Shakira was about twelve, living in her hometown—an industrial, backwater port city in Colombia called Barranquilla—when she started to feel strange sensations inside her body. The feeling was somewhere in her “gut,” and she experienced it every time she heard the guitar solo in Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy the Silence.” She told her mother, “Mom, I feel something so overwhelming every time I listen to that guitar solo.” Shakira’s mother didn’t know what to say. The girl began listening to the song over and over just so she could be touched again in that special way by that mysterious guitar. “I still feel it,” Shakira says, rolling her eyes back and humming the riff. “That’s how I discovered there was something in the electric guitar that was really powerful.”
A year later, when she was thirteen, she signed her first record deal, with Sony. Five years later, she was Colombia’s most popular rockera—rocker girl. Now twenty-five, with a Grammy for Best Latin Pop Album in 2000 and sales of 12 million albums under her belt, Shakira is the biggest rock star in Latin America, a mystically revered performer who has been blessed by the pope and even earned the admiration of intellectuals such as Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez, Colombia’s greatest living writer. “No one of any age can sing or dance with the innocent sensuality Shakira seems to have invented,” he wrote in a glowing profile of Shakira published in 1999 in a Colombian magazine.
Now she has set out to conquer America. Or, as she says, “I come to seduce, which is different.” Her first English-language album, Laundry Service, which she wrote and recorded almost entirely in English, has already sold 2 million copies in the U.S., mostly on the strength of its first single, “Whenever, Wherever,” a relentlessly catchy Latin dance-rock thumper.
It is a late mid-February afternoon, and Shakira is standing in a penthouse suite at the Marriott Mexico City. She doesn’t look much larger than a stick of dynamite. She is may be five feet two, in massive black boots and is wearing jeans, chains around her waist and a red T-shirt with an ugly yellow heart emblazoned on the front. Defiantly unkempt blond hair tumbles to her elbows.
In a thirty-six-hour period—the entire length of her stay in Mexico—Shakira is scheduled to give thirty interviews and two TV performances. She is now halfway through this breakneck media assault. She has been up since dawn, on the road since October, and she’s been having days like this for the past decade. Hulking bald guys from her road crew tramp through the luxury suite carrying her guitars, the little sunglasses she wears when she sings her Spanish rocker “Te Dejo Madrid” and the chain-mail belt she slips around her waist when she belly dances during the break in “Whenever, Wherever.” There are faxes from video directors in L.A. that require her immediate attention. The air pulses as a helicopter approaches for a rooftop landing to spirit her away to a nearby TV studio.
Shakira observes every detail, makes every decision herself, yet she remains absolutely calm and, given a few seconds of freedom, easily slips into carefree chitchat. Her manner is easygoing but reserved—intimate but almost surgically impersonal. “Have you met a person from Colombia before?” she asks. “Colombia is not how people think it is. We used to eat fish every Sunday at the beach. In the town where I grew up, people did not tell lies.”
Though she’s been speaking English for only two years, she is an adventurous conversationalist, leaping between topics in a way that is random but feels logical. “People are not depressed in Colombia the same way people are in America,” she says. Colombia is a country that has been in a civil war for nearly four decades. It is a land of drug lords, kidnappings and car bombings that have produced a wave of 600,000 émigrés in the past three years alone. It is also home to a devout, almost mystical form of Catholicism and to the literature of magical realism. Shakira was educated by nuns in a school called the Teaching. She says, “The seeds of their education are well-planted in my system. I believe in God. I believe in the sacraments.”
Despite the fact that she has devoted her entire life to her career, she is hesitant to take credit for her own success. It’s a humility so extreme it borders on arrogance. In some ways, Shakira seems bonded with her massive audience by sharing with them their awestruck worship of her public persona. “I always knew I was going to be a public figure,” she says. “There was no doubt. Call it a premonition, or fatalism”—she pauses—”fatalidad is how we would say it in Spanish.” It is a word that does not translate directly into English—suggesting some combination of destiny, fate and premonition. In his profile, Márquez put it like this: “With the face of a perfect young girl, and her deceptive frailty, she always had the absolute certainty she would be a public personality of world renown. She did not know in what art or in what manner, but she did not have a shadow of a doubt, as if she were condemned to a prophecy.”
Of course, in America, pop success depends more on promotion than on prophecy. For this, Shakira has benefited from the intervention of Freddy DeMann, the legendary impresario who helped launch Michael Jackson’s solo career, introduced the world to Madonna and signed Alanis Morissette to her first major record deal. A couple of years ago, DeMann was watching a Latin music awards show on television when he spotted Shakira singing with Melissa Etheridge.
Shakira’s music harnesses teen-pop energy to do the work of rock & roll. Like Britney and Christina, she has wanted fame since she has been old enough to walk. Unlike them, she’s a rock girl through and through. Her singing is full-throated and urgent, her manner commanding onstage or on record. And her music is omnivorous, as likely to sound like Blondie one moment, like Britney another, and almost always underpinned by two things: rock guitar and Latin rhythms.
“She was authentic,” DeMann says. “You could feel it even on television.” He became her manager in early 2000. “Shakira wanted to be a world artist,” says DeMann. “The way to do that is to record in English.” He describes his client as “a very sexy girl with very pure thoughts.” He adds, “She’s right for the time. She’s a good Catholic girl.”
There is a spine-tingling screech as helicopter runners slide directly onto the roof overhead, but Shakira remains calm. We go up to the roof and get into the aircraft. She snaps the lap belt around her tiny waist and chats about an experience she had in Spain watching a bullfight. “At first, the bullfight was like a festival, a medieval pageant on horseback,” Shakira says, her voice ringing brightly beneath the roar of the helicopter. Most of the cabin is filled by her ever-present bodyguard, a watchful 220-pound former bouncer from Brooklyn named Miguel. Before coming to work for Shakira, he shadowed Jennifer Lopez (about which he says little except, “I will never work for rappers. Everyone in their entourage carries guns”).
As Mexico City lurches into view thirty stories below, the cabin fills with the acrid stench of kerosene. Did someone forget to put the cap on the fuel tank? Is fuel leaking from the engine? Shakira chatters on. “Then it was so bloody,” she says. “The bull dies, of course.” The helicopter dips abruptly. The machine sputters for a moment, like a lawn-mower engine choking on the weeds. The turbulence doesn’t seem to bother Shakira a bit. She is now discussing her premonition that she will one day give birth to two boys: “I wish that one of my children will be like the Australian guy from the Discovery Channel show. The crocodile hunter.”
Finally, the helicopter bumps down onto the roof of a building near the studio where Shakira will be performing. When she climbs out, the two pilots tumble from the front compartment and race around to her door. One of them holds out a cheap, disposable camera. Grinning sheepishly, they ask her to pose with them.
As we enter the Televisa back lot, a sprawling complex where nearly every show in Mexican television is produced, we are surrounded by a ring of security guards in black and followed by an unruly gang of reporters and TV crews. Camera lenses and microphones wiggle over their heads like antennae on a bug. The mob grows as word spreads that Shakira has arrived. In a matter of seconds, hundreds of people—mostly from the studio audiences of the many shows taped here—crowd in on her. Tearful mothers push tearful daughters into the gaps between the security guards’ legs. The girls wave scraps of paper. Shakira slows to sign autographs and speak to reporters while Miguel keeps one hand firmly on the small of her back and pushes her through. With the other, he pushes away cameras with a well-practiced, brutally efficient gesture.
She’s scheduled to perform on two separate shows, taped in a five-hour period until past midnight. For the first one, she walks onstage wearing a black diaphanous halter top and a pair of leather pants that fit in a way ordained by God. On Mexican TV, live performance is unheard of. Even so, Shakira has flown in her entire seven-piece band for today’s taping. The illusion is brought off perfectly. The audience—seventy-five-percent women—screams, gushes and sings along as she lip-syncs her way through “Underneath Your Clothes.” Shakira is about the only pop star in Latin America who brings her band to these mock performances. “Shakira is a major perfectionist,” says her stylist, Clyde Haygood. “But this girl has to be in control of everything to get where she is. I mean, look where she came from: Loserville.”
Shakira’s Birthplace, Barranquilla, is a city of about 1 million, situated near Colombia’s Caribbean coast. It is hot and muggy year-round. People who live in Colombia’s capital city, Bogotá, view Barranquillans as sort of quaint yokels. “The city is not a zoo, you know,” says Shakira. “Or maybe it is, but with one kind of animal.” Though it’s been nearly a decade since she lived there—she now makes her home in Miami—she still identifies herself as a Barranquillan.
On the road, she is always accompanied by her father, mother or half brother Tony Mebarak. Luana Pagani, a Sony executive who has worked with Shakira for five years, says, “No matter what, meals will always take a long time with Shakira. It’s very important for her to eat with someone from her family. It’s how Colombians are.”
A day later, Shakira is in Los Angeles, where she’s scheduled to appear on Fox’s Mad TV. She stays at the Beverly Hills Peninsula Hotel. Tony is with her on this trip. He is ten years older than Shakira, tall and powerfully built, with dark features. When Shakira performs, he’ll stand at the edge of the stage and make sure he is the first one to take her arm when she steps off. Other than that, he spends most of his time sitting around in dressing rooms, reading Colombian books with titles like Confessions of Para-military.
Shakira is on the couch in jeans and a T-shirt. She has room service bring me a cup of fresh coffee and a bowl of soup for her. As soon as the bellman exits the room, she casts a disapproving look at my coffee. “Why don’t I get you some true Colombian coffee?” she says, rising to fetch a can that she says she is carrying with her in a bag stowed in her bedroom. “It’s instant Nescafe from Colombia.” She wants to make me a cup in the microwave.
I decline the offer and decide not to break it to her that they sell instant coffee from Colombia at the 7-Eleven down the street. Or maybe this is her way of showing hospitality. She admits that even after the successful release of her English-language album she is nervous about finding her way in America. “In countries like Mexico, where I’m established as an artist, I have the privilege or the luxury to fail, or to make mistakes. Here, I might have it, but I don’t think I do. So I’m pretty hard on myself.”
Her connection to the U.S. is more direct than people realize. Shakira’s father, Don William Mebarak, was born in New York nearly seventy years ago. His parents were Christians who had emigrated from Lebanon. When he was a boy, the family moved to Colombia. “My father was a dreamer,” says Shakira. He was a writer by inclination but entered the family jewelry business to support his first wife and children. He had nine kids, then divorced and married another Colombian woman, Nydia Ripoll. They had one child, Shakira, whose name is Arabic for “full of grace” or “full of gratitude.”
Shakira’s first memory is of hearing that her half brother had been killed in a car crash. She was too young to fully comprehend the meaning of her family’s grieving, but, she says, “Somehow it made me very necrophobic. For a long time I was somebody who feared death in all the aspects. And loss. Losses.”
This was about the only dark spot in her early life. Her family lived in a comfortable middle-class apartment. Her half siblings lived down the street, and all of them doted on her. “My dad was my idol. He was a superhero to me.” He continued to write in his spare time. “I was influenced by this strong visual reference of seeing him in front of his typewriter.” Shakira’s mother, Nydia, says her daughter was composing poems at four, her first called “La Rosa de Cristal”—”The Crystal Rose.” She says, “Shakira asked God in her prayers to bring her a typewriter when she was seven.”
Nydia believed her daughter might become a great author. But one fateful night, Shakira’s father took her to a local Middle Eastern restaurant, where she first heard the call of the doumbek, the traditional Arab drum used to accompany belly dancers. She began to writhe in her seat, experiencing, she says, “a natural instinct to move my hips and twirl my belly to the sound of the doumbek.” Soon, she was belly-dancing for anyone who would watch. “I fell in love with the sensation of being on a stage,” she says.
That passion for dancing and performing took over Shakira’s life. She belly-danced on a stage at her Catholic school every Friday. She hastens to add, “Even though I danced in the custom of showing the belly, the nuns considered it a dance and an art.”
In second grade, she tried out for the school choir. The music teacher told her that her vibrato was too strong. Shakira’s classmates told that her voice sounded like the “bleating of a goat.”
Too timid to sing after being rebuffed by the choir, she nevertheless began to write lyrics for songs on her typewriter. Her aunt gave her a guitar, and when Shakira was eight she wrote her first song. It was called “Tus Gafas Oscuras” (“Your Dark Glasses”) and was a tribute to her father, who often wore sunglasses.
When not practicing dancing or writing at her small desk, one of her favorite pastimes was to lead a group of neighborhood boys in a fantasy game she devised. “We pretended to be an organization searching for petroleum,” she says, adding, “I was, of course, the chief.”
By the time she was ten, Shakira had regained enough confidence in her singing that she decided to enter a talent contest on a local TV station. She came in first and won a bicycle. She later enrolled in a Barranquilla modeling school and recruited a couple of classmates to sing and dance with her in a show, which she arranged and choreographed.
Shakira and her troupe of Barranquilla modeling-academy recruits began to tour small towns and jungle mining camps—Colombia’s version of the state-fair circuit—and put on shows, accompanied always by her mother or father. She performed in those days wearing sequined cowgirl out-fits, heavily made up like a Lolita version of the Latin pop star Selena. She hadn’t quite discovered rock & roll yet.
When she found out one day, at the age of thirteen, that an executive from Sony Discos—Sony’s Latin division—would be passing through Barranquilla, she arranged for herself and her mother and father to more or less ambush him in the lobby of his hotel. With her parents looking on, Shakira sang and danced for the stunned executive. A week later, Sony signed her to a three-record deal. Her first album, Magia (Magic), consisted mostly of cookie-cutter ballads. The effort, released only in Colombia, sold fewer than a thousand copies. Her follow-up album, Peligro (Danger), recorded a year later, fared no better.
Undaunted, knowing that her fate would eventually manifest itself, Shakira graduated from high school at fifteen and persuaded her mother to allow her to move to Bogotá. Nydia moved with her, and they shared a room at a modest boarding-house. She landed a role in a soap opera, playing a rich girl destined for ill-fated romance. She was not happy being an actress. The only honor that came her way was a reader poll for a magazine called TV y Novelas that named her winner of a “Best Rear End on Television” contest.
As unfulfilling as this period felt to Shakira, she was immersing herself in rock for the first time in her life: “I was listening to Nirvana, Aerosmith, Tom Petty.” She was given a chance to record her first rock-influenced song in 1994. It was a song called “Dónde Estás Corazón?” (“Where Is Your Heart?”), and it was released on a compilation album aptly titled Nuestro Rock (Our Rock). The song became a hit in Colombia. Sony then allowed Shakira to cut an entire rock album. That effort, called Pies Descalzos (Bare Feet), sold nearly 4 million copies and established Shakira as an icon in Latin America.
Her romantic life has long been the object intense scrutiny. For more than a year she has been linked to a young man who was formerly the most eligible bachelor in South America, Antonio de la Ruá. A man with fashion-model looks, de la Ruá was the son of the president of Argentina. Last year, Shakira called him the “love of my life.” The glamorous couple was photographed nuzzling affectionately on exotic beaches, waving happily from ski lifts in the Alps. (For a while, Shakira’s mother claimed to “chaperone” them when they were together.) Their romance went from fairy tale to political nightmare this winter when de la Ruá’s father was driven from power in a popular uprising—and now Tower Records of Argentina has banned her albums. Shakira says she and de la Ruá are still “deeply in love,” but she adds, “Please don’t make me talk about him.”
In front of screaming crowds numbering in the thousands, she almost martyrs herself to audiences’ insatiable need for Shakira. When she’s onstage, she once said, “I feel like a lion in the jungle.” Tim Mitchell, her musical collaborator who co-produced her Grammy-winning MTV Unplugged album, professes awe at her boundless self-confidence and her ability to bond with stadiums full of fans. “She’s a freak of nature,” he says. Márquez put it perhaps a little more poetically: “The most intimate phenomenon in Shakira’s life,” he wrote, “is experiencing the mass chaos of young crowds.”
People who know Shakira often comment on her intuitive approach to making decisions. Mitchell says that at first it was not easy for him to understand her approach, based on “feeling” the music, in the same way she first felt the doumbek and the electric guitar. “It’s a cultural part of where she’s coming from,” he says. “She’d tell me, ‘I don’t feel this music in my hips.’ Now we work on something and I’m like, ‘Why don’t you ask your hips what they think?'”
Backstage before going on Mad TV to perform with her band members for a true live set with their instruments plugged in, Shakira admits she doesn’t feel connected yet: “I feel under the microscope here.”
Then, at about six o’ clock, before a Hollywood studio audience of a few hundred people, she enters the stage through a tattered curtain at the rear. A producer calls her name and, on cue, the audience cheers with mechanical ebullience. She walks to the front of the stage wearing a long green skirt, a black-lace bodice and a childish-looking puka-shell bracelet. A couple of the musicians shoot furtive grins at Shakira. She picks up the mike, and Mitchell plays the opening notes of “Underneath Your Clothes.” It’s the most polished song from Laundry Service and the one most calculated to be a hit, and, in a way, the most disappointing, if you happen to be a fan of her somewhat more raw Spanish material.
But doing it live now, Shakira seems to get beneath the melody and reinterpret it. As she sings, various technicians and stagehands mill around getting ready for the next setup, ignoring her entirely. In Mexico, it’s a major event when Shakira walks across a parking lot. Here, she’s just another striving pop star forced to blast out hits on low-rent network fare, reduced in stature from goddess to supplicant. She hangs at the front of the stage, cocking her hips to one side. She sings the entire song as if it is one long, tuneful sigh. As the song builds, carpenters stop working, harried PAs stop in their tracks. You hear sniffles from the studio audience as some members actually start to cry. When she finishes, she drops to her knees like a rag doll. A stunned applause fills the studio, people looking around as if to see whether everyone just saw the same thing they did. As Shakira walks off, one girl stands up in the audience and shrieks, “Shakira, don’t go!”
Her half brother Tony takes Shakira’s arm as she emerges from the curtain backstage. He grins at her. Shakira’s stylist and her assistant emerge from the dressing room, where they watched the performance on a monitor. They are both bawling their eyes out. “I haven’t had this feeling in such a long time,” Shakira says. “I felt like myself, like I was performing. I’m overwhelmed.”
But she only has about two minutes to enjoy the moment. Then, a producer calls her to perform a skit with comedian Michael McDonald, who’ll interview her as Rusty, a sort of Wayne’s World-on-crank obsessed loser fan. Though the scene is funny, there’s an edge to the humor that Shakira does not seem to know how to play along with. During the skit, he teases her about whether she’ll unwind in Amsterdam by smoking a joint at a coffee shop. Her eyes flash angrily for a moment, and she says, “Don’t you know I’m a good girl?”
Later, back at the hotel, she seems perplexed by the interview. She wants me to know that she really believes in trying to be a good person. “I must be.” She sounds worried for a moment. “If I want to die in peace, I’ve got to do it.” She means it. She is from the town where nobody tells lies, and the myth of Shakira is real.