Backstage at the Gwinnett Arena near Atlanta, Katy Perry opens the door to her dressing room and stands there, unrecognizable. “Come in,” she says. “I’m kind of dressed — I’ve got a sarong on. But come in.” Her lips are without pucker, color or substance. Her eyes are small, her cheeks pale. She’s neither glossy nor sleek, and not in evidence at all is her famous, heaving bosom. She looks 17, not 26. This can’t be her. It makes no sense. It’s like she’s sent some wan underage doppelgänger out to play a practical joke.
A few minutes later, she’s being fitted for costumes for the North American leg of her California Dreams worldwide tour, 50 dates in all, most already sold-out, including this one, the very important first. The outfits are all wacky and wild, featuring loopy stripes, kooky cat ears, puffy bags of cotton candy, swirling electric discs. Everything is “bigger, better, more,” as Perry likes to say, and she takes an intense interest in the correct workings of each. She wants a strap shortened here, hook-and-eye fasteners substituted for snaps there. She goes into the bathroom and comes out wearing some kind of layer-cake confection. “It just seems like this thing is going to fall apart,” she says. Then she takes a closer look, narrowing her eyes at a pair of plastic dolls affixed to the front. “Take those crazy dolls off,” she says. “She’s not invited to the show, and neither is her sister.” She appears to shiver. “Crazy eyes,” she says. “They’re freaking me out.”
Her longtime stylist, Johnny Wujek, nods. She asks, and it will be done. Everything has to be perfect and in harmony, and crazy-eyed dolls can play no part.
Then it’s on to studying the video for her hit “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.),” which will be released in a few days. It’s the fifth single to come off Teenage Dream, her second album of the past three years, which, like One of the Boys before it, has gone multiplatinum. The statistics regarding Perry’s success are pretty out-there unbelievable. The singles from One of the Boys, foremost among them “Hot N Cold” and “I Kissed a Girl,” have sold more than 20 million digital downloads. When the follow-up album debuted last August, it started right at the top, and all the singles — “Calfornia Gurls,” “Teenage Dream,” “Firework” and “E.T.” — have reached Number One too. Perry is the first artist to ever have a tune ranked in the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 for a full year. She’s been nominated for five Grammys. She’s been a guest on How I Met Your Mother. She married the former-sex-addict nut-job comedian from the U.K. named Russell Brand and apparently keeps him quite happy and vice versa. Her lyrics — or, at least, eight words from one of her songs (“I kissed a girl and I liked it”) — have pissed off both the uptight right and a good many of the equally uptight left. She’s been called a crassly commercial and conniving master manipulator of the culture, although she has always maintained her innocence, even while trotting out songs like “Waking Up in Vegas” and “Peacock” and singing lines like “Infect me with your love and fill me with your poison.” In brief, she is the current reigning pop-candy princess, with a sly wink and a tasty, wholesome smile. If you don’t get Lady Gaga, you’ll get her.
The “Last Friday Night” video concerns the drunken misadventures of one Kathy Beth Terry, as played by Perry, wearing big nerd glasses and a mouthful of braces. At one point, as it rolls, a bunch of bare skin slides into view.
“Hey, let’s go back to that last shot,” Perry says. The video zips backward and forward. She leans in. “My boobs,” she says. “They have to fix that. That’s the screenshot everyone is going to take.” She points. “It should be blurred out here, there and there.”
“Blur out the tit,” an assistant says.
“And did they fix the butt cheek?” Perry asks.
“I think they cropped it off.”
“Let me see.” She looks closely. “It’s fine. OK. Can I see the trailer? The new one that has the burps and farts cut out?”
Ah, boobs, butt cheeks, burps and farts. That’s more like it. Surely big bunches of suggestive puns and naughty double-entendres, two of the staple tropes for which Perry, a cunning jokester, is so well-known, can’t be far behind. But, in fact, they are; they never come. Today, she’s mostly all business. Frankly, it’s a little discombobulating. For example, aren’t boobs and butt cheeks two of the things that got her here? And she wants to crop them out, blur them into oblivion? Can this be the real Katy Perry? The one who tweets things like, “I’ve been artificially inseminated with a cat fetus!” Seriously. Where the hell has that crazy-fun girl gone?
You either hate her music in spades or love it to pieces. You either think her voice soars righteously or that it’s the byproduct of an Auto-Tune perfect-pitch machine. You either feel like you have to denounce her as a corporate stooge or sing her praises as a total original. You’re either tickled and/or turned on by the way she dresses, all retro, va-va-voom, burlesquelike, with happy, smiling cupcakes on top, or you’re like those cleavage-despising PTA moms who got her duet with Elmo banned from Sesame Street. It’s one of the things about Perry. Almost everything she does, or says, or wears, or doesn’t wear, calls for extreme reaction. She’s polarizing, in a way that does her record sales good and allows her to say stuff like, “Whenever people ask me about having bad reviews, I’m like, ‘Have you seen the run I’ve had? Have you seen the numbers? Numbers do not lie! “which could lead critics to wonder if she knows the difference between quality and quantity. It never stops. Someone leaks her celebrity contract rider, in which it is written that chauffeurs shall not make eye contact with or request autographs from the artist, which causes great, snorting disapproval, like Perry personally had anything to do with it, which she didn’t. It’s endless. When all she wants to do is play her music.
“Since the age of nine,” she says between rehearsals one day, “all I’ve wanted to do is share my perspective and hopefully help people through my music, whether it just makes someone smile or a song becomes someone’s mantra for life or a motto or whatever. I want to make music that’s fun and has feeling and emotion to it. Like if I’m going to make a dance song, something like ‘Firework,’ I want it to have purpose, so that you’re dancing with purpose, so it’s not so materialistic and void-feeling and leaves you inspired rather than feeling kind of empty. I’m not a dummy. I know ‘California Gurls’ isn’t going to save the world. But I got a lot of heart from my upbringing, and I put a lot of heart in my songs.”
Sounds pretty goopy. But go have a look at some of her early videos, when she was still a pigtail-wearing blonde and full of earnest, wide-eyed, questioning curiosity, or even the later ones, after she’d dyed her hair black and was struggling to make it in L.A., looking kind of like Chrissie Hynde as she played her acoustic guitar in half-empty nightclubs where the patrons just wished she’d pipe down so they could talk. She’s just so determined. And she’s never appeared to be anything but sincere, even if at times that sincerity didn’t get her heard the way she wanted to be heard, which would only come later, when she learned how to pump up all kinds of volumes to way past 10. And so you tend to believe her when she says, “I get emotional onstage. I cry onstage sometimes. I cry when I’m singing the songs I’m singing, because they’re so . . . ‘Pearl’ is such an honest song for me. People think it’s about a third person, but it’s really about me” — the song tells of being held back by a relationship and then finding release — “and to put those emotions out there sometimes makes you really vulnerable.”
She stops talking and sits in silence. Apparently she’s full of raw feelings like that. It’d be so easy to make fun of them, of course, to just roll your eyes and snort, but the decent thing to do is just let her be.
By now, three years into it, Perry is known for many things. She’s known for having grown up in Santa Barbara, California, the middle child of God-fearing traveling evangelical ministers, who tried their damnedest to shelter her from the secular world by saying no to coed parties, no to pop-culture magazines, movies and TV shows, no to Lucky Charms cereal, if only because “lucky” sounds too much like “Lucifer.”
She’s known for going to Nashville at the age of 14, to make it as a Christian recording artist, getting a record contract but not succeeding, moving to Los Angeles, getting two more record contracts, not succeeding two more times, going out to bars and dancing, tossing up her skirt to reveal what’s underneath whenever the impulse struck her (“I am a wild one, that’s for sure. I don’t give a fuck”), being signed to Capitol, worrying that four strikes and she would definitely be out, standing under a shower being pelted with water while some probably-less-than-divine inspiration allowed the line “I kissed a girl and I liked it” to filter into her consciousness and be recognized for its potential as surefire hit-song material.
She’s known for her love of cats, especially her precious Kitty Purry, as well as for her love of cute. “I see everything in color. When I see road construction and they have those little things on the road, I see them as candy canes. I try and find the cute in all things in life.”
More recently, she’s known for her marriage to lunatic Russell Brand. Publicly, that means being hounded by the paparazzi and having to go to places hidden in the back of laundry trucks. Privately, it means waking up to Brand taking her picture in full-on morning face and tweeting it to the world.
But what she’s mostly known for, at least on a par with her music, are her spectacular breasts, which she has used to equally spectacular advantage at every opportunity, tassels dangling from their bouncing barely covered tips, whipped cream erupting from them in great, weird, mommy-milky orgasmic spurts. They get all kinds of attention, not all of it good. There was the Sesame Street fiasco. More recently, it was the New York Post printing part of her mother’s proposal for an autobiography, quoting her mother as saying, “No mother wants to see the top of her daughter’s boobs,” like there would be something unusual in that. No matter. Her daughter will do with them as she pleases.
And yet Perry and her breasts have not always been on such happy terms. “I started praying for them when I was, like, 11,” she says, “and God answered that prayer above and beyond, by, like, 100 times, until I was like, ‘Please, stop, God. I can’t see my feet anymore. Please stop!’ I was a lot more rectangular then. I didn’t understand my body. Someone in sixth grade called me ‘over-the-shoulder boulder holder.’ I didn’t know I could use them. So, what I did was, I started taping them down. How long did I tape them down for? Probably until I was about 1.9. And, no, I don’t have any psychological pain because of it.” Why should she? Once unbound, she put them to good use, and such problems as breasts can solve, they solved, working a crazy kind of irresistible lucky-charms magic on all who came under their influence.
She’s onstage now, in rehearsal. Her dancers and musicians go all out, but she holds back, conserving her energy for the real thing. Mostly, she sings her songs, looking for problems in their presentation, calling the problems out to be corrected, often displaying rare skills at multitasking. One song features lengths of rope being swung around, for example. “Are the ropes clean?” she asks into the mic. “Do they look a shade of gray? Have they been cleaned since this tour started? No, they have not been cleaned. Oh, let’s just do ‘Pearl.’ Can someone pop those ropes into the washer? Where’s Sue? Sue! We should take this from the second verse. Sue! Where’s Sue! Sue should be backstage! Are the girls doing aerials? Give me the second verse. When you find Sue, have her collect all the ropes and throw them in the wash right now. Please.” Poor Sue. But the nice thing is, Perry doesn’t speak her words with anger or frustration. It’s all done matter-of-factly, like putting together a show of this size — 97 crew members are traipsing around in 13 semi trucks and seven buses, carrying roughly half a million pounds of gear, including eight human-size gingerbread-man puppets — is pretty much a breeze for her.
The next day, however, over a plate of 1 p.m.-shortly-after-her-wake-up-time scrambled eggs, she admits that, in fact, the rigors and responsibilities of touring have got her totally stressed out. It’s not like when she was on the verge of stardom and slogging through mud on the Warped Tour in the summer of 2008, which caused her face to break out in agonizing acne pustules and led her to discover the wonders of Proactiv, but it’s big-time stress nonetheless. She’s unadorned again, dressed in plain pajamas and wearing no makeup. She says that, no, she does not say grace before meals, because “grace is with me and abounding with me at all times. Instead of the traditional prayer, I just stuff my face.” But today she just picks at her food. She looks tired, a little washed out. “I still have eye boogers,” she says, “and I’m in that mood of just waking up.” She says she had “stalker” dreams during the night; she doesn’t want to talk about them, though. She says she has been congested for days, is on antibiotics, and has been hocking up lots of green mucus.
She talks about what it’s like being her at this moment in time. She says she always smiles for her fans and puts on a happy-to-see-them face, even if she’s having an off day and might not feel like it. “I remember coming to L.A. for the first time and meeting Gwen Stefani and how gracious and wonderful she was, and then meeting another favorite artist of mine and what a cunt she was. It ruined my dreams of that person, the cunt, and I will always be a fan of the person who was gracious.”
She says she misses the simplicity of her former life, being able to go shopping, being able to go out dancing. Sometimes it all gets too much and she plays “ditch the bodyguard” and heads off in search of “a real life.”
She says she also misses In-N-Out Burger. “I get the Double-Double with onions, no fries or milkshakes, just the cheeseburger. I want that shit hanging from my mouth the rest of the day, and I don’t want anything changing it!”
She says that she has been watching the TV show Ancient Aliens recently. “Oh, my God,” she says. “When it talks about the sky people, how everyone comes from the sky, and how the Pyramids were used for star observations, it’s too much for me. It all seems to connect the dots. It’s blowing my mind.” What’s also blowing her mind are documentaries like Gasland, about the horrific consequences of natural-gas drilling, and Inside Job, about the financial crisis. “It just feels like the thing that is running our country is a bank, money. I know it sounds like an intense viewpoint, but I’m only slowly but surely getting the wool taken off my eyes. When I was a kid, I asked questions about my faith. Now I’m asking questions about the world.” She goes on, “I think we are largely in desperate need of revolutionary change in the way our mindset is. Our priority is fame, and people’s wellness is way low. I say this knowing full well that I’m a part of the problem. I’m playing the game, though I am trying to reroute. Anyway, not to get all politically divulging and introspective, but the fact that America doesn’t have free health care drives me fucking absolutely crazy, and is so wrong.” She says this with a good bit of anger in her voice, getting worked up for the first time today.
She also gets riled up talking about the liberties taken after a recent story stated that “she’s really been involved with only five guys in her life.” “There’s no dirt on me generally, so they have to dig it up and say, ‘That means she’s slept with five people.’ It doesn’t mean I’ve slept with five people, necessarily, I just said I’ve had five relationships!” She doesn’t elaborate, perhaps necessarily.
She says that if the gossip press keeps hounding her family, they will regret it. “I will come with all fury and fire,” she says, “and it won’t be cute Katy anymore.”
She says, “I can’t juggle any more balls right now! If I juggle one more ball, I will lose all the balls. I’m going to die!” and “I don’t want to be a girl anymore!” and “Waaaaaahhh!” She says that sometimes she can feel an anxiety attack coming on and has to tell herself to “breathe, breathe deep, breathe constantly.”
So that’s where she is right now. It’s not all candy canes and cute cuddly cats, no matter what you might think. “I’ll let you wear my shoes one day, and come back and tell me how it is,” she says. “They’re very glittery, but sometimes a crystal will get stuck in the underbed of your toe, and it hurts like a bitch. That’s what happened to me yesterday. I put on my catsuit, and I got a crystal stuck under the bed of my finger. It’s not fun.”
Four hours before the first show of her tour, inside her dressing room, Perry settles into a chair in front of a mirror and lets her team go to work, changing her into the Katy Perry that will appear onstage. The process is officially known as “Glam,” as in, “It’s time for Glam!” and on the schedule it is allotted three hours. Right now, Todd Delano, Perry’s makeup artist, lines himself up by Perry’s side, appraising the situation. Foundation goes on first, all over, warming up her skin a little, adding a bit of color. Then he turns her eyelids a shade of soft, smoky plum, using eyeliner to draw out the shape of her eyes, for a winged, cat-eye effect. On go the false eyelashes — Eylure Naturalites Double Lashes 205 (“Gorgeous, layered lashes for superb texture. Be daring, go double!”) — jet-black in color, superlong, real standouts. They are followed by concealer and sparkly highlighter, matte bronzer and plenty of bright baby-doll-pink blush. Then he darkens and shapes her eyebrows, very Bettie Page, very Betty Boop, the fine hairs held down by an application of clear eyebrow gel. Finally, above the black cat-eye liner, Delano dashes on one last defining line, lavender and ultrasparkly. After that, Kim the wig girl comes in bearing Perry’s trademark blue wig. She pulls Perry’s hair up and back, flattening it tight against her scalp. She lowers the wig into position, scrunches it down, fastening it in place with a handful of bobby pins. Perry does her own lips, and they are the knockout color of the ripest cranberries ever.
There’s a rapping on the door. It’s one of Perry’s opening acts, the loopy-great Swedish dance-pop singer Robyn. Perry is a huge fan. After exchanging pleasantries, she can no longer contain herself. “I love you! I want to skin you and wear you like last year’s Versace!”
It’s an interesting moment. Perry has changed. She’s no longer some wan doppelganger. She’s become the supervivacious and quippy Perry of lore, in looks, attitude and action. It’s really some turnaround and almost shockingly complete.
“Ooh, tonight’s gonna be cray-cray,” Perry is saying now. “It’s gonna be a hot mess of fun, I can already feel it.” A few minutes later, she lifts her head, listening to a chunky beat coming from the arena. “Oh, is Robyn on? Robyn’s on! Let’s go watch, really, really quickly.” She dives into a black onesie, pulls the hood over her head (because she is totally recognizable as Katy Perry now, blue-wigged and about to burst), plays “ditch the bodyguard” (naughty, naughty girl: “How can I do my job when she does that?” the bodyguard says later), and high-tails it out to near the stage-left stands, where she bops along to Robyn’s synth-heavy sound in the shadow of the crowd, unseen and happy.
An hour later, it’s her turn, and out she goes, waving and shouting stuff like, “Hello, Atlanta!” Pretty soon, she’s floating high in the sky on a mechanized cotton-candy cloud, lifted there by gears and pulleys, the height maintained for minutes on end, until it’s time for her to come back to Earth and step back onto the stage. She smiles constantly. She seems right at home. She gives everybody what they want and more — all of her hit tunes, as well as a medley of some favorite songs (Jay-Z’s “Big PimpinV Rebecca Black’s “Friday” and Willow Smith’s “Whip My Hair”), everything accompanied by vast amounts of spectacular cleavage and, on “Peacock,” a good bit of goofy-looking head-bobbing innuendo — and in return gets what she wants, 10,131 happy faces. Then she’s blasting the first 10 rows with a mixture of water and soap that looks like whipped cream and singing the final lines of “California Gurls” and calling it a day. Well, not quite. She’s still got to give notes on how it all went. (And how did it go? “Good. I thought there were no major mess-ups,” though later on she does say, among other things, that during “Firework” someone “pre-ejaculated the pyro mountain.”) She also has to go to a meet-and-greet with 85 lucky fans and friends. And to not get back to her hotel until 2 a.m. And to not be able to get to sleep until 5 a.m. And to not wake up again until 1 p.m. the next day.
Outside, after the show, near the tour buses, a couple of Perry’s music-business associates are standing around talking about Perry and what makes her so special.
“Everyone at the label thought, ‘OK, we did “California Gurls” as a single; OK, we did “Teenage Dream”; OK, we did “Firework”; now is the time for “Last Friday Night.”‘And it’s like, ‘No, we’re going to do “E.T.” now,’ and it’s like, ‘Oh, really? OK.’ Then, lo and behold, ‘E.T.’ ends up becoming the song with the most radio spins in a single week, ever. Who knew that would happen? Katy knew.”
“I’ve always marveled at how childlike she looks at everything.”
“I think it’s because she was so sheltered for so long.”
“I remember when she came into my office and played ‘Ur So Gay’ for me on the acoustic guitar. I was horrified, because I thought, ‘This is going to cause problems.’ She didn’t understand that. She thought I was crazy. She’s not naive in any way, but people say she’s calculating, and she’s not calculating at all. It’s a kind of savvy, a knowing who your fans are and who you are, too, which is why we’re always looking to her for direction.”
But no one around her really seems to be able to figure out why she is the way she is. Probably it’s just a question of inner drive. Just like her parents, she’s proselytizing and preaching a message. It’s not a message of fire and brimstone. It’s her own message. It’s a message of hope, based not only on some of her lyrics, but also on Glam, and the transformative power of Glam. Glam power. It’s pretty cool. It gets you heard when nothing else will.
The next day, up in her hotel room, Perry is again in pajamas, again tired (“so tired”), again without makeup, again looking 17, not 26. She’s talking about something that her husband recently said. He said, “I can’t believe I used to have sex 20 times a week, especially now I’m married. But now I’m a bloody good gardener!” She says, “He had more sex than anybody we know, and so, of course, when you’re in a monogamous relationship, I could not keep up with that kind of — that’s an addiction, and he was hardcore. It was drugs, sex and alcohol. And he’s so fit now. He’s changed so much. If I have a hangover, I look at him and say, ‘How the fuck did you do heroin every day, when I can’t even have three glasses of wine and not want to ever drink again?'” She pauses. “I’m so happy he lived, of course. God bless him.”
But what about that pic of her he tweeted to the world, looking more or less like she looks right now? Wasn’t she pissed?
“I wasn’t pissed,” she says. “I mean, I can’t be a full tranny every day of the week. That’s an exaggerated part of my personality. It’s me hamming it up. The exterior me is a little bit more smiley than the interior me. The interior me is a little bit more serious. So, that picture, it just shows that I’m a normal, everyday woman who has really big dreams. It gives encouragement to any girls out there that they, too, can be a larger-than-life cartoon.”
A while later, Perry has a Sharpie in hand, drawing a picture of what she thinks she really looks like. “I’m taking my time,” she says, then loses herself in its creation. Minutes tick past. “And . . . I’m not done,” she says, head still down. Finally, she holds up the drawing. The primary elements are a cat, a heart with dots in it, a cheeseburger and rays of sunshine. She describes it this way: “A shining kitten, hiding behind a polka-dot heart, on top of an all-American cheeseburger.” She looks very pleased with her self-portrait, as well she should, because it’s a far more appealing likeness than the one her husband tweeted. And it’s a far more accurate one, too.