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Christina up

Christina up


Christina Aguilera just released her big, bold Back to Basics. She's also managing her career, enjoying her marriage, and speaking up for her LGBT friends. A gay press exclusive with the 25-year-old superstar.

Christina Aguilera can also whip your ass at Donkey Kong. "I'm extremely good at video games," asserts the Staten Island, N.Y.- born, Pennsylvania-raised singer between sips of Pellegrino in the bustling bar of L'Ermitage Hotel in Beverly Hills. "People come over to my house after a night of going out just to try to beat my scores. I have all the top scores."

Spend a little time with Aguilera--after giving her swell new CD, Back to Basics, a listen--and you come away believing the petite platinum-blond with the plus-size pipes can do whatever she sets her mind to. And no monkey is going to stop her. "I love absorbing information," she explains, gesturing to a coffee table book about pinup artist Alberto Vargas she's using as inspiration for her next video, "Candyman." "I'm always looking to go new places. That's hard sometimes, because you're setting yourself up for people loving it or hating it, but I'm willing to take that risk."

As pop risks go, Back to Basics is a doozy: an unapologetic "concept album" in two parts inspired by vintage soul, jazz, and blues. Disc 1 features retro sounds and samples set to modern beats; the more theatrical second disc reunites Aguilera with Linda Perry, the out songwriter-producer behind the singer's 2003 Grammy-winning ballad "Beautiful."

"They're like my babies, my fraternal twins," gushes Aguilera of the discs. "I wanted to use elements of the music that influenced me, from the '20s, '30s, and '40s, and reinvent them in a modern way. I accomplished exactly what I wanted to do."

The lyrics on Back to Basics reflect a more hopeful, romantic Christina, attributable largely to her marriage last year to music executive Jordan Bratman. "I was in an extremely heavy space during the recording of Stripped," admits Aguilera, referring to her polarizing 2002 disc. "With Back to Basics I was able to focus on a brighter, lighter side of myself."

As if on cue, Bratman strolls into the bar to remind his wife that they have dinner reservations in a few minutes. Aguilera lights up. They're clearly crazy about each other--but in a way that seems sane, particularly by showbiz standards. Before heading to dinner, Bratman confirms that his new wife does have mad video-gaming skills. Then Aguilera stands up onto a pair of do-me pumps that match her red lipstick. "I have to go to the bathroom," she announces, "but while I'm gone, Jordie can tell you what else I'm good at--if you know what I mean." With that, she lets out a husky Mae West laugh. She begins to step away, then says, "That was a joke." Uh-huh, right.

What is it about the vintage music that moves you so much? It's very real. It had grit, heart, and emotion. When I was a little girl, I was introduced to the music by my grandma and my mom. We used to go listen to old records at a store in Pittsburgh. As soon as I got an old record, I'd run up to my room, pop it in, learn every lyric right away, come back down and say, "Grandma, I learned it," and act it out for her in our dining room. I think also I related to the pain in that music. Although I was only 6 or 7, I had already dealt with a great deal of pain with the abuse and witnessing all the chaos in my home. So there was something I got about that music and I've always kept it with me.

Do you remember any specific songs you used to perform? B.B. King's "The Thrill Is Gone" was one of my standards. Then there were more modern things like Bob Seger's "Old Time Rock and Roll," and I sang Whitney Houston's "I Wanna Dance With Somebody" at my first grade talent show.

How did you set out to create Back to Basics? I put together a CD of music I'm inspired by. I called it the "producer's package" and I wrote a letter saying, "These are songs that I'm inspired by. Please listen to them, reference them, use bits and pieces, experiment and enter this world with me." And a lot of people didn't get it, but the people that did are the main people on both discs. Actually, I was surprised that Linda (Perry) got it so well. She really dove in hard and listened to every detail that I had to say.

Linda was quoted as saying you two only had one fight on this record. What was it about? Oh, nothing. It wasn't even a real fight. Sometimes you're tired when you come to the studio, and we're girls, we vent on each other, but that's what great friends are about and that's what great creators do together. They're able to let their guard down with each other and whatever comes out, comes out. We're very passionate people. Get us in a room together and there's lots of different moods that go on.

Do you think the fact that Linda's a lesbian has anything to do with your connection? It would be wrong to say it had anything to do with being a certain label or stereotype, but I think she's had a hard road with some of the things she's experienced, as have I. We relate to each other.

Do you remember your first exposure to gay people? I can't even remember. It was an immediately accepted thing with me. I never see color. I never see race. I judge someone based upon how good they are to me, basically. In the entertainment business, you're around a lot of gay people and they tend to be the talented ones--like my hair and makeup team--and they're always very kind and sweet to me.

In 2003, you were honored by GLAAD for your music video for "Beautiful," which incorporated images of a gay male couple kissing on a public bench and a man transforming himself into a woman. Where did the idea for the video come from? The lyrics are based on loving things about you that other people might be opposed to or make fun of you for. A lot of the gay people that write me say that me being true to myself and putting that in my songs is inspirational to them. So it's almost my tribute to them, to let them feel that the turmoil they might be feeling because they feel like outsiders is OK.

The part of you that relates to outsiders seems to come from a very deep place for you. Absolutely. I constantly felt like an outsider growing up. Because I wanted to perform, that kind of put me on the outs a lot. The other kids weren't very kind to me when my name appeared in the paper or when I was on Star Search when I was 7. My mom would get threats. I was threatened and I got the cold shoulder a lot merely because of what I loved to do and who I was. So I completely relate to anybody that feels that they ever have to confine anything about themselves to please someone else. I knew at a really young age that I would never do that. Though I would feel helpless in many ways, I would always be courageous and stand up for what I believed in. That drive was instilled very young.

There's a song on your new album called "Oh Mother," where you sing about the abuse that was going on in your home as a child and the feelings that your mother was going through. What does she think of the song? I wanted to play it for her in person, but my schedule is so crazy I didn't find the time, so I called her and said, "There's a song on the next record..." When she heard it, she called me and said, "I never knew that you knew how I felt going through all that." I have a lot of respect for the fact that she was strong enough to get her and me out of the situation.

Did she make a gradual decision to leave or was it more sudden, like you both just took off in the middle of the night? There was a period where we were going back and forth a bit. She would leave and he would talk all his Spanish about how he would treat her like a china doll. He knew how to romance her like that, and she would come back a few times but finally she got out and stayed out. She and I both feel that it's important for us to get the message out there that that kind of abuse is something that stays with you. You can heal and you can make sense of it later, but it's a constant journey.

On "The Right Man," you sing about your wedding day and the fact that you chose to walk yourself down the aisle, as opposed to having your father or another father figure do it. What was it like when that moment arrived? It was a turning point in my life. I went through my whole life not really ever caring or wanting [a father figure], but when the time came around and everybody started asking, "Who's going to walk you down the aisle?" it saddened me that I really didn't have a good answer. I have a good answer, I think, for everything. It's crazy that I don't have anyone really that represents that for me. I have a few people that are close to me in the business, but at the end of the day, I was like, I'm a strong woman, I can do this. At the end of the aisle is my husband. I'm going to look at him. When the actual moment came, I didn't imagine feeling the way I did. It was emotionally overwhelming. I was shaking and thinking how amazing it would be to have that man that resembled this protector in your life, this man with those "Don't hurt my little girl" kind of words, and feeling the pain of never having that. I wanted to write about that because I thought, How many other women must feel this?

Was it a huge relief emotionally for you to go from taking care of yourself all the time to having Jordan there to help take care of you? You totally hit that on the head. I've been providing for my family for a number of years now and I'm always feeling like I hold the whole ship up. I'm the team provider. If I let it go, who's going to take over? We're getting very therapy now--Who's going to cradle me? [Laughs]--but now, with my husband, I strongly feel that I have someone.

Did you ever think you would be married--and happily--at 25? No. I never was the kind of girl to fantasize, Oh, I want the white wedding and the picket fence and the dog. I was super focused on my career and never flinched, but Jordan and I just connected immediately and I knew that I didn't want to be without him.

Given that you're a newlywed yourself, is marriage equality for gay people something you believe in? Yes. My trainer married her girlfriend last weekend and we went. It was beautiful. I was so touched by their vows to each other, I totally cried. They have some disapproving family members who actually decided to be present for the wedding. Afterwards, I wondered, Did they get it? Did they see the love? I never get people that think [being gay] is some kind of choice. You might be able to suppress it, but why would you live life that way? It really saddens me. I've heard stories of parents saying, "I'll be there, but I can't treat it as a real marriage." Legally or not, it's still a unity of two people's love for each other.

Have you ever fallen in love with a gay guy? [Laughs] That's a really interesting question. Now that I'm married, I guess I can say I think I kind of did. Maybe. I was involved with someone who had a gay past. I was in the relationship knowing that.

That wasn't a deal-breaker for you? No. I'm a basically open-minded person.

Did you end up getting hurt? It was a paranoia at times, like when you walk into a room with a guy that you know has feelings for other men, you're like, Is he looking at the guy or the girl over there? I don't know if he's come to terms with it yet.

I would imagine there are a number of gay people in your tour crew. Do you ever go out clubbing with them? Absolutely. Are you kidding? If I work hard, I play hard. So much fun. My best friend in the whole world, Steve Sollitto, is my makeup artist, and he was one of my bridesmaids in my wedding. He has such a good energy, the most honest and sincere spirit. He was rumored to be my lover for a minute because we were photographed together all the time. We would crack up because we were like, "Eww, we're totally brother and sister." We do like to go out and have a good time, though sometimes he likes to have "boy time."

Another collaborator of yours who happens to be gay is photographer and director David LaChapelle. I love working with David because he's such a free spirit. Throw an idea at him and he'll immediately come up with five other ideas that are the same concept but with a twist. He goes beyond thinking outside of the box.

He directed several of your videos including "Dirrty," which some people criticized for its brazen, in-your-face sexuality. The reason that I do it is not to create controversy or anger in anyone, but I like getting people to talk about it. I feel like there are so many rules and regulations and stereotypes for just being who you are. There are so many labels, for women in particular. If you're not sexual enough, you're a prude. If you're overtly sexual, you're a slut. I don't believe anyone should be judged as long as they're not intentionally hurting anyone. I think it's the people that have problems with their own sexuality that try to pick on people that are just being who they are.

How did you first learn about sex? My mom sat me down and just had an open talk about it. I think when you talk to kids in a mature way they'll surprise you. My mom was always pretty amazing.

Speaking of sex, your spot-on imitation of Sex and the City's Kim Cattrall on Saturday Night Live a few years back blew people away. Did you ever hear from her? No, but I think someone did say that she liked it. Some people said they thought I was lip-synching.

Do you think having an ear for music gives you an ear for imitating people? I do, actually. It's interesting. I do dog voices and everyone says I should do cartoon characters. I do Shakira and do a great Cher impersonation.

So do many of the people reading this magazine. [Laughs] I do the "Do you believe in life after love" Cher, but I don't really do it anymore.

How would you describe your relationship to your voice? Do you think of it as something separate from yourself? A gift you were given? It comes from a place--I don't know how to describe it--here [touches her stomach] in my soul. Whenever I connect with it, it's a freedom for me. It's the voice of my soul and I feel it so wholeheartedly that I think it comes out in my music. I would hope. It's not something that's pushed or forced. When I was little, though, I used to get annoyed sometimes and I'd say, "When I open my mouth and sing from my heart, why does it have to be so loud?" but it was the only thing I knew, so it felt very natural.

Given all that your voice can do, is it ever a challenge for you to sing small. Do your producers ever tell you, "Less is more, Christina"? [Nods] I made a point to do that more on this record. On "Save Me From Myself," I don't think I've ever been heard singing so quietly or so soft, but the emotion I wanted to convey was so vulnerable, honest, and sincere. It's the only song that's literally dedicated to my husband. It's thanking him for being the only person in my life that can really reach in there to take me out of whatever heavy space I might be in and let me realize all the beautiful and amazing things around me.

What did Jordan think when he heard the song? He was very moved. It stayed in his car, on repeat, for the next few months. He really appreciates it. He's so sweet. I'm sorry, I'm gushing, but I'm still a newlywed and it's a big part of my life. I always put my heart on the table.

When you first began dating him, was it difficult for you to break down certain walls to open up to him? I'm still breaking down walls. It's an ongoing process. I've had no real positive male role model in my life--no father figure, no older brother--and whenever I left home, I was presented to a world of guys in the business who were hitting on me when I was underage. It was a constant negative reflection, so there are walls that go up.

When one thinks of other young women in show business, they all seem to have family members as part of their posse--father-managers, stage moms, little sisters. You seem, from the outside at least, like a one-person show. I completely am that. By the time I was old enough to drive, I didn't have someone to hold my hand at all. It's been difficult, but it's built up so much character and I think I'm far older than my years. I don't feel 25. All my dearest friends who I completely connect with tend to be older. At this point, nothing gets approved without my looking at it and crossing the t's and dotting the i's. It's a lot on my shoulders, but I wouldn't have it any other way.

How competitive are you when it comes to how your records are selling and charting compared to the other artists out there? Of course I look at what's out there and I take it in. But everyone is here for a reason and everyone is doing their own thing. I try to stay focused on my path. If this album doesn't sell as much as the last one, then all I know is I gave it my best and I did what I believed in wholeheartedly.

I have to ask you about the track "FUSS." It's a clever title, right?

My guess, based on the lyrics, is that it stands for "Fuck You Scott Storch" [the high-living Miami producer with whom Aguilera collaborated extensively on Stripped]. Basically, but by no means is it directed towards him. It's something that I needed to get off my chest. It's a celebration song, that I accomplished something without the help of someone that obviously didn't find it important enough to be a part of.

In Rolling Stone he said that he felt insulted because he wanted a private plane to bring his gear and posse to L.A. to work with you and you wouldn't "go to bat" for him. Was the rift all about the plane? I don't know. I think we were in different spaces. I just think that some people get really affected by success. It's sad.

Your "Lady Marmalade" collaborator Pink released a song earlier this year, "Stupid Girls," about the seeming vacuousness of the young female celebrity set. Do you share her sentiments? I don't think these are stupid girls. The problem I have sometimes with the way they're portrayed is that...I think the term is "dumbing yourself down" to appease other people to gain some sort of popularity or success from it. As a woman, that's absolutely not what you should be about, and as a person, you know. The thing is, you gotta be smart to be doing this, too. The pictures you see of these girls on their cell phones or in their cars--you know, they're working. Maybe on their free time they like to go shopping. At the end of the day, everyone has their reasons for what they're doing. So no judgement from me whatsoever.

Still, we don't ever tend to see you talking on your cell while you're shopping Beverly Hills. I'm not the girl that goes out and goes on my cell phone all day. I'm into my BlackBerry, but I hate the phone. I don't go to places on purpose to get photographed. That's just not me. When it's time for me to create, I go into my creative cave and hide myself so that when I come out, it really takes people aback and it is exciting.

What other artists' careers do you emulate? I'm reading Etta James's autobiography right now. This woman has been through so much and she's always approached everything like, I don't give a fuck what you think about me. I'm going to do it my way, so don't get in the way. I love that ballsy attitude, especially for a woman. In her day, with racism going on in extreme and having to face all that, that's very powerful to me. And of course, I love Madonna for her strength and discipline. Her ideas are amazing and she tries to go above and beyond in challenging herself. I love people who stand up for what they passionately believe in and don't back down.

What's your personal relationship with Madonna? You very famously shared a kiss on the MTV Video Music Awards a few years back. That was our closest experience working together. She's always kind to me.

Were you surprised at all at the reaction to that moment? Not really. When you go into something like that, you know people are going to get shocked. Yawn yawn. I thought it was a very interesting touch though. [Laughs] And it was super fun.

Your former Mickey Mouse Club costar Britney Spears has been in the press a lot recently, and not always positively. What do you think when you see the coverage of her? I think the media has grown into such an unfair, horrible monster, and I think it's really sad. She's in a beautiful place in her life right now, and I think it's so unfair to judge anyone if you're not living in their shoes.

If there were to be a reunion of The Mickey Mouse Club today, what do you think it would be like? I think it would be sweet. It would be totally interesting to reconnect and reflect on how far we've come. The drive and determination and the talent that came off that show was just incredible.

At the time, would you all share your dreams and goals with each other? Yeah, we all were really passionate and ready to work for it. I remember Janet Jackson was like the "It Girl" for us, with "If" and the Janet album. And we loved the cover of Rolling Stone with her on it.

Justin Timberlake was also a cast member. What's your favorite memory of touring with him a few years back? Just some of our talks on certain nights. It's really nice when you get to open up with a fellow artist that does what you do. He's such a great guy. He's just warm and personable and he knows the work ethic that I'm under because he's under it as well. I like his efforts in trying to change himself as well, which is apparent with this new single. It's fun.

Speaking of fun songs, I like that you sample your breakout song "Genie in a Bottle" on the song "Thank You." Somehow, I had gotten the sense that you were trying to distance yourself from that song. Oh, my God, I could never not embrace that song. I thank God for it. It got my foot in the door and introduced me to the world and gave me a voice to share. I included it because it created a fan base for me, and a lot of them have grown with me, and it's enabled me to have the creative freedom that I cherish.

That song also incorporates voice-mail messages from some of your fans. How did you choose which to include? I ran a contest on my Web site asking for fans to speak about how my music affected them or helped them through difficult periods of their lives, how I've touched their lives, and their responses were so amazing. At first I was only going to run five voices, and it turned into this whole amazing thing. I took the backseat and let the song just be about them.

One young fan talking about considering suicide, and I wonder if maybe he was a gay teen. I don't think anyone came out and said that. A lot of what they had to say was how much they admired the fact that I could be an individual and that I don't care about what other people think. That means a lot to me.

What's a compliment you received recently that really moved you? Etta James said I'm a very old soul and talked about how smart I am, and I really appreciated that.

How would you describe this time in your life? Peaceful.

With all you've got going on? Your BlackBerry's practically smoking. Scheduling-wise, it's pretty chaotic. I'm talking about inner [peace]. I'm in a beautiful place right now. I always feel corny speaking about it, but it's the honest truth. There's no negativity. I don't welcome it in my life anymore. I'm at a great place, a happy place, a very, very happy place.

If you, as Christina today, could talk to Christina, the little girl who listened to old records to escape the pain of her childhood, what would you say to her? I don't know if I would say anything. Throughout all those painful things that happened to me, I learned so many things. It's not the great times that I am thankful for, it's really the hard times. You gain so much from being able to pick yourself up again and get through it. That's why I'm big on never regretting anything. Each thing that may feel like a mistake is a greater lesson learned, not to sound cliche or corny, but I sincerely believe that. I guess if I were to say something, it would be to stay strong and keep pushing on. I'm sounding like one of my songs. [Laughs] But it's true. You gotta keep going.

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