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Taylor Swift in Wonderland

The reckless heart, restless nights and lovable quirks of pop's unstoppable princess

October 25, 2012
taylor swift 1168 cover
Taylor Swift on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Theo Wenner for RollingStone.com

This is what it sounds like when Taylor Swift totally loses it: “Oh, my God. OH, MY GOD. OH, MY GOD. OH, MY GOD. OH, MY GOD. OH, MY GOD. OH, MY GOD. OH, MY GOD. OH, MY GOD. OH, MY GOD. OH, MY GOD. OH, MY GOD.”

Her summer tan is turning ashen; her very blue eyes are practically pinwheeling with panic. But she didn't do anything that bad just now, didn't start a nuclear war or curse on country radio or upload her new album to BitTorrent: We're on a bleak industrial road outside a Nashville rehearsal studio one stiflingly hot late-August evening, with Swift behind the wheel of her black Toyota SUV – which she just backed directly into a parked car.

She's never learned how to use her SUV's built-in GPS, was messing with Yelp and Google Maps on her iPhone instead, realized she was going the wrong way, started to turn around, still clutching the phone, and . . . crunch.

"Oh, my God," she repeats, pausing for air. She takes another look at the car she hit. "Oh, is that my bass player?"

It totally is. "It's fine, it's my bass player!" She couldn't look more relieved if she had received a death-row pardon. Popping out of the SUV, she apologizes to her bemused employee, a Ben Stiller look-alike named Amos Heller, who had been walking toward his now slightly dented car. "I'm gonna pay for it, I promise! I'm good for it! Oh, my God, Amos, I'm so sorry. I freaked out 'cause I went the wrong way and he was gonna think I'm a bad driver and then I backed into another car. This is the worst interview he's ever had, already!"

Inside Taylor Swift's 'Rolling Stone' Cover Shoot

One of her security guys, who was supposed to be discreetly trailing us, gets out of his own SUV, looking shaken: "You OK?" Soon enough, we resume our journey to a local restaurant, this time with Swift following her bodyguard, who's serving as a human GPS at her behest. Problem solved.

Swift is still recovering for the whole 10-minute drive. "I cannot believe there was a car behind me. I thought that – because I could only see the security car, and Amos' car was so low and I didn't look in the back camera and I was so sure no one was behind me and . . ."

The moment she crashed, she pictured herself being taken away in handcuffs, sitting in jail in her blue polka-dot shirt-dress. "I have a lot of anxieties that end in me being put into a police car," she says, ponytail bopping as she shakes her head. "I am so, like, rules, and not getting into accidents. So this is perfect."

At 22, Swift is always waiting for her luck to run out. This week, her new single, the irresistible, distinctly un-country "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together," became her first Number One Hot 100 hit – and for all she knows, it could all be downhill from here. "I'm always terrified that, like, something's going to happen," she says, "and I'm not going to be able to do this anymore and it's gonna all end in one day. Part of the fear comes from loving this so much and not wanting to lose it."

Watch her segment of MTV's Punk'd, where Justin Bieber goads Swift into setting off fireworks from a waterfront balcony – then makes her think that they started a huge fire on a nearby boat: Her face betrays the same ohmygodohmygod terror. "You know I had serious nightmares where I'd wake up in the middle of the night for, like, three weeks after that? I really thought that was it for me. I was thinking, 'Justin is 17, so he's going to juvie, but I'm going to big-girl prison.' "

She nearly made it all into a self-fulfilling prophecy during her performance at the 2010 Grammys, when stage fright knocked her voice flat during an awkward duet with Stevie Nicks on "Rhiannon." Nonfans were instantly, and unfairly, convinced that she was an AutoTune baby who can't sing live. "I had a bad night," says Swift, who's since refocused on vocal lessons. "It's one of those things where you've rehearsed over and over and when the camera turns on, the nerves kick in and you just can't think straight."

Mostly, though, it's been a smooth ride, with so few speed bumps she could practically tick them off on crimson-tipped fingers: She was terrible at fourth-grade soccer, couldn't parlay her height into basketball glory, never managed to do a split, had a hard time with math. There were some mean middle school girls, and more recently, as you may have heard, a few totally exhausting boyfriends. She has that slight overbite; at five feet 11, her posture isn't great. And yeah, there was that time Kanye West snatched her microphone and started yelling stuff about Beyoncé – still so not funny, as far she's concerned.

But she's come to understand that life – even hers – is unpredictable, uncontrollable. Messy. The Kanye episode helped her to "realize nothing is gonna go exactly the way that you plan it to," she says. "Just because you make a good plan, doesn't mean that's what's gonna happen."

Case in point: Later that evening, Swift is driving back from dinner, singing along to Third Eye Blind's "Never Let You Go" (which came out when she was nine) – when, unbelievably, we get into another car accident.

This one is random, terrifying and utterly not her fault. As Swift cruises down a four-lane street, what looks like an old Corvette blazes out of an intersection and veers into our lane – smacking the driver's side of Swift's SUV, then speeding off. They were driving, as Swift later puts it, like they had just robbed a bank.

"OK, that was my life flashing before my eyes," she says, voice trembling. "What is this day? This is some strange alternate reality where things just go wrong a lot. That was the second time today! I'm going to have a nervous breakdown!" Her phone rings – it's her poor security bro, who sounds like he's already had one.

There is a pond, complete with koi fish, in the middle of Swift's astonishing, many-colored Nashville condo. It sits beneath a wrought-metal spiral staircase leading to a human-size birdcage that faces floor-to-ceiling windows, with a view stretching to the green mountains beyond downtown. ("It's the most comfortable place in the world," she says of the wooden cage, built from a sketch she made. "It's just, like, pillows and comfiness.")

Under the previous owner, this was an ultramodern bachelor pad. Over 18 months of remodeling, Swift gave the condo a sex change and a heavy dose of well-funded OCD whimsy. The ceiling is arranged in multiple motifs – billowing curtains here, a painted indigo night sky there. In one corner, under hanging crystalline stars, sits a giant bunny made of moss. He's wearing a hat. "It's a whole Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland structure here," she says, welcoming me the next morning. "It's what the inside of my brain looks like, essentially."

On the custom-built walls – some brick, some purple-wallpapered – are an endless array of photographs in ornate gold frames, some with matching gold-cursive captions: Swift with her high school friend Abigail (complete with lyrics from "Fifteen," in which said friend gave a boy "everything she had"); Swift with James Taylor; Swift making that heart-hand-symbol thing with buddy and Bieber-fräulein Selena Gomez. Above the fireplace, which is emblazoned with a small heart, there's even a photo of the moment Kanye stormed her VMA stage (captioned, "Life is full of little interruptions," a phrase that's also in the liner notes of her last album), right next to what is presumably the actual award in question under glass.

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