Shakira: Rhythm queen

Shakira learnt belly dancing at the age of four, signed with Sony records at 13 and these days counts Gabriel Garcia Marquez among her closest friends. Fiona Sturges meets Latin America's biggest star

But with sales exceeding 25 million there seems to be a lot of love for Shakira. At the MTV Europe Awards in November, she was the winner of the Best Female award, seeing off rivals Gwen Stefani, Alicia Keys, Missy Elliot and Mariah Carey. One of Shakira's more surprising fans is her fellow countryman, the novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who three years ago wrote an essay exalting her "phenomenal musical talent", "extraordinary maturity" and "innocent sensuality". The pair have since become close friends.

We meet at an alarmingly smart hotel overlooking London's Hyde Park where even the doormen wear dinner jackets. Shakira is instantly warm and friendly, offering me a long list of drinks and, bless her, even admiring my handbag. In a startling reversal of pop star protocol, she actually claims to like interviews. "It's like free therapy," she reveals. "It helps you to get to know yourself a little better. Good interviews are like guided visits inside your head." I don't believe a word of it, of course, but I like that she's trying to be nice.

Free of the over-zealous styling that accompanied her last album, she's a lot prettier than I'd expected. The dodgy perm, it turns out, is natural. Shakira, who is 28, says she is now reclaiming her image after years of "getting lost in a cloud of hairdressers, make-up artists and assistants. My hair is curly. Why am I going to be straightening it every day, and spending two hours with a blow-drier?" Doing her own make-up has also made life a lot easier too. "Now I'm punctual most of the time. I'm maybe not up to your English standards, but I try my best."

Her breasts, since you ask, are neither "small and humble" nor particular Jordan-esque. Quite average, I'd say, but in a good way. The line in the song was, she tells me, "just the way I write in Spanish, from a very personal perspective. For me it was just one more line, but people gave it great importance. It has kind of followed me around ever since."

It's five years since Shakira released Laundry Service, her first English-language LP, which blended Colombian folk with Anglo-American rock. The album sold 13 million copies, a figure that she hopes to top with the forthcoming Oral Fixation 2 (Oral Fixation 1, released last summer, comprised a different set of songs sung in Spanish). The new album, sung in English, is confessional in tone and finds the singer reflecting on love, fame and, on occasion, world politics. She says the title is all about the animal instincts which revolve around the mouth - kissing, eating, shouting, that sort of thing.

Shakira likes her work to have themes, though she's been known to take them a little far. Her last world tour was called The Tour of the Mongoose, because the mongoose is the only animal that can survive a cobra bite (make of that metaphor what you will). The show featured vast screens depicting puppets of Saddam Hussein and George Bush, with their strings pulled by the Grim Reaper, and ended with a straight-faced Shakira rising up through the stage in a cave-woman outfit and with a lit candelabra on her head.

"Wasn't it fun?" she beams.

Yes, I say. And maybe a little barmy.

"What do you mean 'barmy'?"

Eccentric. A bit, you know, bananas.

"Nooo!" she exclaims in mock horror. "It was fun. But yes, there was also a serious side, which I think people understood. It was my show and I had something to say. It would have been immoral not to have expressed how I felt."

Long before scaling the British charts, Shakira was well established in South America where she has been a bona fide superstar since her teens. A former musical prodigy, she had her first domestic hit at 18 with "Donde Estas Corazon?" (Where is Your Heart?). Six months later she put out her self-produced album Pies Descalzos (Bare Feet), which went straight to No 1 in the Latin charts and stayed there for 11 weeks. Since then she has become an international phenomenon. To put her in perspective, other Latin exports such as Ricky Martin and Jennifer Lopez are mere minnows next to Shakira, both selling half the number of records she does.

Remarkably, Shakira has been speaking English for only five years. Encouraged by f her friend and sometime mentor Gloria Estefan, she spent two years studying with the help of a private tutor and the poems of Walt Whitman, after which came a stint on a Uruguayan farm learning how to record in her new tongue. "I wanted to do it for the same reason that men want to go to the moon," she tells me dreamily. "I think that's what we're made of. It's the necessity of accepting new challenges and stimulating ourselves. It's the engine that keeps us going." More importantly, she could conquer the English-speaking market, which she duly did, though Shakira insists that the motivation was purely intellectual. "It's about being exposed to new cultures," she continues. "It's about building bridges. It also gives me an opportunity to grow as a person. People say you are what you eat. I prefer to think that you are what you've seen and the people you've been with. Being able to travel is one of the greatest things that has happened to me."

She's a canny interviewee, talking a lot while giving away as little as possible. I'm swiftly steered away from more sensitive topics such as her relationship with Antonio de la Rue, son of Fernando, the ex-President of Argentina who was swept from power in an uprising in 2001. Since they first went public with their relationship in 2000, they have been a relentless source of fascination to readers of South American gossip mags, not to say the paparazzi. The couple have had their critics, which explains Shakira's reluctance to be drawn on the subject. News of their romance broke just as 30,000 anti-government protesters took to the streets of Buenos Aires. Commentators condemned the couple's lavish lifestyle, suggesting they pay off the national debt instead. After Fernando de la Rue was deposed, copies of Shakira's album were reported to have been withdrawn from some Argentinian record shops.

SHAKIRA SEEMS to have been plotting her career from the womb. The daughter of a Lebanese father, William Mebarak, and a Colombian mother, Nydia Ripoll, Shakira was reciting the alphabet at 18 months and doing sums at the age of three. She remembers, at four, sitting in a Middle Eastern restaurant in her hometown of Barranquilla with her father. There she first heard the sound of the doumbek, the drum that traditionally accompanies belly dancing. "Right there I fell in love with the performing arts," she says. "I imagined what it would be like to perform on stage in front of an audience. I knew it was what I wanted." Presumably clocking the maniacal glint in Shakira's eye, the dancer picked her out and taught her to follow the steps. After this she was belly-dancing every hour of the day - in her bedroom, in the park, at family gatherings, even in front of the nuns at her convent school. "I became obsessed with it. Every day I had to dance the same number. I think I drove everyone nuts, but I just wanted to experience it over and over."

Shakira talks about two life-changing moments early in her life. The first was the death of her brother after being hit by a drunk driver. She was two - it is her earliest memory. The second came when her father lost his jewellery business. The nine-year-old Shakira looked on as her parents coped with financial hardship, powerless to help. "Both things have defined the kind of person I am," she reflects. "I think they have a lot to do with this compulsive drive. That determination had to come from some subconscious place. I think all of us spend our childhoods constructing a mandate that is going to drive us through life. Mine was wanting to belong to this family, wanting to generate joy for my parents and make them proud."

This certainly explains why, when most girls are playing with Barbies and building sandcastles, Shakira never took her eye off her ultimate goal. When she was seven she wrote to Father Christmas asking for a typewriter on which she could compose songs and poems. Her first song was an ode to her father's sunglasses. At 10, she joined a local kids' troupe and performed across mining towns and villages in Colombia, her parents accompanying her wherever she went. A few weeks before her 13th birthday, word arrived that some music-industry executives were in town. Shakira rushed to the hotel where they were staying and performed her songs a cappella in the lobby. It could have all ended there, of course. But within a week Shakira had signed her first record contract, a three-album deal with Sony.

It's hardly surprising to learn that Shakira sailed through her schoolwork and, having been moved up several years, finished her education when she was 15. By this stage she had also found time to make two albums. Both bombed commercially, though safe in the knowledge that she was destined for greatness, Shakira wasn't deterred. At 16, the family moved to Bogota, where Shakira landed the main role in the soap El Oasis. "I was a very bad actress but I had a lot of fun," she remarks. "Besides, someone had to pay the bills."

I wonder how her parents must have felt, trailing around after a teenage daughter who was keeping them financially afloat. Shakira says they were always proud and they remain tremendously close (her parents now live near her in Miami). She does concede, however, that her single-minded ambition - though she prefers the word "dream" - was unusual, alarming even. "It's something I'm still trying to work out with my therapist - I mean my real therapist, not you. I'm not as confident as people think. Self-confidence is always the best make-up you can wear, right? I still have that monster inside of me that wants to do everything better and right. But I'm less driven than I was, and I've learnt to be more patient with other people."

When she remarks that she would like children of her own, I ask if she would allow them to start their careers so early. "Maybe," she ponders. "I wouldn't have done anything different myself, if that's what you mean, though I think I missed out on adolescence. I never misbehaved when I was a teenager and that's something you've got to do. I was so focused on my goals. I was already an adult when I was 14. Maybe I'll have a belated adolescence when I'm old. You never know, I might become a drug addict when I'm 82."

Given her extraordinary history, it's a wonder that Shakira, known early in her career as "the Latin Britney", turned out as normal as she did. In the great scheme of things, the odd candelabra headdress is probably forgivable. In the midst of her busy work schedule she has found time to help others, creating Pies Descalzos, a foundation named after her first album that helps finance education for Colombian children. In 2003, at the age of 25, she was elected the youngest ever UN Goodwill Ambassador for Unicef.

Though Shakira admits to still being a control freak - "I have to be captain of my ship" - she says she has come around to the idea that her fame won't last. "I cannot expect that I will be successful my whole life. We live so caught up in the moment, it's important to get some perspective. Ultimately, I know I've been very lucky." She pauses, and smiles. "Even the Roman Empire fell. Eventually."

Shakira's new single 'Don't Bother' is released on 27 February. Her album 'Oral Fixation 2' is out in March

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