CHRISTINA AGUILERA is strapped into the back seat of a black stretch limousine like a sapphirering in a jewelry box. She is tiny – five feet two in heels – with white-blond hair, swimming-pool-blue eyes, a waist as big around as big around as a football and hands that look small enough to fish a contact lens out of a drain. She is being chauffeured through Westchester County, New York, on her way home to a new apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. And after along day of being a pop singer on a promotional tour, she is in dire need of some Mickey D's.
"I love my fast food," the 18-year-old New York native says, her voice clear and wispy. "Wendy's is my favorite, but McDonald's will do."
The driver navigates the stretch around the curves of the drive-through and stops when the singer's window is next to the speaker. She orders a five-piece McDonald's with hot mustard sauce and a supersize Coke.
The staff, all Aguilera's age and younger, climb over each other at the pickup window like a pile of curious ferrets to peer into the dark car. They look both awed and suspicious; if they recognize the Lilliputian blond girl, they don't say so, though smart money has it that they have heard her Number One song, "Genie in a Bottle," on the radio. Her eponymous debut album entered the Billboard charts at Number One, (beating out Puff Daddy's Forever), and since then, Aguilera has crisscrossed the country on a forty-five-day, nonstop promotional tour. She's strong enough to go forty-five more, but she's ready for a break now – or at least a nap.
Jet lag and nervous excitement kept her up until 3 A.M. last night, just hours before her 6 A.M. call at a New York radio station. After a full-day photo shoot, she is heading home for the evening. But it's not over: Tomorrow, Aguilera will appear on The Late Show With David Letterman, and the next day she'll travel to the teen-pop Holy Land, MTV's Total Request Live, where "Genie in a Bottle" is chronically the Number One most-requested track. Her mother, Shelly, little sister, Rachel, 13, and half-brother, Robert Michael, 3, are visiting New York and Christina to join in the proceedings.
At the pickup window, Aguilera pulls four bucks from a tiny wallet, forks it over and dives into her bag of food. "They forgot my mustard sauce," she moans as the car stops, blocking the exit ramp.
"That's the fiftieth time they've done that," she says, looking at me. "Can you get it for me?"
AGUILERA IS USED TO ASKING people to do things for her. She has been ready for a showbiz life since she first serenaded strangers with "The Sound of Music" on city buses in Pittsburgh.
"I've always felt a need to be in the spotlight," Aguilera says, her tone a combination of chummy divulgence and practiced patter. "When my family lived in Japan, my mom taught English to this one guy who brought over his paintings. He spread them on the floor and, just to steal the attention away, I started playing hopscotch all over them. I'm just like that." Her mother, who is Irish, and her father, who is Ecuadorean, met in college. Her father joined the Army and became a sergeant. Aguilera was born in Staten Island, New York, in 1980, but after that the family lived wherever the Army sent them – Texas, Japan and New Jersey – before her parents split up when Aguilera was seven. Shelly then brought her two daughters back to her hometown of Wexford, a Pittsburgh suburb. Now remarried, Shelly says she encouraged her daughter's talents early by placing her in local talent shows.
"When she was two, I knew what Christina was going to do," her mother says. "She'd line up all of her stuffed animals and sing to them with my little majorette baton – that was her 'ikaphone.' She was too young to pronounce microphone! I've never seen anybody so focused. When she was older, if there wasn't a block party or somewhere for her to sing, she'd get irritable."
She made the jump to the big time when she landed a spot on Star Search. "I was eight, and I sang Whitney Houston's 'Greatest Love of All,'" she says, daintily munching a McNugget. "I've always loved her. My first talent show was in first grade, and I sang 'I Wanna Dance With Somebody.'" But that love couldn't overcome the vocal prowess of the twelve-year-old bard who beat Aguilera to the Star Search winner's circle with a stirring rendition of Eddie Holman's "Hey There Lonely Girl." "I was told it was fixed, but I'm not going to hold a grudge," she says with a singsong chuckle. "I was a good sport about it. My mom made me go back out and shake his hand and tell him I was happy he won. Tears were running down my face. Awful."
No matter. Aguilera lost the battle but won the war. At the age of ten, she was already known in Wexford as "micro-diva." When junior high was still a far-off future, she sang the national anthem at Pirates, Penguins and Steelers games. Around this time, Aguilera also auditioned for The New Mickey Mouse Club; she was finally asked to join two years later, when the producers felt she was old enough. The show's cast proved to be a petri dish of germinating teen talent: Britney Spears, Felicity's Keri Russell, and 'N Sync's Justin Timberlake and J.C. Chasez were all on board. "It was really great energy," she says, "It was great to be around other kids who were as passionate about their careers as I was. It's funny – I always thought Keri Russell was going to be the one that became this sexy thing, but she's gone on to Felicity, which is a very downplayed role as far as looks go. Britney and I really looked up to her. She had the big hair and the tight-fitting clothes that were always cute. She was sixteen and could drive and had the cute sports car. It was cute like that." Cute figures big in the Aguilera vocab: "My fans are so cute"; "I do a cute routine for 'Come On Over'"; "Eminem and I would make a cute couple, no?"; "It's cute to have guy groupies, but some of them get out of hand."
Anyway, The New Mickey Mouse Club was a safe haven for Aguilera. "Going to a public school in a small town and not being around kids who did what I did made me feel like an outsider," she recalls. "I even had to switch elementary schools after Star Search. The jealously got really bad. People just felt threatened." When Aguilera was chosen to sing "Reflections" for the Disney animated film Mulan and when the video for that song began to run on MTV, she didn't win any more friends around town. "Kids didn't know how to deal with seeing their peer on TV," she says. "You learn the hard way who your friends are, Plus, my circle of friends was the cheerleader clique, so there was already a lot of back-stabbing. It made me introverted." Aguilera landed the Mulan gig after her manager, Steve Kurtz, sent Disney a demo of her singing Houston's "I Wanna Run to You" recorded on a boombox in her family's living room.
The track caught the ear of RCA Records, and Aguilera was signed in 1998. "She is a badass genius of singing," says Ron Fair, the A&R man who signed her. "She was put on this earth to sing, and I've worked with a lot of singers – the O'Jays, Natalie Cole, Dianne Reeves. When Christina met with us, she didn't care that she was auditioning for a record deal; she got into a performance zone that you see in artists much more mature than she is, like a k.d. lang." The label spent the next year and a half and a rumored 1 million (a figure that RCA representatives will not confirm) on songwriters, producers, voice lessons and marketing – it's a sum they will easily recoup in worldwide sales. "We didn't spend any more on Christina than we would to launch any other artist," says Jack Rovner, executive vice president and general manager of RCA Records. "It was enough to get it started." Down the line, the label plans to expose other sides of Christina. "It will be as if she's growing up, by virtue of the singles we put out," Rovner says. "You need an introduction and to be embraced by a fervent fan base, so we went with the more youth-oriented song, but ultimately we'll be getting to the big ballads."
Aguilera's introduction, "Genie in a Bottle," is sugary pop – once heard, never purged – but it doesn't showcase her vocal strength or control. Unlike most teen poppers, Agui – lera can cut it without a multitrack studio. Imagewise, she isn't the typical red-cheeked kid next door, either. She's a teen diva, a kind of legal Lolita, proffering precocious "Oops, did I say that?" innuendo and belting songs like her life depends on it. She comports herself like a pro, as if she were born with a mike in her hand, donning platform booties.
Right now, she's getting sleepy, seemingly overwhelmed by her chow, but that won't keep her from talking about double standards. "Britney and I show a little tummy and it's like, 'Oh, my God,' " she huffs. "We've both been called bad influences by some critics, but 'N Sync or Backstreet will get onstage – and I love those guys to death – but they'll do repeated pelvic thrusts to an audience of pre-pubescent girls, and no one says anything."
Aguilera looks out the window and seems very far away. "I think that I'm eccentric," she says suddenly. "I'm a really deep thinker. It's weird. Sometimes I'll have daydreams of just floating and changing my body into all these different shapes, like a cloud but more beautiful, and flying around the world like an angel, hovering and watching people. Sometimes I'm singing in my daydream. When I have a hard day, I explore me and this whole imaginary side of my brain."
Aguilera wants to be many things, but a "pop girl" isn't one of them. She wants an edge. "I always want to shock people, throughout my career," she says. "Like Madonna." Maybe that's why she has crushes on rock stars. "I had a long-running crush on Mark McGrath [of Sugar Ray], but that's over," she says flatly. "He's totally cute, but his whole presence is arrogance. Plus, I'm not diggin' the way he's looking now. Fred Durst is cute, but he doesn't make the crush list. Now, Eminem, he's my new crush. And I usually don't go for blonds!" For the moment, she hasn't taken this concept past the idea stage: "All I have are my fantasies right now, because I don't have any free time. But I do want to date a performer. It's important to me that I date someone who understands my schedule. Coming out of high school, I've had it with these guys who don't get it." There were a few who tried back home, but Aguilera is currently single.
The limo stops short and the singer's Coke flies all over the unoccupied seats and the floor. "Sorry, miss," the driver apologizes. "There are sodas in the coolers back there for you." Aguilera watches the soda soak into the carpet, then turns to me. "Can you get one for me?"
THE SHRIEKS SHRED THE AIR LIKE taut wires snapping, while MTV production assistants in headsets stir up more hysteria. "Keep the energy up until all the way to commercial," they tell the frantic tykes. It seems an unnecessary order at Total Request Live, particularly when Aguilera joins host Carson Daly on set. As a few audience members approach spontaneous combustion, Daly must gently admonish them. "I couldn't get them to shut up if I tried today," he says later. "It was impossible."
The youngest in the audience, who look to be about eleven or twelve, simply yell, mouths open wide. They look at each other after they run out of air, then turn toward Christina and begin yelling again. Some of the older members aren't content just to scream. "
You're Latina! You're hotter than Britney Spears, let me tell you," a girl in the front row shouts.
"Oh, you're so funny," Aguilera says. "You guys are cute."
"And you're natural!" the fan belts back.
Aguilera is here to perform two songs: "Genie in a Bottle," of course, and "So Emotional," a ballad likely to be the album's third single. It's a number that allows Aguilera to do a bit of scatting. "She can really sing," Daly says. "Her range is amazing. She can do gospel and R&B if she wants to, and can really perform. The hook in most teen pop is in the dancing and the imaging, while the voices are usually only good to fair. But she's really talented. Dude, when I was eighteen, I was throwing rocks at buses, so maybe I'm easily impressed. But I think she's got a long career ahead of her."
Carson is not wrong. When Aguilera improvises harmony lines for the crescendo of "So Emotional," it's a surreal moment. She stands braced, legs apart and mike below her chin, mouth wide open and eyes looking upward. The resonant power of the voice bellowing from her tiny platinum frame even drowns out the cacophony of the kids.
"Christina threw me at first, because she could sing so well," says David Frank, one half of the songwriting team that delivered "Genie in a Bottle." "A teenager that sings so well? I knew the song wouldn't have to be a vocal patch job. In the teen-pop world, I've found myself in a room a few times where no one could sing."
After the show, Aguilera stands by her dressing room with her dancers, sister, brother and mom. She's ready to head home but takes a last, lingering look at the gaggle of people lined up outside like lemmings to catch a glimpse of her. "I watched this show all the time while I was recording the album," she says, standing at the window overlooking Times Square. "I'd see Britney and 'N Sync on it and wonder if I'd ever do it." She waves to a few fans. "This is why I do it. I was so tired when I came here, but now my energy is up, all because of them. This today is what I live for: hearing them singing it back to me."