GQ.com – Not very long ago, she was strumming a guitar on the street and getting paid in avocados. Today she’s the most cartoonishly ubiquitous pop star on Earth. Katy Perry gives Amy Wallace an earful about aliens (real), her world-famous body (real), her “relationship” with Obama, and what the hell she was thinking before she went full geisha at the American Music Awards.
It smells like weed in here. Weed and doughnuts.
We’re in the basement of the Nokia Theatre in downtown Los Angeles, backstage at the American Music Awards, in a dressing-room suite that would be spacious if not for all the frenzied humanity crammed inside. Katy Perry sits atop a tall director’s chair surrounded by the many, many members of her team: voice coach, two hairstylists, one makeup artist, a costumer, and several others who hover and hand Perry things without her asking: Breath mints. Her phone. Eye drops for her enormous anime eyes. Special pills prescribed by her ear, nose, and throat guy to keep her voice from drying out pre-performance. “It happens,” Perry says. “It’s the nerves.”
She doesn’t seem the slightest bit nervous. Which is impressive when you consider that the 29-year-old diva (who’s never really seemed like one) is trying something different tonight. Perry has always played a dual role in the culture: at once a full-on male fantasy and a symbol of empowerment who inspires young girls. No other artist has so seamlessly blended teenage dreams and grown-up misadventures, singing about hickeys and crushes, yes, but also threesomes, blackouts, and strangers in your bed. Now, on prime-time television, she’s about to twist her image one more quarter turn, transforming from America’s audacious, outrageous cleavage-bot into its selfless, doting concubine. At precisely five o’clock, she will kick off the awards show with a Japanese spectacle featuring fluttering fan dancers, four men pounding on gongs, a forest of rolling topiary, and a metric ton of faux cherry blossoms.
Now the smell of a different type of flora—Cannabis sativa—wafts in from the hallway…. Ah, okay, Rihanna’s suite is twenty feet away. “Everyone is high!” Perry declares, giggling. She means everyone else: “The weed—I’m not friends with it.” She is bare-shouldered, bare-legged, barefooted—bare-everythinged, basically, except for the wig cap on her head and the teensy light blue Hello Kitty terry-cloth wrap that cinches above her breasts and ends where butt meets thigh. “I can’t do that stuff. I’d be like in the corner: ‘Are you trying to kill me?!’ ”
But that sugar-sweet doughnut reek? Perry takes responsibility. The doughnuts are gone—the victims, it seems, of a fried-dough orgy that ended before I arrived.
She starts warming up her voice: “Eee, eee, eee, eee, EEE, eee, eee, eee, eee!” Five notes up, four notes down, a sort of pitch-perfect keening.
“A little whinier and looser,” her voice coach commands. “Make your tongue super-loose.”
“Ex-cuse me?” she responds, batting her lashes, enjoying the vague reference to naughty things one can do with one’s mouth, then blasts out another scale. “Good,” says the coach, dodging a mascara wand and a hot curling iron to play another note on his iPad keyboard. “Now, really whiny. Say: Gwah!”
“Gwa, gwa, gwa, gwa, GWAH,” Perry projects, extending her legs, crossing them at the ankles and resting her heels on the makeup table. As someone slips a pair of glittery tabi socks onto her feet, a blur of others poke at her and tug at her and dust her face with Super White theatrical powder.
“It takes a village!” she trills, and the crew laugh anxiously. Her geisha wig has yet to be secured to her head. Her pink kimono is draped on a hanger. In just twenty-five minutes, she’s supposed to go live.
It’s been six years since Katy Perry announced herself with “I Kissed a Girl,” which became her first hit single (and somehow made Chapstick sexy). Ever since, her immense popularity has stemmed largely from her ability to straddle that divide between Madonna (one of her idols) and girl next door. Far more wholesome than that twisted genius Lady Gaga, Perry still exudes vastly more heat and sensuality than, say, Taylor Swift. Part of that’s due to Perry’s top-heavy physicality, but her sly lyrics and full-throated delivery deserve credit, too. In her music, all of which she co-writes, she handily mixes innocence with lust. She wants to be your homecoming queen and made her mark singing about reading Seventeen and learning how to shave her legs. But she also yearns to melt your Popsicle and see your peacock, cock, cock. When you add in God—she was raised Pentecostal and once recorded on a Christian label—things get even more complicated.
Lay me down at your altar, baby, she sings in “Spiritual,” a bonus track, written with her sometime boyfriend John Mayer, off her latest album, Prism—which has sold 771,000 copies (and garnered two Grammy nominations) since it debuted in October. Your electric lips have gotten me speaking in tongues. Somehow, though, when she sings about sex, it doesn’t come off as raunchy so much as…uplifting. Positive. And downright good for you. No wonder she has more Twitter followers (48 million) than anyone on earth.
“Fifteen-minute warning!” Perry’s assistant manager, a petite woman named Ngoc (rhymes with “sock”), calls out.
The kimono is on now. So are the fake eyelashes. Angular and immense, they stand out against Perry’s now ghostly skin. She decided on the geisha act, she says, because she loves spectacle, and she loves Japan (she calls it “the capital of adorableness”), and she thinks the theme fits the song she’s about to sing, “Unconditionally,” which she wrote for Mayer the last time they broke up. (They’re together again now.)
“I was thinking about unconditional love, and I was thinking: Geishas are basically, like, the masters of loving unconditionally.” She’s so earnest, I don’t have the heart to point out that in the gamut of human interactions, the courtesan-patron relationship is, um, maybe the most conditional relationship there is? (Days later, when asked if she followed the mini furor that her performance ignited—some said it amounted to singing in blackface—she tells me she respects the debate but thinks her critics misunderstood. “All I was trying to do is just give a very beautiful performance about a place that I have so much love for and find so much beauty in, and that was exactly where I was coming from, with no other thought besides it.”)
The middle child of two traveling ministers, Perry moved around a lot as a kid and developed a canny intelligence that owes more to life living than book learning. By the time the family settled on the poor side of wealthy Santa Barbara, Perry—whose given name is Katheryn Hudson—was more focused on singing and growing up than on studying.
“I lay on my back one night and looked down at my feet, and I prayed to God. I said, ‘God, will you please let me have boobs so big that I can’t see my feet when I’m lying down?’ ” At age 11, “God answered my prayers,” she says, glancing south. “I had no clue they would fall into my armpits eventually.”
By then, she’d already discovered what she calls her “magic trick”: When she sang, people would pay her for it. At 13, “I’d go to the farmers’ market in Santa Barbara, and I’d put out my guitar case, and I’d test out these little ditty songs that I would write, and I would get a couple of avocados, a bag of pistachios, and, like, fifteen bucks. That was a lot of money for me.”
The family was poor, as in eating-from-the-food-bank poor. “We kind of barely got by,” she says. “Money was always the biggest problem in our house.” So she set out to make some. Her parents—she calls them “oddballs, but I love them”—encouraged her. They’d done some wild living—her mom once went dancing in Spain with Jimi Hendrix, Perry says, and her dad used LSD when he hung with Timothy Leary’s circle. Perhaps to make up for that, they were committed, now, to God and to protecting their children from temptation. Perry and her brother and sister were forbidden to listen to rock ’n’ roll, to eat Lucky Charms (luck evokes Lucifer), or to watch racy movies.
But Perry was her own girl. She found ways to listen to Incubus, Morcheeba, Queen, and Portishead. She lost her virginity at 16 in the front seat of a Volvo sedan while listening to Jeff Buckley’s album Grace. “Love that record so much,” she tells me. That was in Nashville, where she’d gone to record her first album, a gospel-rock effort on a soon-to-be-extinct label. When that fizzled, she found herself back in Santa Barbara writing songs. She managed to get a meeting with Glen Ballard, who produced Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill. He encouraged her to move to L.A., where they made an album that was never released because, she was told, it didn’t sound enough like Avril Lavigne. She was signed and dropped by two major labels, all while doing odd jobs and passing bad checks before getting picked up by Capitol.
She didn’t quit, she says, because she believes in “a cosmic energy that is bigger than me,” although she has abandoned many of the teachings of her parents. (“I do not believe God is an old guy sitting on a throne with a long beard…. I don’t believe in heaven and hell as a destination.”) Today, hers is a faith born of possibility and optimism, she says, adding that she takes being a role model seriously. “I’ve never had any plastic surgery,” she says proudly. “Not a nose, not a chin, not a cheek, not a tit. So my messages of self-empowerment are truly coming from an au naturel product.”
She is, in every way, a California gurl. “I see everything through a spiritual lens,” she says. “I believe in a lot of astrology. I believe in aliens.”
“I look up into the stars and I imagine: How self-important are we to think that we are the only life-form? I mean, if my relationship with Obama gets any better, I’m going to ask him that question. It just hasn’t been appropriate yet.”
Relationship with Obama?
“I might have won Wisconsin for him,” she says. “Actually, I didn’t do too much, but he called on me a couple of times. Which was very nice.”
“What if I have a nosebleed in this makeup?” Perry asks in a way that doesn’t demand an answer. Which is good, because everyone around her is too busy to speak. With ten minutes to go, the lead wig man, a wiry guy named Clyde, looks a little clammy. He’s charged with making sure Perry’s heavy hairpiece—it’s actually five pieces, complete with bangs and a topknot the size of a loaf of bread—doesn’t fall off mid-show.
“Sew it to my head!” Perry commands, then squeals as Clyde cinches it down. “Do it, do it, do it quick!”
She takes a breath, and the voices down the hall can be heard, faintly, through the walls. It could be J.Lo, right next door, or Gaga, two doors down. It might be Perry’s good friend Rihanna or Ariana Grande. Whomever we’re hearing, though, the cacophony of scales fills Perry with delight. She worked so hard to get into this club, and now she’s here. “Listen!” she yells. “Listen to all the other professional people!”
Perry is nothing if not a pro. As a performer and a songwriter (her work has been recorded by Kelly Clarkson, Britney Spears, and Selena Gomez), she seems to hit her mark every time. Not so much in her romantic life. Her 2010 marriage to Russell Brand ended when he infamously texted her that he was filing for divorce. She was in the midst of her tour for Teenage Dream—a global marathon marked, she tells me, by the fact that Brand never once came to visit. Six months after their parting, she started seeing Mayer, but to hear her tell it, meditation and a lot of psychotherapy—not the man who has also dated Jennifer Aniston, Jessica Simpson, and Taylor Swift—proved to be her real salvation. One song on the album, “By the Grace of God,” which portrays her lying miserably on a bathroom floor, addresses the suicidal feelings she had after Brand’s exit: I looked in the mirror and decided to stay / Wasn’t gonna let love take me out that way. In “Roar” she sings, I let you push me past the breaking point / I stood for nothing, so I fell for everything.
You get the sense that she’s determined not to fall quite so hard again. When I ask her how she and Mayer have come back together, she says simply, “I think that I needed to grow up.” She stresses that they’re just dating. “I’m just having a wonderful experience with a wonderful guy. There’s no rush.”
In her dressing room, of course, there is nothing but rush. “Toothbrush, Tamra!” Perry calls out, and her assistant immediately hands over an electric. Perry puts it in her mouth but keeps talking. “Cad I had a cub?” she asks.
Tamra offers a cup. “Spit!” she tells Perry, who obeys.
Teeth clean, Perry appraises her cleavage, which is rosier than her face. This is unacceptable. Pulling off a “full geish,” as everyone has taken to calling this look, requires a shocking amount of Super White. Jake, the makeup man, is powdering her furiously: breasts, legs, hands. The air is thick with chalky dust.
“Everyone stop touching me, so that Jake can finish,” Perry says, and they step back as he moves in to fix her mouth. A real geisha sports a bow of color right in the center of her lips. Perry’s got too much at the corners of her mouth, which Jake now wipes off in a garish red smear. “This is how a geisha really looks at the end of the night,” he says, oh-snappily.
“Okay, everybody out!” Perry yells, and her dressing room empties into the hallway just as Christina Aguilera struts by in a white long-sleeve peekaboo gown. A beat later, Perry emerges and strides purposefully down the hallway after her. “Four and a half minutes to show!” a stagehand yells as Perry takes her place behind a rice-paper screen. “Clear, please!” All nonperformers are ushered offstage. And for a moment, she’s alone: a teenybop pop star determined to be seen, finally, as an adult artist.
The clock strikes five, and an unseen voice booms, “Ladies and gentlemen, Katy Perry!” Then the music starts and the gongs clang and, for the next four minutes, Perry does what she does so well. She brings it, 100 percent, complete with a crescendo ending: Stepping under a torii gate, she disappears from the stage in a gust of smoke. By the time the audience rises to give her a standing ovation, she is already halfway back to the dressing room. When she bursts in, Team Katy applauds.
“All right,” she says, smiling. “Let’s take it all off!”