In the early days of No Doubt, Gwen Stefani â€“ all fierce and fabulous â€“ was already superwoman. Now sheâ€™s supermom, superbrand, and still bringing it onstage with the force of a superstar. By Aaron Gell
It seems impossible now, sitting with Gwen Stefani amid the dazzling bougainvillea and azalea on the sun-dappled patio of the Beverly Hills Hotelâ€™s Polo lounge, but there was once a time, not long ago, when the delicate flower perched beside me on a leather banquette with her strong, thin arms wrapped around her midsection, blinking away a tear and looking like she could maybe use a hug, seemed to me the most terrifying woman in pop. Remember those No Doubt videos? There was Gwen the Malfunctioning Aerobic Fem-Bot wires crossed, head jerking maniacally from side to side in â€˜Just a Girl,â€ and Gwen the Post-apocalyptic Jet Ski Hellion in â€œHella Good.â€ Gwen the Noir Femme Fatale, throwing a courtroom conniption after bumping off a series of beaus in â€œIt s My Life,â€ and Gwen the Tae Bo Powerhouse with the wife-beater tee and lipstick snarl, ready to take out the camera with a single well-placed kick in No Doubtâ€™s â€œExcuse Me Mr.â€ And letâ€™s not even mention Gwen the Foxy Nun in her solo hit â€œWind It Up.â€ (Excuse me, sister!)
What made Stefani seem all the more dangerous â€“ it wasnâ€™t just me, was it? â€“ is the way she tempered that madwoman mystique with an exaggerated, Kabuki-like femininityâ€¦ no less alluring for seeming like it might be a big put-on. â€œSheâ€™s like a diamond-encrusted heart,â€ says her longtime stylist and friend Andrea Lieberman, â€œlike this bottle of champagne with this girly effervescence, but balanced with the tomboy thing.â€ The whole package can make for a dizzying flurry of sexual semaphoresâ€™ Think of those caterpillar eyelashes, batting coquettishly one moment peeling back into a horrfied scream-queen grimace the next. And those Borvflex lips (her killer app), morphing from sweet pout to feral sneer in an instant. Itâ€™s this combination that makes Stefani â€“ who spent years as a rock singer, Xeroxing band posters at Kinkoâ€™s, touring the country in a van, before her detour into pop-princess territory â€“ so much more formidable than her semimanufactured cohorts. And now, with two platinum-plus solo albums under her belt, sheâ€™s preparing to go on the road with No Doubt the poppy ska-punk foursome that since the late â€™80s has been her musical family.
Rocking a brand-new pair of superluxe Dior shades (â€œthereâ€™s a girl that hooks me up sometimes,â€ she says), a Vivienne Westwood wrap-blouse, baggy Dsquared jeans cinched with a studded belt and a pair of five-inch heels from her L.A.M.B line featuring enough straps to immobilize a grizzly bear, she cats an impressive figure as she breezes into the joint with baby Zuma on her hip, turning heads (including that of fellow celebu-mom Jennifer Garner) as she goes. And boy, are those lips red. But then she opens them to speak. Stefani is so emphatically nice in person, so unassuming and normal and chronically insecure â€“ in the course of several conversations. she informs me that she doesnâ€™t know how to write songs or even really sing, is a hopeless dancer, and knows next to nothing about fashion â€“ itâ€™s easy to forget sheâ€™s a superstar. She seems to have forgotten it herself.
â€œObviously, Iâ€™m not anything more than I am,â€ she says at one point. â€œIâ€™m just, like, totally normal The fact that any of this has happened, that weâ€™re sitting here at the Beverly Hills Hotelâ€ â€“ she casts a dubious expression over the well-manicured patrons around us â€“ â€œjust gets me going, like, â€˜What?â€™ â€
Apparently, Scary Gwen emerges only when Stefaniâ€™s working out (her Scottish trainer has recently flown in to prepare her for the three-month tour) or performing. â€œDefinitely when I go onstage I feel superpowerfuJ,â€ she says. â€œThereâ€™s something that clicks, another side of me. I donâ€™t even have control over itâ€
â€œWhen you put her in a costume,â€ says Jimmy lovine, the legendary chief of Interscope, Stefaniâ€™s label for 18 years, â€œshe turns into Superman.â€
Five years ago, Stefani took a break from No Doubt â€“ her first since high school when the bandâ€™s then-mastermind, her big brother, Eric, asked her to help out on vocals â€“ to try her luck as a solo artist. â€œI just did the circuitâ€ she says of working with producers such as Pharell Williams and Nellee Hooper. â€œYou write with all the same people Christina Aguilera writes with, and the musicâ€™s very programmed and done in this very patchwork way. But it was so fun. I felt like I was playing a character.â€ After two monster hit albums, 2004â€™s Love.Angel.Music.Baby and 2006â€™s The Sweet Escape, she finds herself negotiating old relationships on new terms.
â€œEverybodyâ€™s making it like thereâ€™s all this tension, you know, like I stepped away from the band and now theyâ€™re jealous of me, and look, maybe there is a little bit of that,â€ she admits, while emphasizing that she never actually quit the band. More important, though, is the personal transformation sheâ€™s gone through. When No Doubt recorded its last studio album, 2001â€™s Rock Steady, she points out, â€œI wasnâ€™t even married. Now Iâ€™m a wife and a mother of two. Itâ€™s a really different role. I always referred to No Doubt as a marriage, because that s what it s like to be together for so long and go through what weâ€™ve been through. I canâ€™t really have that relationship with them anymore. My priorities are always going to be my husband and my family now. Thatâ€™s a huge, huge thing.â€
Originally, No Doubt hoped to record a new album before going on tour, like bands usually do. But when they got together to write new material, Stefani says, nothing really gelled. Practically every day at noon for four months, bass player Tony Kanal and guitarist Tom Dumont turned up at her house, where she and her husband, Gavin Rossdale, have a studio, and thought about music. â€œAt about 4:45,weâ€™d be like, â€˜Okay, the magicâ€™s going to happen right now,â€™ â€ she says. â€œAnd it just wasnâ€™t happening.â€ When they recorded a cover of Adam and the Antsâ€™ â€œStand and Deliverâ€ for a forthcoming episode of Gossip Girl Gwen and Tony wound up having â€œa heated conversationâ€ over how the song should soundâ€™ â€œBut some fights arenâ€™t really what they seem,â€ she says. â€œI think it was a little about the song and a little about our coming back together. There was this air bubble that needed to pop, you know?â€
Speaking of pesky air bubbles and the troubles they cause, Stefani is also in fulI-on mom mode. â€œItâ€™s one thing when you have an infant,â€ she says, â€œbut when you have this two- or three-year-old going â€˜Mommy, whatâ€™s the deal?!â€™ itâ€™s harder. Kingstonâ€™s whole thing is, â€˜I need, I need.â€™ He is insane right now. Weâ€™re just hoping for the best and that heâ€™s not going to turn out to be a freak, but weâ€™ll see.â€
She would never, ever spank her kids, she says. â€œBut Iâ€™ve wrestled him. Iâ€™ve gotten my muscles out on him, thatâ€™s for sure. Heâ€™s in that really challenging phase, but what Iâ€™m learning is itâ€™s all phases.
Stefani, who turn 40 in October, is going through a phase herself. Her voice seems to drop several decibels when she talks about it. â€œI just feel very in between at the momentâ€ she says. â€œLike in my cocoon waiting to blossom into whateverâ€™s going to be. But like, Iâ€™m screwed right now, okay? Iâ€™m so screwedâ€™ I might never be able to write another song. Who knows? I did try. So here we are, going on tour without a new record.â€ She pauses and shakes her head. â€œBut then I think what Iâ€™ve gone through is major, right? I got married and had two human beings come out of my body â€“ plus two albums and two clothing lines that were born during the same period. Iâ€™m still nursing! Iâ€™m a little sucked dry. Like maybe once I sleep through the night, maybe Iâ€™ll be able to write a song. Thatâ€™s where Iâ€™m at. I want so badly to write a record. I waÂ¡t to make every other songwriter jealous. But itâ€™s just not happening right now.â€
It s at this point in the conversation, which has tumed into more of a rush of words from her and a sort of open-mouthed silence from me, that I notice Stefaniâ€™s eyes begin to glisten. And although sheâ€™s got way too much expertise with mascara to be wiping away tears, itâ€™s a little stunning to witness a celebrity in such a vulnerable and raw condition. â€œI feel superinsecure right now,â€ she says. â€œBut this always happens to me.â€
â€œThe stakes are higher,â€ Lieberman comnents later. â€œYouâ€™ve got kids and fancier things, bigger houses, and more people to pay. But she goes through it every time.â€
â€œEvery album,â€ Iovine agrees, noting that an earlier case of writerâ€™s block was the theme of a scene in her â€œWhat You Waiting For?â€ video from Love.Angel.Music.Baby. Iovine first saw No Doubt in 1990 and famously promised Stefani â€“ whom he recalls as being â€œa hurricane in a bottleâ€ â€“ that if the band stuck with it sheâ€™d be a star in five years. â€œI donâ€™t blame her for saying sheâ€™s nervous,â€ he says. â€œShe should be. Gwenâ€™s not going to lie to herself. She knows whatâ€™s ahead of her in that studio, and she wonâ€™t do it half-ass. Sheâ€™s the real thing.â€
The second of four siblings, Stefani grew up in Anaheim, California, practically in the shadow of Sleeping Beautyâ€™s castle. Her father was a marketing executive, her mother an accountant turned home-maker. It was an idyllic childhood in many ways â€“ she describes her family, with whom sheâ€™s still extremely close, as â€œlike The Brady Bunchâ€ but after third grade, she began to struggle in school. â€œOnce you got into the real nuts and bolts of it like my spelling and math and basically all the other subjects, I had a hard time,â€ she recalls. She now thinks may have had a touch of dyslexia. â€œSchool was just really hard for me. I didnâ€™t want to fail. I wanted to be smart! But I was really dreaming, like drawing my boyfriendâ€™s name on my notebooks. It was such a disaster. Itâ€™s so sad! It makes me sad when I think about it. I still have nightmares about tests.â€
A â€œtotal goody two-shoes,â€ as she puts it, Stefani describes herself in the Rock Steady track â€œHey Babyâ€ as â€˜Just sippinâ€ on chamomileâ€ while her bandmates lived out a slightly more familiar rock star fantasy. Her teen years were spent practicing with No Doubt (sharing vocal duties with John Spence), sewing her own clothes, and listening to favorite musicals such as The Sound of Music and Evita. Eventually she landed a job as a makeup girl at a local mall. â€œI never had any kind of ambitions,â€ she says. â€œI just thought I was going to have babies.â€
Though she joined No Doubt mostly to placate her brother Eric, she soon found that performing gave her a desperately needed jolt of power. The ska-punk scene was deeply male, she says, â€œso whenever I went onstage there was this automatic assumption that I couldnâ€™t get the audience going because I was a girl. I just ignored that like, â€˜Yeah, Iâ€™m going to be all made up, and Iâ€™m going to destroy you. If youâ€™re not looking at me right now, youâ€™re going to because Iâ€™m going to fucking get you to look at me and fuck you! Raaarrrhhg!â€™ â€ Stefani puts up her firsts and growls, and suddenly, for a split second, there she is, the girl in the videos. â€œThe F-word was my favorite word,â€ she adds, laughing.
Gwen became the bandâ€™s lead singer in 1987, following Spenceâ€™s suicide. She took an even more dominant role several years later when Eric left to become an animator on The Simpsons. â€œWhen I found out that I could write songs, I felt like all of a sudden Iâ€™d found myself. Like, really, this power that I had that I never had before. It was amazing to have something that I could do after the whole school problem. I remember playing them for my dad and him being, likeâ€-her voice cracks a little-â€ â€˜Keep going. Because these are really good.â€™ â€
Stefaniâ€™s high school boyfriend was No Doubtâ€™s bass player, Tony Kanal. Somehow the band stayed together when their romantic relationship ended after roughly eight years, and Stefaniâ€™s anguish over the split inspired many tracks on their third album, Tragic Kingdom. Barely a year later, she met Gavin Rossdale when No Doubt opened for his band, Bush. â€œItâ€™s like, I only had two boyfriends in my life, and I married one of them,â€ Stefani says. â€œThatâ€™s how I wound up getting over Tony. It was like, Wow, someone can be really into me! Someone likes me!â€
The next day, Stefani arrives at the tiny West Hollywood bungalow belonging to her younger brother Todd, a videographer. With her are Zuma, his nanny, Stefaniâ€™s personal assistant and an old friend of Rossdaleâ€™s named Pete. â€œGreat, now the house is full!â€ Todd jokes to his wife, Jen.
First on the agenda is a â€œmerch meetingâ€ with one of Stefaniâ€™s managers, an officious blond named Lisa, whoâ€™s come armed with a MacBook. Zuma hangs in the other room with his nanny and Aunt Jen as Mom surveys proposed designs for ringer tees, hoodies, â€œbutton packs,â€ and glow-light bracelets, some for sale in tour venues, others bound for retail outlets. â€œI want that pink, that Sex Pistols pink,â€ Stefani says at one point later declaring the use of multiple arrows in one No Doubt logo â€œa little too ska.â€ With her two fashion lines â€“ L.A.M.B. and Harajuku Lovers, which, combined, rake in retail sales of some $200 million per year â€“ not to mention her Harajuku Lovers fragrance, one of the top 10 best selling in the
country, Stefani is an old hand at such meetings. While her style has become more sophisticated over the years, sheâ€™s bounced between two poles â€“ prim and punky â€“ since the beginning when sheâ€™d just as likely be found sporting combat boots as dresses lifted from The Sound of Music.
Next a short video greeting for an awards show Stefani canâ€™t attend must be shot. The plan: Walk up Melrose and wing it. Lisa wonders about security. â€œOh, come on,â€ Stefani says. â€œNobodyâ€™s going to mob me. Nobody cares.â€
Todd hands Pete a boom mic, lifts a camera onto his shoulder, and, as everyone heads out bellows, â€œThis is run-and-gun, people!â€
Sheâ€™s barely finished one take when the first paparazzo arrives and radios for reinforcements; suddenly thereâ€™s a swarm: paps, fans, tourists, curious passersby. Traffic slows to a crawl as motorists crane their necks for a look. A few takes later, Todd announces he has what he needs and the entourage hightails it back to the house, slamming the door behind them. Outside, the paps slowly circle the block like gangbangers plotting a drive-by.
Back at work, Stetani and Lisa confer over her schedule, trying to isolate the few days when Gwenâ€™s and Gavinâ€™s tours nearly intersect so King can see his dad. They take a quick spin through the new No Doubt website and talk over a new shirtdress for Harajuku Lovers. Once the paps have given up, Gwen, Zuma and Pete pile into the Range Rover and drive to the Hollywood Hills to meet with Lieberman about the tour costumes. As Zuma and Liebermanâ€™s baby daughter Paloma (wearing a Harajuku Lovers onesie) enjoy an impromptu playdate, the two moms fondle metallic fabric swatches and talk kilts, corsets, and punker pants. The overall look, as Stefani puts it is â€œlike a â€™60s, cyber-futristic version of the old me.â€
Although she wonâ€™t be doing nearly as many costume changes as she did on her solo tours, she and Lieberman plan one big â€œreveal,â€ when Stefani will doff her skirt and jacket to show off a pair of shorts during â€œUndemeath It All.â€
Stefani sings a bit of the song, snapping her fingers and grooving to the music. Her eyes light up, and for a moment you can see her imagining herself onstage, looking out over the ocean of faces, her power returning at last.
â€œOkay, what about the encore?â€ Lieberman asks as Paloma crawls over and begins gumming Stefaniâ€™s BlackBerry Pearl. Stefani laughs. â€œYou know, we might not even get an encore,â€ she says, the insecurities flooding back.
Prudently, they hook up a hot costume, just in case.