As a schoolgirl she drove the nuns crazy with her belly dancing, now she's got the world gyrating. Ted Kessler meets Shakira, the Colombian superstar with a papal blessing and finds out why it's all Depeche Mode's fault
Sunday July 14, 2002
Seldom can the promotional treadmill have been as poetically romanticised as it is by Shakira. Sitting cross-legged on a sofa in her darkened, candle-lit St Martin's Lane hotel suite, the Colombian superstar singer scans gleefully through the schedule for her two days in London. She squeezes a lime over a plate of fresh mango and nods excitedly at the list: 18 interviews today, followed by Top Of The Pops and a midnight recording session at Abbey Road. Tomorrow, more interviews, more TV and the day wraps up at Radio 1 with Jamie Theakston. Excellent, decides Shakira. This is going to be fun.
'To some, yes, it may be work. But I just feel that my playground is larger now. I now talk to different cultures and I hope that I can bridge those gaps and differences between us. It's an adventure, a dream... I feel like I'm on an anthropological mission.'
If this seems an unlikely response to the soul-grinding chore of endless self-promotion then that's because 25-year-old Shakira is quite unlike any other multimillion-selling pop star. For a start, she fashions herself as just that much more of a deep thinker than Britney, Kylie or Christina, using a recent interview in an American men's mag to outline her feelings about Carl Jung's ideas. She is also good friends with the Nobel prize-winning writer and fellow Colombian Gabriel Garcia Marquez (he wrote of her in a 1999 profile: 'No one of any age can sing or dance with the innocent sensuality Shakira seems to have invented.') And when asked about the broad sweep of musical styles on her recent worldwide number-one hit album Laundry Service, she simply picks up a piece of mango, bites it and says, 'I try not to be the architect of my own jail, you know?' And that entails a lot of PR.
'I am a person who has many dreams,' she explains in her intense, sing-song South American brogue. 'But as soon as I accomplish one I move on to the next. That's my fatal, absurd nature. Human beings are slaves to our dreams and I am, too. Now I think I just want to share my musical proposal in its entire form.
'What I mean is that I just want everybody to understand me. Just like all my Latin people understand me little by little with each album. They don't compare me to Britney, you know. They'd be like, "What? Britney?" Nothing wrong with Britney, she's a great artist and very beautiful, but I was pretty surprised to be compared to her in America and Britain. But I think that's because there isn't a full understanding of my musical proposal here. That's just a matter of time, though.'
Later that night at TOTP, her musical proposal is squeezed in between those of Celine Dion, Alanis Morissette and Sheryl Crow, who are all also sitting in the Top Of The Pops make-up room. The three paparazzi polishing their lenses outside Television Centre aren't interested in them, however; they have only eyes for one young celebrity couple leaving the building later tonight.
Their quarry is Shakira, although, despite her 10m album sales, one Latin Grammy and papal blessing, she's still only half of what the photographers are after. The other half is her boyfriend, Antonio De La Rua.
Watching De La Rua amble through the throng in the Top Of The Pops bar towards the studio doors the thought occurs that his chunky, dark good looks may not be instantly recognisable to domestic celeb spotters. In fact, he appears much like any Latino kid into rave and heavy metal, bumming his way around Europe. Long, centre-parted hair, a chunky beige sweater, scuffed up jeans: he doesn't look much like the son of an ex-Argentine president, but that's what he is. His father, Fernando, was driven from power late last year following the nation's economic collapse and subsequent civil unrest.
The 28-year-old De La Rua looks even less like one half of the most celebrated young couple in South America - a couple whose every move is splashed across Spanish-speaking tabloids from Bogota to Buenos Aires. But he's that, too. Shakira Mebarak scooped up De La Rua, Latin America's most eligible bachelor, two years ago, and their romantic union has entranced a continent.
The celebrity maths is easy. Shakira's first four Spanish-language albums produced 8m sales; add that to Antonio's prince-like status and you get a turnover of coverage that would make even Victoria Beckham fear for her privacy. Wherever they go - and this is evident even during our days kicking around TV studios and hotel lobbies with them in London - there's always a gaggle of photographers lurking to satisfy South American picture editors. Whether the couple are sunbathing in St Barts, skiing in Switzerland or shopping in Los Angeles, the South American public are kept constantly appraised of their movements. The love affair has not brought only good news to their followers, however: when Fernando De La Rua was deposed, Shakira's albums were withdrawn from many record shops in Argentina.
Antonio flashes a wrist band and sweeps through the double doors that lead into the TOTP studio. As if to underline the fairytale nature of their existence, there on a stool on a stage under the bright lights is the other half of this famous couple preparing to sing a song all about Antonio.
As Shakira sways on her seat to the intro, she does look like a Latino Britney, all bleached blonde curls and butter-wouldn't-melt smiles for the kids down the front. But as soon as she opens her mouth, she slips into gear and motors powerfully past Britney's breathy bump'n'grind. This song that she's singing, 'Underneath Your Clothes', may be slightly kooky pop-rock, but it's sung by someone with the range of an operatic diva.
'You're a song written by the hands of God,' Shakira bellows mightily, her tiny 5ft frame heaving as she fires the lyrics across the studio and straight at Antonio. He nods appreciatively and runs a hand through his mane.
'Because of you I forgot the smart ways to lie...'
So the syntax is a little odd. But then two years ago Shakira couldn't even speak English. Her transition from Spanish-language superstar to genuine international contender has been unusually seamless. It has meant hard graft for Shakira, involving several months in Miami with a private English tutor, as well as two years on a farm in Uruguay learning how to write and record in her new tongue, but the crossover success she's enjoyed since her debut English-language album Laundry Service was delivered in March, has been huge.
Powered by a mix of pop choruses, rock hooks, Latino rhythms and Shakira's versatile voice, Laundry Service has already clocked up well over 2m US sales and is currently sitting pretty in the UK top 10. This global success is an important step-on from that achieved by other Latino super-singers such as Jennifer Lopez, Gloria Estefan or Enrique Iglesias, because it's been accomplished by a home-grown South American star - the first of her type to crossover globally.
Significantly, she hasn't succeeded by making a big musical deal of her Colombian roots, but with off-kilter, whimsical rock reminiscent of (if slightly more overblown than) keen-witted American singers like Alanis Morissette, Liz Phair or Edie Brickell. It's a hippy rock schtick that she picked up from listening to classic 60s and 70s American albums, and a sound that informed her most successful Spanish-language album, Pies Descalzos. The only thing she's adapted for the Western market is the tongue in which she sings.
'Underneath your clothes, there's an endless story,' she howls, rocking back and forth on her stool as her band mimes bongos and guitars on either side of her. 'And all the things I deserve for being such a good girl honey.'
The song climaxes, a little guy with clipboard and earphones runs out whipping the audience into a whooping frenzy, and Shakira clasps her hands together, basking in the applause.
Shakira is from Barranquilla, an industrial city with a population of 1m located on Colombia's Caribbean coast. Her father, Don, was actually born in New York of Lebanese parents, but moved to Colombia as a young child. He wanted to be a writer, but entered the family jewellery business to support his first wife and nine children. He managed one more child with his second wife, Nydia, and they called her Shakira (meaning 'graceful' in Arabic).
'I thank God,' she says, 'that I'm a product of my parents. That they infected me with their intelligence and energy for life, with their thirst for knowledge and their love. I'm grateful that I know where I come from.'
She may have lived a charmed life since, but her earliest memory still causes her distress. The first thing she recalls is a policeman coming to her home to tell her mother that her brother had been hit on his motorcycle by a drunk driver and was dead. She was two years old.
'That's probably why I'm necrophobic - I have a phobia of the subject of death. Any kind of death. Death of relationships, death of feelings, physical death including my own, but especially the death of people I love. It's something I'm working on becauseit's a subject that can't be avoided for ever.'
Happily, this was the last instance of tragedy to blight her early life. She grew up in a nice flat in a comfortable area and as the baby of the family was doted on by all other members of the Mebarak clan. She loved all her family, too, but reserved special hero worship for her dad.
'My dad is a writer and to see him always in front of a typewriter gave me the inspiration to write. He was my idol, my hero. I wanted to be just like him.'
To that end she wrote her first poem, The Crystal Rose, at four and got her first typewriter for Christmas when she was seven. By then, though, the typewriter was no longer a tool for her poetry. It was where she wrote her lyrics. For soon after completing The Crystal Rose, and still some way off her fifth birthday, Shakira had a musical epiphany in a Middle Eastern eatery.
It was in her dad's favourite local restaurant that she first heard the insistent call of the doumbek - the drum traditionally used for belly dancing. She says she felt overpowered by an urge to stand and dance, suppressing it at first in her seat until she could no longer. She was up on the table, shaking and swirling as the room clapped and cheered in time to the drum and this four-year-old girl's hips.
'I fell in love with the sensation of being on stage,' she says. 'Right there, right then. It was all I could dream of.'
Pretty soon she was belly dancing with a fervour reserved exclusively for pre-teen obsessives: at family gatherings, during dinner, in the park, on the beach and even for the nuns at her Catholic school. 'Fridays were special and I performed for the whole school each week. The nuns weren't shocked. They considered it an art. I drove my classmates crazy.'
Most people would be content with one life-defining moment before reaching double figures, but when her aunt gave her a guitar for her eighth birthday she was struck by a second coup-de-foudre. Soon she'd written her first song - a tribute to her dad, of course - entitled 'Your Dark Glasses'. She practised daily and hard until, aged 10, she entered a competition on a local TV talent show and came first, winning a bicycle in the process. There could be no turning back.
She joined a local kids' variety troupe who performed across the region in mining towns and villages, accompanied always on the road by her committed parents. This lasted for three long years.
'Always I was dreaming of a record contract. From 10 to 13 it was all I could think of. I worked hard for this dream. Nobody could say I didn't try.'
Soon before her 13th birthday she had yet another flash of near-religious inspiration while listening to Depeche Mode's 'Enjoy The Silence': it was the sound of the electric guitar played with an intensity she'd never heard before. It sent her into a near orgasmic spasm. She told her mother she was going to make music like this, that she was going be a rock'n'roller and not a pop singer. Her mum, now well-versed in her daughter's inspirational visions, started to shell out for the back catalogues of Led Zeppelin, The Cure and Janis Joplin.
But before Shakira could incorporate rock'n'roll into her Lolita-ish pop act, news arrived that an executive from Sony's Latin division was staying at a posh hotel in town. Armed with her repertoire and the moral support of her parents she cornered the record exec in his hotel lobby and performed her routine a cappela for him. Within a week he'd signed her to Sony for a three-album deal.
She didn't enjoy immediate success, however. Her ballad-heavy first album, Magia, notched sales that barely hit four figures. Her second album, Peligro, was no more successful. But Shakira had a feeling she was destined for greater heights.
'There was no doubt for me, ever. Call it a premonition, call it an instinct. I was born to do this, to connect with a wide audience. The calling I have is the same reason why a dog barks. I always knew I would be a big performer and a public figure.'
With this in mind, Shakira left school at 15 and moved with her mother to Bogota so she could be closer to the action. Soon she landed a role in a soap opera, El Oasis ('I was a very bad actress, I'm ashamed to admit, but I had a lot of fun,') and although this role was neither a success nor her true calling, she did pick up an award from a TV listings mag for 'Best Rear on Television'.
Towards the end of her acting career, in 1994, she finally recorded her first rock song, 'Donde Estas Corazon?' and subsequently enjoyed her first domestic hit. The album that followed in its wake, Pies Descalzos (Bare Feet), was a huge hit across the continent, selling 4m copies and counting. The big breakthrough had finally been achieved. She was 18.
Shakira believes that while recording Laundry Service she also designed Antonio. She hadn't met him then, but she knew what she was looking for.
'I had experiences of bad boys who did not tell the truth. Truth is important to me. I always say that in my town the people do not lie and that's what I was looking for in life. So, while recording the album I designed the man of my life in my head.'
'I made a love map in my head. I had to make sure I wasn't designing anything that had been made before, you see. I didn't want to design anything similar to my past. My relationships in the past were not the best things for my future.'
Soon after she'd designed the man of her dreams on her album, she bumped into the real thing in a Buenos Aires restaurant. 'I didn't know who he was, but we kept looking at each other and I walked past his table to the bathroom so much he must have thought something was wrong with me. But the attraction was immediate. It was love at first sight, for both of us. I didn't know who he was exactly, but once we were introduced I knew I had to go back to Argentina quickly. He's a guy with a big heart, he never lies. That's pretty exotic for me.'
She says the relationship has positively changed her life, adding spiritual structure to the ordered chaos of her hectic schedule.
'This artistic life of a pop star or a rock star is full of distractions and all the extremes are excessive. Being able to expose yourself to the public 20 hours a day, but keeping a balance is not easy. When you fall in love, you prioritise everything. It's like cleaning up and putting things in place.'
Antonio's life has also changed. He has assumed the role her parents once took care of by travelling with her as spiritual chaperone. He doesn't mind.
'I like coming to London - shopping, going out,' he says. 'And with Shakira here too it's perfect.'
But while he's at the shops, Shakira is working hard. She never lets up, except at lunchtime - which she ensures is always at least a two-hour affair. It's not just her drive that insists she's constantly working, nor her perfectionism (before TOTP she decided that she didn't want to perform the version of 'Underneath Your Clothes' from her album, so she took her group to Abbey Road Studios and recorded a brand new take).
Her main problem is that she's a control freak. 'A chef has to take care of his kitchen, right?' she acknowledges the next afternoon, as she and her entourage of nine hang round Radio 1's cramped lobby awaiting the nod for a Jamie Theakston interview. 'So I get involved in every part of my career. I'm in total control. Sometimes I feel like my mind is going to explode, but I can't change it. I've tried to delegate, but believe me, it doesn't work.'
Standing in the Radio 1 lobby discussing future press engagements with her PR whilst the rest of her entourage wait for her in their blacked-outlimos, however, we get a glimpse of the real woman beneath the diva cloak. After a three-day promotional tour with scheduling that would reduce Olympic athletes to their knees, even Shakira is feeling the Friday-evening pace. In jeans and a leather jacket, with a few work-related spots on her brow she suddenly looks like who she is: a young woman a long way from home in desperate need of a few years off.
'Hooooof,' she says before leaving, '... so tired!'
Before bed, though, fiesta! She and Antonio are off to see Travis at the London Arena, followed by a midnight rendezvous with the Chemical Brothers. 'Should be fun,' sighs Shakira. 'See you later,' she says on the doorstep to Radio 1, leaning forward with a peck on the cheek. For once, the paparazzi don't even flinch.
Â· Shakira's new single 'Underneath Your Clothes' is released on 15 July.
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