Christina Aguilera: The Hit Girl

She's a little girl with the big voice. Eminem hates her. Six million fans love her. And the industry calls her this year's best new artist

Christina Aguilera performs in West Palm Beach, Florida, on September 25th, 2000. Credit: R. Diamond/WireImage/Getty

A BLACK LIMOUSINE ROLLS THROUGH the streets of downtown Toronto.

"What CD do you want to hear?" asks the assistant.

"Put this on, Track Three!" answers the pop star.

The CD player whirrs, the assistant crosses her legs, the pop star smiles.

I had this bad hitch uptown, she was whoa!/Had me fucked up in the head, I mean whoa!/Bought the bitch diamonds and pearls, I mean whoa!

"Turn it up!" the pop star yells. The driver glances into the back seat, concerned.

Grenade through your window, bitch, like whoa!/Love to see me do this shit, like whoa!/Niggaz put me through this shit, like whoa!

The pop star is singing along now. So is the assistant.

So I'm gonna go toe to toe, blow for blow, like whoa!/And rip your torso!

"Play it again," the pop star giggles.

I had this bad bitch uptown, she was whoa....

The limousine pulls into the parking lot of Canadian music-video network MuchMusic, the driver opens the door, and the sound of Black Rob rapping "Whoa!" bursts out the doors, followed by the pop star, a teeny blond teen in baggy, Army-green pants.

She walks at the head of a growing entourage to her dressing room and slips into a black baby T-shirt that halts just below her solar plexus, exposing a navel that wouldn't look out of place on the label of a Gerber's baby-food jar. Written in silver on the front of the shirt are the words I LOVE PLAYBOY.

Dear Reader: Meet Christin a Aguilera. She is nineteen now — almost twenty, she says — and she's sick and tired of being treated like a child.

"I wasn't sure if I should wear that Playboy shirt," she admits after the MuchMusic show. "It's suggestive, in away. So me and my stylist discussed it. And I decided: I'm nineteen years old, and nineteen-year-olds are going to wear things like that. Just because I have a certain image, everyone wants me to be this role model. But nobody is perfect, and nobody can live up to that. I'm living my life."

She realizes that she's beginning to sound pouty and stops, then looks up wide-eyed, earnestly, like an adult: "I think my personality is fighting to come out, and that personality is fighting with the image that everyone else has of me."

Teeny-boppers, your good girl has gone bad. Or at least wants to go bad. Or perhaps she's always been bad. Or maybe it's just been along, confusing nine months.

TWO DAYS PRIOR, CHRISTINA Aguilera sits in the back seat of a van in Manhattan. No, sits isn't quite the right word for Christina's relationship to chairs. She molds herself into them, slouching her back into the right angle between the backrest and the seat, throwing her legs against whatever object is in front of her and utilizing any wall or nearby stationary object to contour the rest of her body against. She is heading for a final meal at her favorite restaurant chain, Houston's — the same place she dined the previous night — before boarding a flight to Toronto. She has just rented an apartment in Los Angeles, on the other side of the country from her mother and stepfather, and, as she gazes out the window of the van, it dawns on her that she might miss the East Coast. "Oooh," she coos. "I want a New York boy. There is so much energy here."

And what, exactly, is a New York boy? "A little roughneck," she smiles wickedly. "With the bandanna and the cap to the side. You're not going to meet boys like that in L.A."

She kicks her legs into the air, and they fall crossed and tangled onto the back of the seat in front of her. The T-shirt she wears is black, exposes her navel and reads, in letters across her chest, ROCKSTAR. She opens a copy of the music-insider magazine Hits and begins leafing through it, stopping at a full-color, full-page photograph of DMX. "Mmm," she exclaims. "He is hot!"

It sometimes seems like Christina uses magazine interviews as dating services: Many of the guys she's mentioned as being cute — Fred Durst, Eminem, Enrique Iglesias, Carson Daly — she's later been linked to. Do they get in touch with her after reading that she has a crush on them? "No," she chirps. "We end up seeing each other at parties and whatnot. I've actually hooked up a couple of times. Just for fun. But I haven't seriously dated a celebrity yet."

So now you're going to meet DMX? "I don't know," she giggles. "It's craaaaazyyyy, crazy."

She buries her nose back in Hits, halting this time at an advertisement for a teen-pop group called Innosense. "There's another one from the Mickey Mouse Club," she says, pointing to one of the girls, Nikki DeLoach, who was in the same illustrious 1993 cast of the show with Aguilera, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and JC Chasez of 'N Sync, and Keri Russell of Felicity. Flip, flip, flip. Stop. This time it's a full-page close-up of Eminem's head. She pulls the magazine toward her face, until it is just an inch away from her well-glossed lips, and whispers something indecipherable to the image. Then she jerks the magazine back and twists her face into agrimace: "Airbrushed!"

She climbs out of the van and into a booth at Houston's. Despite having just recovered from two weeks in bed with the flu (her first real downtime since her debut album came out nine months ago), she orders chicken tenders, french fries, a fully loaded baked potato and nachos (which she likes to dip in all three accompanying sauces — cheese-avocado, sour cream and red salsa – simultaneously). Over this orgy of grease, the subject of Eminem returns.

Though Christina, her mother, her manager and everybody in her orbit like to downplay the incident, it is probably the worst thing that could happen to a nineteen-year-old. Like high school all over again, Eminem decided to spread lies or half-truths (you decide) about Aguilera's sex life in his latest single, rapping, "Shit, Christina Aguilera, better switch me chairs/So I can sit next to Carson Daly and Fred Durst/And hear 'em argue over who she gave head to first..../I should download her audio on MP3/And show the whole world how you gave Eminem VD."

"EMINEM, MAN. THAT'S CRAZY how, like, one comment can make somebody angry," says Christina.

You mean, your comment on MTV?
What happened was, I was asked, "Do you still have a crush on Eminem?" And I said, "He's cute and everything, but he's got too many girls after him. Besides, he's married, so I'm going to stay away from that." It wasn't a dis at all. And if you're going to be that retarded to think that it's a dis, then, you know, I'm not apologizing for anything.

I think there was another reason Eminem was upset. Do you know why?
No.

It was because, on MTV, you also criticized him for his lyrics about getting revenge on the mother of his child....
Oh right, right. I probably said that song [" '97 Bonnie and Clyde"] is disgusting. You know what I mean — jeez. Slicing up your baby's mama and stuffing her in a trunk and shoving her in the ocean with your daughter watching. That's disgusting. I'm sorry, but I think the majority of the world thinks that's disgusting. And I think it was really wrong of him to dis me like that, because all this past year I've been so positive in recognizing his talent.

Obviously he overreacted: Because what he said wasn't at all in the same league as what you said.
I was offended and really disgusted by it. The fact that he is talking about diseases and all that. But I see where he's coming from, in the sense that you take this guy who wants to be respected as a serious rap artist, and all of a sudden he is in the world of MTV and TRL. I can see where he would get a little mad and want to rebel against the Britney Spears, 'N Sync, Backstreet Boys world of teen music. And if he has to do it that way and be that immature about it, then, fine, be that way. I'll just answer it on my next record. [Laughs] Nawww.

Was your mom upset about it?
My stepdad was so cute. He was all ready to get on a plane and kick Eminem's ass. I was like, "That's OK, Dad, it's all right." It's good to have support like that during those times. You know, it's hard to be in the spotlight. You may be having a rough day already, and you come home and turn on the TV, and then you see [the video with] Eminem with that upset look, sitting between Carson Daly and Fred Durst.

Speaking of that, do you know where his lyric about the MP3 came from?
I have no idea.

Fred supposedly was talking about you on someone's answering machine.
For real? It is a whole complicated thing. That messes with your head. Fred is crazy. Fred, man, how dumb are you if you're trying to get with somebody and then you are going to appear in a video that flat-out disses her. You know what I mean? Fred and I were actually being cool with each other: He took me out one time and bought me a milkshake. He was just like, "I know this bomb-ass place for milkshakes," after we left this club. He was so cool. Then I started hearing all of this stuff, and I was tired of it. I was like, "Something is up, he is being shady." He flat-out told me before the video came out that he was in it.

Did you know what it was about?
I hadn't heard much about it, but I knew that he was talking all this bull about me. But if he really did tell Eminem that, none of it is true. Seriously. I haven't spent "quality time" with either of those two guys.

Which two guys?
Fred and Eminem.

SHE EXCUSES HERSELF FROM the table and shuffles toward the bathroom. When she returns, an effervescent woman who works at her management company and who used to chaperone Christina is at the table with a Los Angeles lease for her to sign. They gossip, talk about setting Christina up on a blind date and marvel at how much has happened to her in so short a time. "Funkmaster Flex played me on the radio, and he didn't even play Britney," Christina boasts, proud that one of New York's top hip-hop DJs has put her on the air and also hinting at a competition between her and Britney — not the bitter, antagonistic rivalry that has been the subject of so many rumors but a sibling rivalry, which is much more amicable and natural but, at the same time, has the potential to be much uglier.

After dinner, Christina clambers back into the van, sits in the back seat and stares out the window in silence for the entire ride to La Guardia Airport, interrupted occasionally by the ringing of her cell phone. Her Discman headphones are over her ears, but no music is playing. She is simply shutting off: Whenever she can, she will stare out a window or off into a fireplace or at the sky, and her mind will drift off somewhere. "You can yell her name, tap her on the shoulder or set her shoes on fire, and chances are she won't respond. She's lost in her world. And if you ask her what is going on there, sometimes she'll return, glassy-eyed and calm, with an answer from the dark and thorny heart of teenage hell.

"My mind is always thinking," she explains when she snaps back into consciousness. "I'll think about really crazy things, like being on top of that pole up there. Or I'll get a lot of different weird visions. It is my own little world. My life just revolves around giving and giving. So whenever I get those five minutes in a van or limo or wherever, those are special moments to just zone out and think and dream."

Christina's mother, Shelly Kearns, says that this habit of her daughter's dates from well before her fame. "When she was growing up, we called it zoning out. She literally gets lost in thought and doesn't hear you. This happened from childhood up, especially if there was something she didn't understand. She has ticked us off a lot of times, but she's always done that. In seventh or eighth grade, people would think she was stuck-up because she wouldn't answer them."

What Christina's schoolmates didn't know when they called her a snob, and what Eminem didn't know when he snapped at her for criticizing him for promoting domestic violence, is that Christina spent her first six years in a home where she needed to tune out to cope with what was going on.

"I think the reason that my drive was so strong and I was so passionate about music was because I grew up in an environment of domestic violence," she says, referring to life with her father. "Music was my release to get away from it all. I would seriously run up to my bedroom and put on that Sound of Music tape. [Julie Andrews] was free and alive, and she was playful and rebellious against the nuns. I know it sounds really cheesy, but that was my escape. I would open up my bedroom window, and I would just imagine the audience. I would just sing out.

"And I promised myself when this happened that I would try to help others who were in the same situation. People don't know domestic abuse unless they're in it. It's not only physical abuse, but there's damage inside — mental abuse. It's a sad thing to go through and watch. They play with your mind, and make you feel bad about yourself and...."

She trails off. Christina's mother also wonders whether her daughter's zoning out stems from those childhood experiences. "I think she's got a lot of baggage from things like that," she says. "She usually detached and expressed herself through her music. But I wouldn't be surprised if that was why."

Fausto Aguilera was an Army sergeant, born in Ecuador but stationed in New York, Texas and Japan during Christina's early childhood. "He's apologized," Christina says. "I think he had a lot of guilt. I also lived around other situations, with people who lived next door. There was so much domestic violence going on around when I grew up, with my dad traveling in the military. It's so sad, so sad. I wanted to be so strong for everybody — for my mom and for everyone.

"That's why I'm so girl-empowerment-oriented," she laughs, then continues. "Even 'Genie in a Bottle' is about making a guy work for it."

Growing up, Christina used to have visions of a protective figure in white, a guardian angel, looking over her. "My mom and I were playing hide-and-go-seek one time, and I ran up the stairs," she recalls. "My mom was saying, 'I'm going to get you, I'm going to get you.' All of a sudden I looked up and stopped dead in my tracks. There was this guy, and he was in an all-white outfit, just kind of glowing. He had a white beard and was looking down at me calmly, very peacefully."

Her mother remembers that at first she didn't believe Christina's stories about this man. "I'm surprised she told you that," she says. "She was a little thing, like three or four, and she'd be staring up at something no one else could see. One time we were playing tag when she was three, and I chased her into this one room, and all of a sudden her face changed. It was like she had seen something in front of her. She backtracked and ran to me and said, 'There's that man again.' I said, 'He's probably nice' and went to hand her over to this invisible guy, and she flipped out.

"After that we did everything we could to catch her and make sure this was something she actually was seeing. I thought maybe it was my dad, because my father died when I was twelve. But this was a person who looked very different. I asked what kind of clothes he had on, and she said, 'No, covers.' Then she pulled the sheet out from under the covers to show me. It makes you wonder who that was or what it was about."

When Christina was fourteen, her mother married a paramedic from Pennsylvania, Jim Kearns, who had two children. "I remember being so upset when I found out about my [brother and sister] because it was just me and my mom forever, then all of a sudden she's remarried," says Christina. "Here was a male telling me what to do. And that was the last thing I wanted to hear, after my other situations.

"I had to get over that. Then all of a sudden she gets pregnant again. No one expected that. But they have a beautiful marriage, and I'm really happy."

The rest of Christina's story is well-known. Even she is sick of telling it, groaning like she's just been given a homework assignment whenever the familiar tales are brought up: a child prodigy singing Whitney Houston songs in elementary-school talent shows and block parties in the Pittsburgh area; tearfully losing Star Search at age eight; singing the national anthem for the Pittsburgh Steelers at age ten; moving to Orlando to join the New Mickey Mouse Club, where she became best friends with Britney.

"They called me Little Diva on that show, or Mini-Diva," she says. "Because I had a little strut. I don't know; I've always had this flirty, sassy thing I throw around, even at eleven or twelve years old."

The saga continues: Little Diva is spitefully picked on by kids in her suburban Pittsburgh high school for her singing success; she lands a song in Disney's Mulan because she can sing a high E above middle C; and, finally, she releases her first album on RCA Records on August 24th, 1999, selling 6 million copies.

"I'M SO OVER THAT RECORD AT THIS point," she says. "I feel like I'm a completely different person, as far as my outlooks are concerned. I wanted the first record to be a little bit more on the R&B side, but they wanted to keep it pop. My A&R executive guy, Ron Fair, produced it, and he was always curbing my ad-libs and my runs and all that R&B-dripping stuff. It would drive me insane, because he was always saying, 'Stick to the melody, keep it pop.' So the second album will be my time to let loose, finally."

I'd guess that you want to make it more gritty in places.
It's hard to get over that hump of being known as just a pop girl, so it's going to be interesting to make it edgier, to explore different things, to do duets with rock artists. I'd like to do something with [DMX producer] Swizz Beatz.

I knew you were going to say that.
[Laughs] For real. I need something to sink my teeth into!

And how about Timbaland?
Oh, my gosh, you just read my mind. I'm listening to....

Aaliyah's "Try Again."
Oh, my gosh, oh, my gosh, that's so funny. We have the same taste. I'm so ready for it, it's frustrating. The next single, you know, is "Come on Over." And I'm like, "Oh, no!" That's probably the most kiddie-sounding song on the record. It will not be released like that. We are going to get back in the studio to redo it.

Besides the modern R&B, you probably also want to stretch out on more simple ballads with just voice and piano.
I'm sure you've heard the Etta James cover I do ["At Last"]. That's where my heart is. That's what I want to do. There's a realness to a song like that, without all the structured, overproduced music in the back. I'm probably going to get real nervous before the release date of my next album. It's finally going to let loose sides of me that have been dying to come out. I feel like a part of me is going to breathe.

AFTER ARRIVING IN TORONTO, Christina is driven to a studio and reunited with her band and dancers, who have been rehearsing for the summer tour, her first as a headliner. Though she still has friends from school, not one of them, according to Christina's mother, has made it out on the road twice: They've joined her on tour expecting fun and games, and gone home exhausted after waiting for what little downtime Christina has in her schedule. Her dancers are like her family and her choreographer, Tina Landon, like an older sister. They run through the hits — "Genie in a Bottle," "What a Girl Wants," "I Turn to You," Mulan's "Reflection."

"Can you turn that cheesy keyboard sound down?" a woman from management asks the sound man.

Sitting in a chair, one leg raised to her chest, the other stretched out on the floor, Christina holds the microphone tentatively, as if it's covered with mucus. Then, in a posture far from conducive to singing, she belts out Etta James' "At Last" in a full, grandiose voice, packed with melismatic swoops and roaring crescendos. When she's done, she asks the keyboardist to hold a few notes longer so she can engage in more vocal embellishments. Afterward, she is pulled out of rehearsal for a battery of interviews to promote the tour.

Christina's personality crisis — the split between who she is and who everybody wants her to be — becomes painfully clear during those interviews and an ensuing press conference. When answering a question, she often begins to say what's really on her mind, then suddenly catches herself and stops short, trails off or backs up and reverts to a practiced cliché, like, "It's just amazing to see how you can affect so many people worldwide."

"I'm always biting my tongue, because I can get kind of provocative," she admits as she sits cross-legged on the floor in a backroom after the press conference, having just zoned out while staring into the fireplace. "It's fun to be provocative sometimes, to stir things up and get reactions and be playful. But sometimes that can get me into trouble."

The tabloids have had their fun with Christina lately: catching her dirty dancing with Enrique Iglesias or at a strip club with Carson Daly and a couple of boy-band boys. "It's such a double standard when it comes to the boys and the girls," she complains, worked up over a recent newspaper story criticizing her. "They totally overlook the fact that the Backstreet Boys cuss during their interviews, go to strip clubs all the time and do normal things for their age. It's not a dis to them, but it's so unfair."

Everyone around Christina is routinely amazed by her maturity — vocally, artistically and professionally. The success of "What a Girl Wants," for instance, was solely due to her decision to rerecord it and release it as a single. But at the same time, she often seems even younger than nineteen. She is a girl of striking contrasts, extremes of light and darkness, which often come out when she's alone, out of the public eye.

The other night in New York, some of the darkness leaked out in a dream she had. It was an epic that unfolded in a castle, where Christina was chased by guards and soldiers through an endless maze of chambers — a candy room, a toy room, a magic room. She ran into another young girl, the daughter of the king of the castle: the princess. They ran through the castle together, but a surveillance camera spotted the pair. The king ordered his soldiers to get them, not realizing that one of the girls was his own daughter.

"This huge, muscular guy gets to the scene first," Christina elaborates. "He beats them up bad. He kills them both. And then the king comes down and sees what happened and is devastated and heartbroken."

Some might see family drama here — the king as Christina's father, the princess as her younger sister and the castle as her childhood fantasies — but Christina's mother offers a different interpretation: "It seems to exhibit the stress that a typical teen celebrity goes through. It's like a war. As far as the princess, Christina has told me that she misses Britney the most. So I wonder if she's the other daughter and both of them are just beat to death. Put that dream alongside their actual lives and it's the same, with the critics and the media chasing them while they're just sitting there innocent."

At dinner in Toronto, as her band and dancers get drunk and rowdy — breaking glasses, shouting out phrases from commercials and, in general, engaging in all the bonding antics that seem so fun at the commencement of a tour but are just wearying by the end — Christina sits quietly at the corner of the table, talking one-on-one with her choreographer and a dancer.

The next morning, in her hotel room, she apologizes for her introverted behavior. "I was in a bad mood about something that happened. I was pulled out of rehearsals, and I didn't want to be. There was drama. I was talking with Tina about that. And about my love. My first love."

She pushes aside the healthy soup and salad someone has ordered for her, grabs my greasy chicken sandwich and begins eating it. "I fell in love for the first time this year," she continues as she pecks at the bird, carefully avoiding the bread crust. "It's crazy. I've never felt like that before. And it's a little bit scary: I'm used to being this independent chick, not really thinking about boys, and all of a sudden, whoa – like this guy takes over everything. Well, not everything, but my focus is suddenly about this guy. It's made me vulnerable, and I don't like to be that way."

Because? "Because of the whole Sagittarian thing, which is in my nature. Then seeing my mom go through a really hard divorce. Or marriage, rather. The divorce was the good thing. But just watching her vulnerability in staying in that relationship, I promised myself I would never put myself in a position where I'd be that vulnerable."

As she talks, she is careful not to say this person's name. But at the same time, it becomes clear that this person is not a celebrity. It is someone in her entourage.

"IT'S TOUGH TO MAINTAIN a relationship doing what I'm doing," says Christina. "You have to deal with his insecurities about who I am and all the 'I'm not good enough' ideas in his head, which don't matter to me at all."

At least it's a person from the normal world.
Are you saying it's not someone in the business?

I'm saying it's not a pop star. It's someone who works for you.
How did you know?

I can tell. But I need help with something else: When you talk about wanting to date a roughneck, are you just joking around and being flirtatious?
No, I'm kind of not. Although my heart belongs to somebody, I'm not committed to anyone, because I want to focus on a lot of things about me right now. Being sick and having that downtime to reflect on what's been going on in my life, I feel I need to get back to myself a little bit and not necessarily my career. Because my career has always been the focus of my life. So many things have changed over the past year, and, I don't know, I miss the innocence of things.

You miss innocence?
Yeah, I miss innocence. So many things have happened. I miss the wanting of something.

The wanting of something as far as your career goes or your personal life?
Careerwise and personalwise. It's turned upside down. I feel like I've lost part of my innocence by falling in love, just because I've never experienced anything like that.

SHE RECENTLY HAD A DREAM ABOUT him: He was trying to call another girl, but he accidentally hit Christina's number on speed dial. She had just returned from a foreign country and was checking her messages, and she heard his: "I'm really feeling you now, and I miss you, and I love you."

"He was really pouring his heart out to this girl," she says, "and it was not supposed to be for me. I woke up and cried." Fifteen minutes later, when enough time has elapsed that the topic of Christina-in-love seems to be forgotten, she suddenly blurts, "Let me ask you one question. Who do you think is the cutest one of my dancers?"

"Girl or guy?"

"Guy," she says. "Out of curiosity."

I tell her my opinions on each, though I can feel a growing impatience.

"What about____?" she asks, giving her whole game away.

"Yeah, he's cool. He's got a good body."

"It's interesting to hear other people's opinions," she responds casually, leaning back in the couch, satisfied that she's covered that one up pretty well.

WHEN NIGHT FALLS, AFTER A GRUELING day of interviews, rehearsals and a ninety-minute performance and interview on MuchMusic, Christina returns to her room and orders a pizza, a Coke and Chips Ahoy! cookies. "The secret to eating junk food," she explains, "is to only eat a little at a time."

All day, she's made references to her spirituality. She is asked to elaborate. "I'm Christian," she says. "And I believe in God. All of this [success] is there for a purpose. He wants me to do what I'm doing for good. But I think my personality fights with that sometimes."

She goes on to talk about how she is frightened of the dark. At night, she sleeps with the lights on. She is haunted by nightmares and often lies awake freaking herself out with thoughts of spirits and ghosts, especially in hotel rooms, where any number of people have passed through before her.

Sometimes when she can't sleep, she writes in her journals. She keeps three separate journals in her bags, along with a tape recorder, which she fills with poems, lyrics, thoughts and ideas for melodies. She has a new song she's written about her love life and another about the insane rush of the past year. "I've been on my own," she says, "and it's kind of lonely and crazy when so much stuff is thrown at you. Sometimes you feel like the whole world is waiting for you to mess up."

She rolls off the couch, staggers sleepily into her room and comes back with a small, lined notebook. "I wrote this song, and it has a gospel feel. Have you heard Mariah's first album? It's like 'Vanishing,' but it's more personal. I wrote it with Heather Holly, who wrote 'Obvious.' It would mean so much more with the music, but maybe you can imagine it."

She is nervous and turns her head away so that she is gazing out of the picture window as she sings: "The world seems so cold/When I face so much on my own/A little scared to move on/You know too fast I have grown."

[The imaginary piano gets soft here.]

"And I wonder where I fit in/All the visions and dreams in my head/Oh yeah, I will be...."

[The imaginary piano crescendoes and Christina's voice soars, taking a good fifteen seconds to deliver the next word.]

"....strong."

She sinks into the sofa exhausted. Minutes later she is under the covers in bed, curled on her left side in a crescent shape, a big voice reduced to a small, vulnerable child again.