggs?'"
The next day, in a light blue sundress and free of makeup and heels, Perry looks so plain that I don't even recognize her when she walks into a mastering studio in Hollywood. She's also in a terrible mood. Thecotton-candy scent that's supposed to go in the Teenage Dream packaging isn't quite right, and she's just been informed that the Beach Boys have served notice that Snoop Dogg's line about wishing that all the girls could be California girls violates their copyright. She takes a seat on a red-velvet couch in the studio and waves a hand. "As much as I want a Beach Boys credit on my album, we have to take it out," she says. "You want a Brian Wilson credit, not a Mike Love credit," says one of her managers. "Well, you said it, not me," she says.
After a few hours, Perry jumps into her black Audi for the drive to her studio a few blocks away. "The AC smells like stinky pussy," she says, cranking it up. "Need to get that fixed. Sorry about that." Leonard Cohen's band seems to be practicing here today—"star-struck!"—and she thinks M.I.A. may be rehearsing across the hall. "I love M.I.A., but I don't think she likes me," she says, not so sotto voce. "I know how people who are anti-pop but are really pop feel about pop stars."
Perry roams around the rehearsal room giving orders to her tour manager, who has planned candy props for an upcoming show in the Bahamas instead of palm trees. "It's summery, so we need those trees," she says decisively. "I want glowing ones, like we had for the MTV awards, but really big ones!" She's pushier than one would expect, given her girlie persona and love of all things cute. Her longtime manager, Bradford Cobb, says that when they first met, she did cartwheels down the hall into his office, then finished off with a series of splits. "How else was I going to get him to listen to me?" says Perry, shrugging her shoulders.
When she jumps onstage, Perry seems almost punk, kicking her leg out here and there; Perry's live persona was crafted by a summer spent on the Warped Tour when her first album dropped. "I wanted to add Katy because I'd heard her record and knew she had some attitude," says Kevin Lyman, the founder of the tour. "When I saw her at the kickoff party, I was like, 'Hmm, I don't know,' because the stage presence wasn't there, but she worked hard every day and became a great live artist."
Perry's success is extremely hard-won, much more than other pop stars'. After her Katy Hudson gospel album, she was signed three times and dropped twice. At 16, she decided to become a pop star. She pursued Glen Ballard, Morissette's producer. Ballard was immediately smitten with her. "When Katy's father brought her to my studio, I thought she was just going to hand me some music to hear," says Ballard. "But she came in with her guitar, and sat right down to play me a song. At that moment, I thought she was extraordinary. She's never had any fear."
When she was 17, two years after she earned her GED, Perry moved to L.A. with a deal at Def Jam, rooming with a Christian singer who had her parents' approval. "I was in Beverly Hills with my new Jetta, thinking that my album was about to come out, and I was so excited," she said. "Then nothing happened. It was like, 'Wow, my car's getting repossessed, I have no money, and I'm living on Cahuenga, under the Hollywood sign." A couple of years later, Ballard took Perry with him to Columbia Records, where she recorded an entire album with the Matrix production team, but the plug was pulled at the last moment because the company didn't think the timing was right. A source close to Perry says that they were concerned over small details, like the fact that her haircut was too similar to Ashlee Simpson's, who was hot at that moment (and never again).
Perry was devastated. "To have a whole album recorded, and never have it come out," she says, then trails off and shakes her head. "But I really believe it's part of my destiny. Or the plan. Or whatever."
After marking out her Bahamas show, Perry gets back into her car and heads home for a late dinner. Brand is filming the Arthur remake in New York for three months, so she's alone in L.A. "I like long-distance relationships, actually," she says. "They work for me." She pulls into her small gated compound in Los Feliz, with Brand's Range Rover in the driveway, a pool and an enormous tepee filled with pillows on the front lawn, where she entertains guests when the nights are warm. "We had six guys here to put the tepee up," says Perry, twirling around. "I never thought I would own anything, let alone a house like this. Russell's old place in London is gothic and romantic, and in my old place, every room was painted a different Easter-egg color, so we tried to make this house neutral. He has really good taste, and I'm still learning." Their cats have moved in together too: Kitty Purry, with her fancy lion-cut hairdo, and Morrissey, black and white like a panda. In the basement, they circle each other warily, neither sure of the other's intentions.
Their house is stunning but oddly bare. "Dust, lint, pet hair, dirt, cobwebs, skid marks in the toilet—nah, can't do it," says Perry, wandering through a series of rooms. "I'm OCD, though less than I used to be, and I don't want to see the particles of humans. In my old place, I used to schedule my housekeeper at times when I could clean too, and we would clean together. It got to the point where I needed things in the fridge to point a certain way." Perry eventually decided to donate almost all her stuff to charity, just to banish the clutter. "I got rid of all the memory boxes with stuff my boyfriends gave me, old champagne glasses or the underwear I lost my virginity in," she says. "I had boxes and boxes of that stuff." She takes a beat. "Not that I was a whore. But I was a memory whore."
Perry retreats to her room to call Brand for a few minutes, returning in enormous fluffy slippers from Japan with cat faces on the front. "I love things that have a face on them but are also useful, like a toothpick holder," she says. She doesn't know how to cook at all, but her assistant has ordered her a salad, which she picks at on a long wood table in the kitchen. Brand is having a good time in New York. She doesn't worry about him taking up with any other ladies. "Rusty Braunstein has never given me any reason to doubt him," she says firmly. "A difficult past is part of my dad's testimony too. I think Russell is a great example of how you can change. Beyond his addictions, he's a sensitive person, and emotional like a lot of good actors. He's sweet and lovely." She admits that some of her friends thought the engagement came fast. "Some people were like, 'Whoa, marriage so soon—your whole life!'" she says. "But Russell has really made me more stable. I'm burning at such incredible speed that I need someone stronger than me.
Brand may be the more mature one in this equation, but they've had their disagreements. One time, Brand responded to some anti-gay Christian protesters who were yelling at him on the street to get on his knees for God, with, "You don't know Jesus! I know Jesus: I've just been sucking his cock." Perry was verklempt. She tweeted, "Using blasphemy as entertainment is as cheap as a comedian telling a fart joke." So that made them square after his comments about her flatulence. Plus, the gossip world thought she was tweeting about Lady Gaga's "Alejandro" video, so she got some additional publicity out of the spat. Was she talking about Lady Gaga? "I wrote that tweet because of a combination of things," says Perry. "I am sensitive to Russell taking the Lord's name in vain and to Lady Gaga putting a rosary in her mouth. I think when you put sex and spirituality in the same bottle and shake it up, bad things happen. Yes, I said I kissed a girl. But I didn't say I kissed a girl while f-ing a crucifix."
It's surprising to hear Perry talk about God in this way, because one would think her religious past is behind her, but she says she still considers herself a Christian. She shows me the tattoo of the word JESUS that she got on her wrist, just like her dad. "God is very much still a part of my life," she says. "But the way the details are told in the Bible—that's very fuzzy for me. And I want to throw up when I say that. But that's the truth."
Perry even gets afraid at disaster movies, because they remind her of the apocalypse she was taught to fear, though she doesn't know whether that exists anymore. "I still believe that Jesus is the son of God," says Perry. "But I also believe in extraterrestrials, and that there are people who are sent from God to be messengers, and all sorts of crazy stuff." She sighs. "I look up into the sky and I'm just mindfucked—all those stars and planets, the never-endingness of the universe. I just can't believe that we're the only polluting population. Every time I look up, I know that I'm nothing and there's something way beyond me. I don't think it's as simple as heaven and hell."
Perry insists that Brand is way spiritual too—in addition to the higher path of sober living, he's into Transcendental Meditation and Hinduism. "You know, the thing that attracts me to Russell, other than his gorgeous Samson hair, is his light, his energy, his constant search, drive, ambition," says Perry, excitedly. "I think he's going to change people's lives. He's going to help them remember why we exist, and it's not for Heidi and Spencer, celebrity culture, or fame, or crotch shots, or box-office movies. His pilgrimage is spiritual. I think his destination will be complete nirvana."
We're not going to put a bet on that, but Brand and Perry are definitely on a journey together, whatever kind it may be. Maybe they will repair to a monastery at 75, dining together in the refectory before each repairs to their cubbyhole. It could happen. But until then, they can laugh at a few things in life. "You know, when we were in India, we went to a small temple on a hill one day," says Perry. "There was one guy there who runs it, and there's one god. And this god is just this big rock with really authentic human eyes on it. The temple keeper told us to throw the rice at it and drink a cup of milk, to keep up the tradition around this rock—and the whole time, we were about to crack up laughing, because when we looked at the rock a certain way, we swore we were worshipping the Hamburglar."
This story is from the August 19th, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.