Palm Springs at Easter, when the desert oasis plays host to the LPGA Tour’s Dinah Shore tournament, has long been a major event on the lesbian calendar. On Good Friday, hundreds of nearly naked, drunk and dancing women flaunt their gay pride at a sun-baked Hilton Hotel pool, like a Howard Stern fantasy come to life. Ke$ha, the 23-year-old pop starlet who skyrocketed to stardom with her global Number One single, “TiK ToK,” and will headline a massive White Party at the nearby convention center, coolly surveys the scene. “I’ve kissed girls before,” she says. “But my preference is a wiener.”
That ability to come up with a provocative line has served Ke$ha well recently. In January, her album, Animal, debuted at Number One, following two Top 10 singles, including her guest spot on Flo Rida’s smash “Right Round.” This spring, KeSha made it to SNL, performed her second single, “Blah Blah Blah,” on American Idol – and she’s hitting the road this summer with Lilith Fair. “Her talent as a writer is kind of odd,” says her producer, pop hitmaker Dr. Luke. “She has fundamental talents, writing melodies and lyrics, but I’m amazed how much stuff she says ends up embedded in peoples’ lives.”
Depending on your brain chemistry, Animal‘s electro beats, rave-y synths, vocoders and deadpan rapping hit you as propulsively catchy or repulsively moronic. On “TiK ToK” she sing-raps about “feeling like P. Diddy” and brushing her teeth “with a bottle of Jack.” It’s of a theme with the rest of Animal, which documents a four-year period of highs and lows – Ke$ha describes it as a “lost weekend” – that began when the singer was summoned to L.A. from Nashville in 2006 by Dr. Luke. The disc kicks off with the lyric “Maybe I need some rehab,” and by the end, she’s engaged in “dirty free-for-alls,” taking her clothes off at a tranny bar and calling out her ex for acting like a bitch. On one song, “Party at Rich Dude’s House,” Ke$ha recounts true stories of vomiting in Paris Hilton’s closet, peeing in a bottle of Dom Perignon and extinguishing a cigar in a caviar tin. “I’ve had a few adult beverages in my life – I think the cat’s out of the bag on that one,” says Ke$ha, who likes her Maker’s Mark neat. “It’s very irreverent, unapologet-ic and honest. But it’s also very tongue-in-cheek.”
The afternoon before her Palm Springs show, Ke$ha heads to Indian Canyons, a stunning desert oasis of crystal-clear streams and palm trees. “I need to go on a walk every day, like a dog,” she says. Ke$ha is tall – nearly six feet – and a tad tomboy-ish, cute without makeup. She has a tattoo on her foot that reads Yeah! and recently, in Switzerland, got a diamond implanted in her front tooth. Her attire this afternoon is secondhand: cut-off black jeans, T-shirt featuring a photo of Dylan circa ’66, her favorite black cowboy boots with gaping holes in their soles. Searching for a place to sit, she casually wades through a stream. She burps, swears, talks about blow jobs, and, when she needs to take a leak, ducks behind a tree. “I’m pretty sure in my past life I was a dude, because I talk like a dude and act like a dude,” she says. “My mom always taught me to be tough.”
Sitting on a boulder by the side of a trail, she’s psyched when a snake slithers by, exclaiming, “Cute!” In March, on a promo trip to Australia, she cuddled with a spiny anteater and swam with sharks. Over Christmas break, on an off-the-grid trip to the jungles south of Tulum, Mexico, she snuck into Mayan ruins in the middle of the night. “I like to go to the jungle at least once a year, get away from human beings and not use my people voice, just my animal voice,” she says. “I know it sounds crazy, but I like connecting with the Earth on a real level.”
Ke$ha considers her mother, Pebe, her best friend – they talk on the phone several times a day. “She’s the original badass,” says Ke$ha (born Kesha Rose Sebert). Her earliest childhood memories arc of sitting sidestage in an empty guitar case, watching Pebe, a promising Cyndi Lauper-style singer-songwriter, perform in clubs around Los Angeles. Pebe’s parenting style was unconventional. “We’d go through a hole in the fence at Universal Studios,” Ke$ha recalls. “We’d sneak in and go diving in the fountain for quarters.” She’d also dumpster-dive in Beverly Hills with her mother and godparents (“Mindy and Steve, who has one eyeball”), who polished up their bounty and resold it. After their treasure hunts, they’d ride the glass elevators at the Bonaventure hotel, with panoramic views of L.A. At a Target store, when Ke$ha fell in love with a stuffed cat that was out of their price range, Pebe instructed, “If you want something in life, you have to take it!”
Pebe’s song “Old Flames Can’t Hold a Candle to You” was a hit for Dolly Part on in 1980. A decade later, she relocated the clan – which also included Ke$ha’s half-brother, Lagan, who now writes about politics for the Huffington Post Investigative Fund – to Nashville. Ke$ha grew up listening to Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Nineties pop country like Shania Twain and LeAnn Rimes. She yodeled around the house and played trumpet and sax in her middle-school band. She sat in on her mother’s writing sessions and was soon penning autobiographical country music of her own. Her favorite album of all time is Dylan’s Nashville Skyline. “I can put that on no matter where I am in the world and instantly feel OK,” she says. “His music tells me to do what I do, to be myself and not pay attention to the other bullshit.” Generally, she respects artists who are down-to-earth and unpretentious. “Like Ringo,” she says. “I met him at the Grammys, and he congratulated me on my album! I threw up in my mouth a little bit. I said, ‘Congratulations on being a fuckin’ Beatle!'”
To this day Ke$ha does not know who her father is. “My mom was into astrology and wanted me to be a Pisces, and she went through the necessary ways of having a child,” she says. “And she didn’t want a man telling her what and what not to do. I always kind of wondered – my mom talked about guys named Pat the Rat, or this guy Bob, or John. She just wanted a baby. It’s an interesting topic of conversation to other people more so than it is to myself. I don’t obsess about it. Maybe I’m in denial. Maybe I need a therapist. But I had a very complete childhood. I don’t feel like I missed out on anything.”
Months shy from graduating with honors, she quit Brentwood High School in Nashville and moved to L.A. after Dr. Luke heard a rough demo she’d cut. “It was mostly acoustic-guitar-driven country stuff, but from her singing voice alone, I wanted to work with her,” he says. “Her voice popped out, and then she started rapping about being a white girl from Tennessee. Her personality was already there. And she was pretty.”
When she moved to L.A., she lived for a while with a man her mother had dated around the time of her birth. “About when I got the call from Dr. Luke, I got a call from this guy saying, ‘Hey, I think I’m your birth father.’ I said, ‘Mom, is this legit?’ and she said, ‘Maybe.'” By the time they got to his house, it was obvious to her that they were not related. “You know how I knew?” she asks. “You know those video-game chairs like the guy has in 40 Year Old Virgin? He so had one of those. I was like, ‘There was no way that half of my DNA is made up of a guy who has a video-game chair and plays in it all the time.'” She didn’t bother to get a DNA test. “I operate on instinct,”she says.
For a while, she lived in her late grandpa’s Lincoln Continental, though she doesn’t play it up for sympathy. “It was pretty badass, actually,” she says. “I’d park near the beach and wake up there.” Later, she lived in a squatter house near the base of Laurel Canyon. “It was right near where Jim Morrison lived, and we called it the Grand Ol’ Opry,” she says. “We’d just listen to country music all day.”
What had appeared to be a fast track to pop stardom with Dr. Luke turned into an epic struggle. Luke let her observe some Backstreet Boys recording sessions and had her sing background on Paris Hilton’s 2006 album. But when he became too busy with other clients – Katy Perry, Pink, Kelly Clarkson – Ke$ha was left broke and on her own. Adding the dollar sign to her name was a sarcastic joke.
For the most part, her days were spent trying to get appointments with L.A. producers, but most of them hung up as soon as they learned she had no record deal. When her car broke down, she’d ride her bike to catch a train to Long Beach, where she found a sympathetic collaborator in David Gamson, formerly of Scritti Politti. “I knew she was a star,” says Gamson, who worked with KeSha on the Animal track “Stephen.” “She’d show up every day motivated and focused. I couldn’t figure out why no one was signing her. To me, it was a no-brainer.”
In the fall of 2008, Luke finally got back in touch and moved Ke$ha into a spare bedroom in his Beverly Hills mansion. “I have to say, he came through on everything he promised me,” she says. Occasionally they’d jet off to Sweden to work on tracks with Luke’s mentor Max Martin. One of her first projects was the hook to Flo Rida’s “Right Round”; shortly after that, they recorded “Blah Blah Blah.” “That’s the first time she started talk-rapping, in a Blondie-esque sort of way,” says Dr. Luke. “It’s something none of the other girls can do.”
Luke commissioned Ke$ha to write a feel-good party song about hanging out with her girlfriends, which became “TiK ToK.” The lyric “Wake up in the morning feeling like P. Diddy” came from her stay at the Opry. “The house was haunted, and I hated sleeping alone,” she says. “So I’d invite my friends over to crash with me. One morning I woke up surrounded by hot chicks.” These days, Ke$ha – who currently lives in Pebe’s Nashville home when she’s not on the road (“I think I’ll live there until I become an adult,” she says) – prefers to wake up alone. “My last boyfriend smashed my heart into a million billion pieces,” she says. “I’ve had no father figure, and I had finally trusted a man. If I were to get involved with another guy, he’d have to be pretty much the Second Coming.”
At the Palm Springs Convention Center, Ke$ha emerges in a zebra-striped spandex bodysuit. Accompanied by two girls who DJ and play key-tar and a guy alternating on bass and guitar, she races through a half-hour set. “This one’s about boys who talk too fucking much,” she says, introducing “Blah Blah Blah.” During “Take It Off,” a song inspired by a visit to a tranny bar in L.A.’s Koreatown, she crawls around the stage like a predator, ending the song with a flying karate kick. Like Ke$ha herself, her live show is a work in progress. Two weeks later, on SNL, her performance of “TiK ToK” – flanked by dudes in spacesuits – is widely derided as amateurish. “I was happy with the way it turned out,” she says. “Fuck cynicism. Fuck the cynics. They can say whatever they want, because I’ll be the one in the corner with my laser gloves having a dance party.”