For the past 17 years, she has stood as the punky siren of the band No Doubt. But there is more to Gwen Stefani’s platinum-blonde life than meets the eye. There’s her fashion line, her acting career, and her first solo dance album with a little help from some music-industry heavies.
Christopher Bollen meets the girl underneath it all.
When a certain then-unknown pop star landed for the first time in the New York and climbed into the back seat of a cab, she spoke those immortal words that have now become firmly cemented in rock-music legend: “Take me to the center of everything.” The driver dropped her off in Times Square. Whatever your feelings may be about this particular pop icon, the anecdote does offer a profound lesson: It is relatively easy to stand for a few seconds at the heart of the universe (in 1978, according to this cab driver, that would be the corner of 42nd and Broadway). The tough part is being able to stay there.
Gwen Stefani is one star that has managed to stand pretty much in the center of everyone’s heart since she first drilled hit after hit through the mid-’90s as the gorgeous peroxided lead of No Doubt. A rundown of her songs—“Just A Girl,” “Hey Baby,” “Don’t Speak,” “Rock Steady,” “Hella Good”—plays like the soundtrack of the last ten years, and anyone who has turned on a radio or television knows the wildly excitable voice or the mismatched punk-with-a-perfect-body look as signature Stefani. What most don’t know, however, is that she didn’t just appear out of thin air when the band’s album “Tragic Kingdom” hit big in 1995. Today she and her band (all originally from Anaheim, CA) can count seventeen years of practicing, playing, and touring together. That kind of longevity explains why Stefani has continued to own the spotlight, while so many others have had their Times Square moment and faded out.
In 2004, this California rock star runs her own designer label L.A.M.B., guest designs a bag line for Le Sportsac, is wife to Brit musician Gavin Rossdale, and has a burgeoning film career—as evidenced this winter when Martin Scorsese’s biopic The Aviator opens with Stefani in the role of Jean Harlow. And while No Doubt takes a short hiatus from its hit parade (only to book a greatest-hits summer tour), Stefani shows her prowess in the recording studio with her own solo dance album in the works. I visited Stefani in her Los Feliz mansion right before she was to embark on tour. It was a little before noon, 74 degrees and slightly overcast, and there was a fire blazing in the living room. It was also Bob Dylan’s birthday. I waited twenty minutes before this lanky body bound down the spiral staircase and introduced herself with a teenager’s SoCal accent and biggest brown eyes humanly possible. Here is one final thing that makes Gwen Stefani a permanent fixture in the pop solar system: she is so honest, kind, and sincere about her motivations in life, it is virtually impossible not to fall for her.
CHRISTOPHER BOLLEN You’re getting ready for a tour this summer. That’s all of a sudden.
GWEN STEFANI It is. Anything with No Doubt is sudden because we were planning to take a year off.
GS First, I wanted to concentrate on film. I want to do a movie. It’s impossible to get a role because it’s so competitive and you’ve got to have your whole passion in it. In the past, I would be on tour and come home for a weekend and try out for something. So, I wanted to take a year off and focus on that. Then I got this idea to do a dance record. I don’t know where the idea came from originally, but I got excited and that overwhelmed everything else.
CB Was it your part in The Aviator that gave you the acting bug?
GS No. I’ve been trying out for movies for years but was never really finding the right thing. And every time I would find a small part I never really had time to go for it.
CB You must be used to being up in front of thousands by now singing on stage. How different was it to be on set delivering lines with Martin Scorsese behind the camera?
GS I was so nervous, I didn’t know what to expect with Aviator. Doing music videos, you get a little feel for it. I think that dialogue, though, is in such a different category than singing. It’s a lot subtler. But when I got on the set with Leo—there are five hundred extras in my scene—it felt very familiar. First of all, I’m walking on a red carpet, which is something I’ve done before. [laughs] But in a way, it’s easier than you think because you get so many tries. That makes you even more confident because you can say, “Okay, I’d do it this way this time.”
CB Five hundred extras is no small scene.
GS It’s a huge movie but I have a very small part. They recreated the Mann Chinese Theater from scratch. It’s pretty incredible.
CB How did it feel to play a legend like Jean Harlow?
GS I mean imagine, the original blonde blombshell! I’m clearly a great admirer and copier. Ever since I was a teenager I’ve loved Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. I always used to watch old musicals and movies and was just a big fan of Old Hollywood. So when my agent told me about the movie, he said, “Don’t get excited, they want all non-brand name people”—you know, unknowns—and then a couple of months later they said they were sending me the Jean Harlow script and my stomach fell to the floor. When I got the script, I couldn’t find the part. It has like three lines. But I went in and they were so cool to me. It’s always awkward when people know the band, too, because there are all these expectations and it’s all weird and humiliating. But they were amazing.
CB Have you tried out for other roles since?
GS Yes, but it is hard to find parts I want to do. What’s really taken over my life now is this solo album.
CB How did this dance record come about?
GS I wanted to do an album in the style of music that I grew up on—the dance music of the ’80s like Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam, Debbie Deb, Club Nouveau, The Time, Prince—all the stuff that makes me so happy. So my idea was to do a silly dance record that had that kind of vibe. Having been in my group for seventeen years, I knew if I didn’t do it now, I wasn’t going to do it.
CB Were the other member of No Doubt worried? “Uh oh, Gwen’s making her own album now.” I mean, isn’t this the first step to band breakup?
GS I remember on the Rock Steady tour sitting with Tony [Kanal] and being like, “I don’t want to ruin the tour or anything, but I have this idea.” I wanted Tony to be involved because he was the one who turned me on to most of that music. We as No Doubt didn’t know what we were going to do next anyway. We had such an incredible record with Rock Steady, making it and putting it out. Who would have known? It was magic. But where do you go from there? If we got together right away and did another album, it might not be so inspired. It might sound like it was riding the coattails of Rock Steady. And we had never taken a break, not in seventeen years. I’m not exaggerating. We made so many sacrifices on a personal level for each other for the music out of pure passion. It just felt like the right time for everybody to do something for themselves. I called everyone and told them, and they said, “Do whatever you want to do,” just as you’d imagine your best friends would say.
CB Did you write most of the songs on your new dance album?
GS Yes, but it’s not quite my own. That was the whole point of the project. I get a lot of opportunities to work with people who are so talented. The idea was I’d do a song with anyone who came along that I thought was great. There was a wish list of people and others who came to me. One of the people who came to me was Linda Perry, who I’ve known for years. We were the first two girls signed to Interscope and I knew her when she was in 4 Non-Blondes. I didn’t think, “Okay, rock girl, she’ll make my dance record.” But I saw her at the Grammy’s and she put me in a headlock and said, “We’re going to do a record together. We’re going to write some songs.” She was very aggressive. But I had just gotten off of tour and her record company said, “If you’re going to work with Linda, you’ve got to do it this week because she’s only got five days off out of the year.” That first day, I literally didn’t want to go in at all. I was in bed and I cried that morning. I wanted to be lazy and hang out with my husband, not start writing a new record. I was scared, too. I had never worked with another girl before. I got there and on the first day we wrote a song together, which I didn’t think was very good. The next day, I came in and we wrote, “What You Waiting For.” It’s such a good song. Linda and I ended up working on a bunch of songs together. Later, I took those tracks to Nellie Hooper to produce them.
CB Clearly writing is a different process when you are collaborating with some pretty established songwriters. It must have been a war of personalities sometimes.
GS The challenge was not to get overwhelmed by my ego and to let myself accompany what Linda had to offer and be part of something that was great even if I didn’t do the whole thing. Like if she wrote the lyrics to “Yesterday” by the Beatles and all I did was write the chorus, I’d be pretty stoked, you know what I mean? There was actually a point at the end when we were in the studio together and I left crying, again [laughs], and I said, “I’ve had enough.” We were working on a track that was very personal to me, and she had written a lyric. I was like, “I don’t want to do this.” I ended up rediscovering the song six months later and going, “Oh my god, this song is great.” It was a song I wrote for this boy I went out with in high school, who meant a lot to me—like my first kissing boyfriend—and he actually died a year ago. I haven’t known him all of those years, but he was a huge part of my life. He gave me a huge thing, which is the first time you love someone. Even if it’s high school. So I wrote this song called “Wonderful Life for Him” with Linda. But the amazing thing about that song was that that guy was the first person to turn me on to Depeche Mode and the Cure. So I got one of his heroes to play on that song.
CB Who else did you work with?
GS I did some tracks with Andre 3000, who I’ve been a fan of forever. One song we did is about interracial relationships. It’s such a special song that whatever I did contribute is enough. It’s like having a baby. You have this thing that’s alive and it’s never going to go away, it’s a song, and it captures a moment. So yeah, I really enjoyed it. But sometimes it’s been really painful in not being able to claim all of it as your own.
CB It’s impressive that you get to play around with your style and your sound, but you still always seem to return to your roots. And you write the songs yourself! I have to be honest, so much pop music right now sounds absolutely soulless and phony, like it has nothing to do with the person singing the lyrics.
GS I think there is room for everything. I worked with one of the writers that wrote “Like A Virgin,” which you would think Madonna had written, because it is so her. Actually from what I understand the song was written two years before, just nobody else would do it because it was so out there. But with a song like that, you don’t go, “Oh, she didn’t write it.” She made it. Take someone like Liza Manelli who was in Cabaret. She didn’t write it. She played it. But then you go, Joni Mitchell. And she did the whole thing. There is room for everything and it’s all inspiring. So for someone to wear someone else’s music and make it what it’s going to be is very important as well. I feel like I’ve proved myself as a writer. I’ve done it for seventeen years. I’ve been true to my own unit. I’ve never gone outside. We thought if we’re not about making the music, what’s the point. The whole record is about collaboration and being inspired and stealing from everything I’ve ever loved and trying to make it mine. I’m going to make the record that feels like those records make me feel no matter what it takes. I’m not done yet either. I have about nineteen songs but I’m not putting this thing out until it’s fucking the greatest record ever.
CB Will that be soon?
GS I want it to come out this year, but it’s going to come out when it’s meant to come out. It’s going to come out when it’s great. I could put out a great record right now with the songs that I have but part of me wants to go to the Doctor, as in Dr. Dre, and see where I can get with that, which is just going to be the biggest challenge so far. And I probably want to go with one more artist, I’m not going to say who. And I have all my new wave songs. I want to get my dirty, modern, club dance attitude songs.
CB It’s weird you mention Joni Mitchell. It’s Bob Dylan’s birthday today. I found that out on the radio coming here. And I was thinking about how fans are so hard on Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan for continuing to make music arguably after their prime. It’s as if fans wish they would stop making music or stick with the old stuff. Your career is hardly on a downward spiral, but do you think there will come a moment when you say, “Okay, that’s that.”
GS The band always talks about, “When will it be over?” We never dreamed we’d do it this long. We never even thought we’d get on the radio. We did the band because we were in Anaheim. What else was there to do, go to Disneyland? We were all going to college. We weren’t lazy stoner kids who weren’t going to do anything with our lives. There are all these different rules for what a musician should be like: they should be a drug addict and come from a really bad family. A lot of time that does fuel a creative outlet. But my dad’s idol was Bob Dylan. At ten years old, I was in the back of the station wagon saying, “Dad not this again.” My parents were very creative and their children were their creative outlet and everything they did was about playing things for us, teaching us about art and music. I feel very blessed for that. I don’t know what is going to happen with us. We could do music for the rest of our lives. At a certain point whatever people might think or say, or whatever perspective people have on me or my band, it’s never going to be true or real. What does it matter as long as I’m happy? I feel like I’m the most blessed person in the world. I’m sitting in a beautiful house. I have an unbelievable husband and family, and I get to do music. That’s my job. People pay me to dance around!
CB Not to mention you have your own fashion line, L.A.M.B. Zaldy helps design it, doesn’t he?
GS Yes! I know Zaldy through his friend Matthu, and I know Matthu because he was the first makeup artist I ever let do my makeup. I had always done my own makeup and when I was told I should work with him, I thought, hmm, a guy doing my makeup I’m not sure about. But he ended up doing my makeup for a year after that. I did some crazy makeup that year. It was a wild time. And then I met Zaldy and he started helping with some of my designs. Collaboration is everything when it comes to design. I hired him and the guys from Nice Collective. It was like college, we all came together and showed what we did, and I think we created an amazing second collection. So I asked Zaldy to stay on because I never want him to go. I love him. He’s so talented. My guitar player’s fiancé is getting married in October, so L.A.M.B. is doing her wedding dress. Of everything I do, it’s probably the easiest and most greedily fulfilling. What do I want to wear? It’s like a girl’s dream come true.
CB Aren’t you also doing a bag line?
GS The bags are totally separate. I got sent one of the LeSportsac bags. I used that bag so much and I guess they saw me with it and said, “Hey do you want to make your own bag for yourself?” I said, “Hell yeah dude,” and made this leopard bag with green trim and I had that on tour and I loved it. And they called me back and said, “Hey what would you think about being a guest designer?” I never collaborated with a corporation. I get asked all the time to be the shampoo girl or the makeup girl or the cola girl. I don’t want to sell things. I’d feel too guilty. I’m Catholic. But with Sportsac as guest designer, the title sounded so nice and I am a designer.
CB It’s a bit different than selling Pepsi on a TV commercial.
GS It’s totally different. And I learned so much. Also, it’s fun to see the bags take on a whole new life. When I saw people wear it I thought, yeah, that’s them now. But wait that’s mine! I got jealous, like, don’t wear my bag! I saw this girl walking down the street with that bag, and that was her bag. It was a good feeling. I enjoyed doing it so much I decided to sign on for the fall season.
CB If you could pick a dream movie to star in, what would it be?
GS I am doing a movie.
CB Wait, you’re going to make your own?
GS I said, “Dude, I want to do my own.” I’m not sure I’m supposed to talk about it yet. I want to do a movie that goes with my record. But because it’s not developed yet it would be stupid to talk about it. It is going to happen. I will make that shit happen. I’m convinced.
CB You’ve spent a great deal of your life in California. You were born here. Can you imagine living anywhere else?
GS I was never a Hollywood kid. I grew up in Orange County. Nowadays, the two have merged, but back then it was like living behind the Orange Curtain. They were definitely two different worlds. But we started playing at all the clubs here. I remember my parents would drive me to these shows because they were strict. I’m glad they were and would probably be the same with my kids. So LA wasn’t part of my early life except for the fantasy of Old Hollywood and that kind of thing. California for me was more about being able to get on the bus and go down to the beach. I was a lifeguard at a pool for a couple of years. I taught kids how to swim. I worked at a sportswear shop helping older ladies pick out polyester outfits. I actually got a lot of fulfillment out of that. Otherwise I just went to school to try to be something when I grew up. The biggest regret about California would be that I put baby oil all over my body and baked in the sun every day on the beach.
CB I think LA has this surreal quality to it.
GS That’s how we feel about New York. We’d be like, New York’s so cool, so much buzz, creative people. But LA is the same way. People come here to be creative. There’s also all these weird scary people but I don’t deal with them too much. I moved up here six years ago, but I live in this beautiful place and have my friends around me. There’s not a lot of places to go out and you can’t stay out until three in the morning. But I’m just lucky that I got to travel the world and I also live in London, so I have this English life too. It makes my life so much richer. From Orange Country to get to live in London! It makes me so cool, huh?
CB Yeah. It does.