Gwen Stefani: Beyond doubt

Her day job - as a global pop superstar - is impressive enough, but Gwen Stefani wants more. She tells Nick Duerden about her new fashion label, her burgeoning movie career and her life as an honorary Londoner
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The Independent Online

It's a few minutes to nine o'clock at night in one of London's more self-consciously hip hotels, and Gwen Stefani has her face on. It's some face, much prettier than the already pretty photographs would suggest. I'm no expert in make-up, but I'm detecting a layer of foundation, some jet-black eyeliner and the most electric pink lipstick this side of a flashing neon sign. She stands as I enter her suite and, unlike most internationally famous pop stars, keeps on going well past 5ft 5ins, and not just because she is teetering on a pair of dominatrix heels. The woman is very nearly tall. She is skinny as well, and tonight she is clad in some thigh-hugging jeans (by Lamb, her fashion label), and a Vivienne Westwood jacket that consists of diagonal stripes, razor sharp lapels, and enormous Alexis Colby shoulder pads. Her blonde hair is whipped up like a meringue on top of her head, accentuating those pronounced cheekbones of hers, and she looks eminently fabulous, a 1940s movie siren made flesh.

"Well, hello," she purrs in a voice that is Minnie Mouse by way of Californian Valley girl. "I'm Gwen."

The introduction, here, is somewhat superfluous, because while she may well have been famous, on some or other level, since 1987, 2005 is the year Gwen Stefani finally went global. Since the release of her debut album Love Angel Music Baby she has sold more than five million records, and has rarely been out of the UK Top 10. Her clothes are flying out of Harvey Nicks at an impressive rate, and this September she will stage her first catwalk show in New York. Long-held dreams of movie stardom, meanwhile, are also coming true. While her performance as Jean Harlow in The Aviator was, in effect, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it cameo, it was nevertheless a Martin Scorsese movie. But this, she tells me with coquettish enthusiasm, is just the beginning. As we speak, a couple of Hollywood-based screenwriters are working on a star vehicle for her.

"I can't say much about it," she froths, "but when they came to me with the idea, I was like, 'Oh my God, get me a tissue because I'm salivating!'" She smiles her perfect white teeth at me, teeth that dazzle brightly enough to suggest that her dentist must be worth a bloody fortune. "I've got so many things going on right now, and it all seems to be coming my way at once. It's fricking amazing."

Yes, it is. It is indeed.

"Am I an icon?" she wonders, index finger making the O of her mouth into a Q. "Well, it's possible, I guess."

Initially, Love Angel Music Baby was mooted as nothing more than a side project, which Stefani would complete while the rest of her band, No Doubt, took some time off. She wanted it to be a collaborative affair with a few of her favourite producers, but because these favourite producers just happened to be America's finest, the project quickly gathered momentum. The result was the most infectious pop album in years, but its creation, she says, was "pure agony". This is a woman who cannot write a song without first turning it into a crisis and so the entire recording process took a sledgehammer to her already fragile ego.

"Oh, man, did it ever! I was in the studio with all these great people [Pharrell Williams, Dr Dre, Linda Perry and Andre 3000], and I just felt naked before them, completely exposed. All these incredible ideas were flying around, but none of them were mine! I couldn't wait to get home to my husband every night and cry because I hated myself."

But before we begin to feel too sorry for her here, wait. It seems that, ultimately, her self-confidence was restored and duly buoyed. How? Magic.

Magic?

"Yes! Magic saved the day! See, I've no idea how I write songs, no idea at all. It's not something that is in my control. It just happens, and afterwards I don't even recall how I did it. So there I was, flapping around and making a fool of myself, and magic occurred! I was so relieved, I can't even begin to tell you how much..." The album also provided the opportunity for Stefani - avowedly Californian, remember - to give flight to some of her more colourful fantasies, one of which was to be surrounded at all times by doll-like caricatures with Japanese faces.

"The Harajuku girls, you mean?" she asks. "They came about because of a line in one of my songs ['What You Waiting For?'] that went, 'You Harajuku girls, damn you got some wicked style!' And so, naturally, I had to get myself some."

Naturally. Auditions were held, and four - a Love, an Angel, a Music and a Baby - were eventually chosen. These were young Japanese women, dancers by trade, but who were required by their new employer to remain silent, sullen and exotically distant at all times. When she appeared with them on Jonathan Ross's BBC1 talk show recently, she insisted to him that they weren't actually real but mere figments of her imagination. Ross, an eyebrow halfway up his forehead, then wondered aloud whether one of them could give him a hand job, his reasoning being that if they didn't actually exist, he wasn't actually doing anything wrong. They could be his fantasy too. Stefani, who can be disarmingly prim at times, was visibly shocked.

"What people didn't seem to understand was that they really were just a fantasy," she insists. "Why didn't they realise that?"

Perhaps, I suggest to her in the careful manner one uses with someone whose marbles have clearly scattered, it was because they were anything but a fantasy. These women, I say, were ... are ... real. Her response is entirely deadpan.

"Oh, sure, they're real now, but that's because they've become real, over time. But they weren't at first. Really, they weren't."

She tuts impatiently, rolls her eyes, and I have absolutely no idea whether to take her seriously or not...

Stefani was born and brought up in Anaheim, a nowhere suburb of California. Her parents, she says, were "like, totally rad", but also rather strict, so much so that she didn't manage to move out of the family house until just five years ago. She grew up worshipping her older brother Eric, now an artist, and when he formed No Doubt in 1987 with Stefani's guitarist boyfriend Tony Kanal, she joined as singer because Eric had instructed her to do so.

"I had no idea I could even sing," she says, "but my brother has always been my leader, and so I just went with it."

Influenced by punk and ska, No Doubt may well have attracted a loyal local fanbase, but failed to fully capture the wider public's imagination for nine long years. What was needed was some kind of spark and, in 1996, Kanal provided it (in spades) by breaking up with Stefani but insisting that the band continue. Their subsequent album, Tragic Kingdom, was therefore fuelled by the singer's broken heart, and Stefani was to prove a most fetching miserablist. The album's defining moment was the beautifully wrought ballad "Don't Speak", which went to number one around the world, and powered Tragic Kingdom towards 15 million sales.

"The funny thing was, I'd always felt famous, at least in Anaheim," she says. "But when it went worldwide, well - that was just plain weird. I'm a very private person, and so getting used to that kind of limelight was never going to be easy, was it?"

Her next relationship, however, would push her further still into the paparazzi's glare. In 1998, she started dating Gavin Rossdale, the sharply cheekboned singer with the British rock act Bush. Their on-off relationship was a tempestuous one, but in 2002, they finally settled down and got married. Earlier this year, amid reports of Stefani's eagerness to become a mother, Rossdale unwittingly thrust the pair of them into the very epicentre of a media frenzy.

The Bushman had long been part of the so-called Primrose Hill set - alongside Sadie Frost, Jude Law, Kate Moss and Pearl Lowe (the partner of the Supergrass drummer Danny Goffey), who recently went public with her alleged menage-à-trois avec la Frost et le Law (which Law still strongly denies). Sixteen years previously, Lowe had had a daughter (Daisy, now a budding model), and Rossdale, a close family friend, was named godfather. But after a lifetime of ambiguity - prompted in no small part by the fact that, 16 years and nine months previously, Rossdale and Lowe had themselves been lovers - he took a DNA test, which confirmed him to be Daisy's father. Stefani was reportedly devastated, relations between Rossdale and Lowe instantly soured, and a court case (about which no details have been disclosed) ensued. Because the court case is ongoing, and because Stefani is understandably reluctant to discuss matters of a private nature, I have been requested not to mention it in her presence. And so I don't.

"Fame is ... it's such a strange thing, isn't it?" she says, continuing her earlier theme. "You never quite get used to being public property, really. Take our conversation now. You have just walked into this room and started telling me shit about myself and that's, like, weird, it's crazy, because we are strangers. I should get somebody to escort you out of the building! I understand how the game works, of course I do, but..." And here, she trails off and shakes her head before picking up the pieces. "Anyway, I've been lucky [with media exposure]. And that's because I don't have anything to hide. I mean, tell me, what's controversial about me? I just write music and design clothes, so there really isn't much to talk about. God forbid something happens and people do start talking shit, but that hasn't happened so far, has it?"

She eyeballs me now, as if daring me to mention The Subject That Must Be Skirted Around. Naturally I keep schtum, and she audibly sighs with relief.

"So, I'm pretty blessed, then, aren't I?" she concludes. An awkward silence settles between us, Stefani patiently waiting for me to take the hint and steer the conversation towards less troubled waters.

In addition to music, Stefani's other abiding passion in life is her fashion. Lamb, she tells me, is currently being worn by Hollywood glitterati such as Cameron Diaz and Paris Hilton, and she plans to develop the brand until it becomes as fêted as her adored Vivienne Westwood. I ask her just how exclusive her designs are. How much, for example, are the Lamb jeans she is currently modelling?

"These?" she says. "I don't know. I don't do the pricing, I only do the designing."

Her manager, who is sitting behind a flimsy partition in the room and, presumably, listening in on every word, suddenly pipes up with a figure: "$250."

Stefani says she doesn't think that $250 is particularly steep, but acknowledges that her price tags "kinda bum out some of my younger fans" whose pocket money doesn't quite stretch to three figures. And so, with them in mind, she has launched a sister label, the Harajuku Lovers, which will produce competitively priced items such as T-shirts, handbags and all manner of girlie accoutrements.

"Designing is something I think I can do for the rest of my life. It's maybe the kind of thing I will concentrate on fully when I have a family."

The mention of children is pertinent here because it has come up in every Stefani interview over the last year, suggesting that, at 35, she is very keen indeed to become pregnant.

"Look, I have wanted to have kids since I was nine years old," she says snappily. "It will happen when it happens, but it's a private subject, you know?"

True, I say, but then she brought it up, not me. "I can understand the public fascination because I was, like, thrilled when I read that Julia Roberts had twins, but I still think it's weird to discuss something like this with someone like you. Right now, I feel I'm on a crazy journey that I have no control over. And anyway, I've got so many other things to concentrate on."

One of which, she reminds me, is the acting bug. She has been auditioning for movies for six years now, the first of which was David Fincher's Fight Club in 1999 (she ultimately lost out to Helena Bonham Carter). Auditions, she explains, can be difficult for someone as famous as her because "you are sitting in a room alongside all these other people who recognise you instantly, and that can be very awkward". Also, she is used to being very successful. Rejection is a particularly bitter pill.

"I recently tried out for Mr and Mrs Smith," she reveals. "I did, like, 40 try-outs for that, I met with the director and everything, and I really wanted to do it." She didn't get the part; Angelina Jolie did, starring alongside Brad Pitt. "I was so upset about it, but it won't stop me. It won't. Movies are a challenge for me, and I do like a challenge."

At which point, she stands up to indicate that my time with her is over. As her manager enters the room, the atmosphere immediately softens, Stefani now able to dismantle her defences and allow the coquettish quotient to skyrocket once more. She peels back her lips in another cinemascope smile.

"Have fun writing about me," she says.

Gwen Stefani's new single, 'Cool', is out 29 August

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