Katy Perry: Confessions of a Pop Princess
This story first appeared in the June 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
"Nobody knows what really happened except the two people who are in it." It's June 6, and Katy Perry is talking about Kim Kardashian's 72-day marriage to NBA up-and-comer Kris Humphries, unsure where her empathy lies with regard to the media-saturated spectacle of the split -- or whether she feels any at all.
As the survivor of her own short-lived whirlwind romance gone wrong with British comedian-turned-movie star Russell Brand (after marrying in India in October 2010, the couple's divorce became official in July 2011), which the celebrity press has chronicled religiously, touting such headlines as "Katy Humiliated!" and "Married to a Crazy Man," she knows all too well the price one pays when taking your private life public (of note: blogger Perez Hilton is a member of her inner circle). And there's certainly no shortage of speculation as to the reasons for their breakup: from his sobriety to her "monster schedule" (Perry's words), culture clashes and differences of intellect.
Yet here she is, pop's reigning princess, guarded in some respects but also about to put her story out to the world, warts and all, in Paramount's Katy Perry: Part of Me (out July 5). Perry helped finance the feature herself -- to the tune of $2 million of "my own cashola," as the doe-eyed 27-year old likes to call it. Most of the money went toward shooting her November 2011 concert at L.A.'s Staples Center in 3D (AEG Live loaned her additional funds to be part of the production). "My frugal business manager [Bernie Gudvi of GSO Business Management], God bless him, was sweating," recalls Perry, "and I was like, 'Please trust me.' That's kind of been the mantra I've said to everyone my whole life: 'Trust me, I have a vision.' "
Part of that vision was her considered decision to document her relationship with Brand as it crumbled simultaneous to her own meteoric rise -- and in defiance of her ex's own reported protests. Perry says the exercise in filmmaking was from the heart, "like how I write songs" (six of which topped the charts in the past two years, all from her megahit album Teenage Dream). "Honesty has always worked for me," she says. "So if it ain't broke, why f--ing fix it?"
That transparency includes candid moments in the movie, which, two years ago, Perry readily admits she "wouldn't feel completely comfortable with people seeing -- me crying or looking like a hot mess." One key scene shows an emotional meltdown and Perry's professional duties colliding backstage: "What was going on in my personal life was so overwhelming that I had to bend over to let those tears fall straight out of my eye sockets and not my false lashes just as I'm about to go up on that ramp and sing 'Teenage Dream,' " she recalls. "I had to smack myself across the face and say, 'These problems are my problems, they are not my audience's problems, learn to separate that.'"
Indeed, Perry's fans, who range in age from "4 to however old," she says, see mostly what's on the surface: a filthy rich pop star who, according to one report, raked in $44 million last year and hangs out with the likes of Rihanna and Nicki Minaj; a Barbie doll in 18-inch-waist peppermint-swirl dresses with perfect cherry lips who gleefully "kissed a girl," as her 2008 breakout hit boasted; a kitten-obsessed showgirl whose sold-out concerts dazzle with cupcakes, confetti and Candyland themes. In fact, according to Billboard BoxScore, Perry's California Dreams tour ranks in the top 15 of the most-profitable treks of 2011, ahead of Lil Wayne and just behind The Eagles.
"She's a really good songwriter. Women are often seen only as pop icons, and people don't stop to think that these songs are coming from a very musical place. I would put Katy Perry in that bracket — she writes her hits. That's talent." — Nelly Furtado
Among the other eyebrow-raising achievements of her short but incredibly fruitful career: tying Michael Jackson's record for number of chart-topping singles from one album (his Bad had five), eight Grammy nominations, a stupefying 74.6 million tracks and 9.1 million full-lengths sold, more than 1 billion YouTube views, a successful line of perfumes (Meow and Purr), her line of Eylure false eyelashes, endorsements for ProActiv and OPI nail polish and, now, her second entree into the movies, following the role of Smurfette that Perry voiced for the 2011 animated flick The Smurfs. There also are rumors of Perry being cast in the upcoming Freddie Mercury biopic as the bisexual frontman's girlfriend Mary Austin (Sacha Baron Cohen nabbed the lead) -- a fitting role considering Queen was her introduction to rock music as a sheltered teen growing up in Santa Barbara. (Says a rep for the singer, "There's no truth to that.")
It's all part of "a modern-day fairy tale," as Part of Me co-director and Magical Elves Productions executive producer Jane Lipsitz describes the film's narrative. "One that has a happy ending but doesn't require the prince on the horse." Instead, the movie likely will tap into a certain you-go-girl cheerleading among Perry's fans thanks to its themes of confidence, resilience, tenacity and especially faith -- a narrative heavily promoted in Justin Bieber's smash 3D release Never Say Never, in 2011, which also was produced with Magical Elves and released by Paramount. For Never, Paramount turned a $13 million budget into $97 million in box-office receipts to date. As such, the film's production partners, which include Imagine Entertainment, Pulse Films, AEG Live and MTV Films, along with executive producer Craig Brewer, have high expectations for Part of Me. Lipsitz says she and co-director Dan Cutforth hope to see the July 4 holiday take top Bieber's $30 million opening thanks to Perry's "larger international following" (a performance as part of the Macy's annual fireworks spectacular should provide a healthy boost), not to mention the long weekend.
Still, Perry, raised by born-again evangelical ministers, departs from Bieber in that she confesses she's "no poster child for Christianity." Her stage costumes include breasts that shoot whipped cream and, sometimes, no clothes at all (witness her Teenage Dream album cover, which features Perry butt-naked in a cloud of cotton candy). Then there are the lyrics. Among them: "Let you put your hands on me in my skin-tight jeans" from "Teenage Dream"; "Word on the street, you got something to show me/I wanna see your peacock, cock, cock" from "Peacock"; she also enlisted Kanye West to rap, "I'ma disrobe you/Then I'ma probe you" on her radio smash "E.T." With a wink and a knowing smirk, Perry oozes sexuality as one might imagine a Hollywood starlet from the '40s or Joan Holloway on Mad Men -- hardly the qualities of a girl raised in the church (not that it has stopped Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus or any number of her pop-star peers).
"People love the idea of a good girl gone bad, thinking that my parents were so strict and disowned me, but that actually wasn't the case," she defends. "Even though they don't necessarily agree with some of the things I do, they love me as their daughter. That's always been their perspective."
Likely, she might not always agree with their point of view, either. Although her parents certainly love the attention their daughter's name has brought to the other family business of spreading the gospel, it's important to point out that sermons by Keith Hudson have not only drawn standing-room-only crowds but criticism as well.
In January, Perry's father was accused by two prominent Jewish groups of espousing anti-Semitic remarks during a church tour stop in Westlake, Ohio. His remarks -- which allegedly included the jab: "You know how to make the Jew jealous? Have some money, honey" -- promptly made the news cycle and again shined a harsh light onto Perry's life beyond the stage. Her reaction? "The media tried to destroy my parents and has taken things completely out of context, but there's not a whole lot you can do in terms of fighting back," says Perry. "You have to hope that it passes, which it always does. But they have to be careful. They didn't necessarily sign up for this."
About her own religious views, she asserts: "I still have a spiritual base and a spiritual foundation," symbolized by a Jesus tattoo on her left wrist. "And my conversation with God is very open-ended. I pray for humility, honestly, because it's very easy to be caught up in this world."
As the story goes, and Part of Me shows, Perry, born Katheryn Hudson, was raised in an ultrareligious home alongside younger brother David and older sister Angela where so-called "secular music" was verboten by her traveling preacher parents Keith and Mary. She found her voice at church and, at 16, recorded an album of Christian music that failed to gain traction. A year later, she had dropped out of high school and headed 90 miles south to L.A., where the pop and rock scenes beckoned.
What followed was a series of false starts and stalled attempts at stardom, the sort of hurdles that to most might seem insurmountable. Signed almost immediately to Universal's Island Records (Bieber's label) while tough-talking Israeli executive Lyor Cohen ruled the roost, Perry recalls one meeting at the record company where she, along with three other pop-star hopefuls, were told in no uncertain terms that only one of them would actually see their album come out. Her reaction "Then what's the point?" led to Perry being unceremoniously dropped.
The following year, in 2004, she landed at Sony's Columbia Records but never managed to get a record out on her own. Instead, Perry was paired with hit songwriting team The Matrix (Avril Lavigne's "Complicated," "Sk8ter Boi") for their self-titled album. The act's debut also got shelved (until Perry's fame prompted its release five years later, in 2009).
Dropped again, Perry toiled away at open-mic nights and became a fixture at Hollywood singer-songwriter haven Hotel Cafe, where she tested her songs on whomever would listen. At the same time, she scraped by working at TAXI, an independent "A&R service" that, for a fee, will listen to an unsigned artist's music with a critical ear and offer suggestions on how to better your chances of getting signed. As a fellow part-timer recalls, she was "committed" to helping the musically challenged and "driven as all hell."
By then, Perry had racked up debts to her family and her manager Bradford Cobb, to whom she was introduced by a friend ("I did cartwheels and landed in a split in his office," recalls Perry of their first meeting), eventually owing the mild-mannered Mississippi native more than $20,000. "He was such a big believer in me, to the point where he would cut me a check when I couldn't make my rent," she says. Not long after, Perry found herself a missed payment away from having her black Volkswagen Jetta repossessed.
Hoping to score a rarely offered third recording contract, Perry says Cobb's advice was straightforward: "To go out and try these songs out, like I continued to do. … The reaction was incredible. The people were telling me that I was doing something right, and the people are the ones that buy the music, not the labels."
One label eventually did buy into the Katy Perry promise: EMI's Capitol Records. Her music made its way to the office of chairman Jason Flom via then-head of publicity Angelica Cob-Baehler, a former Columbia staffer and big-time believer, and in 2007, Perry's debut album, One of the Boys, was promptly completed and released to capitalize on a wave of female pop singers including Pink, Rihanna and Leona Lewis (it has since sold 3.7 million units on the back of such hits as "Hot N' Cold," "I Kissed a Girl" and "Waking Up in Vegas").
With a market share of 11.8 percent, London-based EMI is small in comparison with Big 4 competitors Sony (32.8 percent), Universal Music Group (28.4) and Warner Music (15.3), which means Perry not only plays a vital role when it comes to the company's bottom line but commands power. Like Coldplay, David Guetta and Lady Antebellum, "Katy is one of our crown jewels," says Greg Thompson, executive vp marketing and promotion at EMI North America. "She is a global superstar, she sells a large volume of music and is a significant piece of our family, financially and creatively." (Worth noting, however ironically: Pending regulatory approval in Europe, EMI is set to be split and its recorded music unit, which includes labels Capitol, Virgin, Astralwerks and Blue Note, sold for $1.9 billion to a consortium led by Universal Music Group, essentially returning Perry to the company that once dropped her.)
When it comes to Perry's hyper-technical performances, such as at the MuchMusic Awards on June 17, when she wore a cocoon gown that flapped open to reveal giant butterfly wings for the song "Wide Awake," the dollar signs start to skyrocket to the tune of $200,000-plus, and the label is on the hook for it. "I'm a bit of a dreamer when it comes to having a vision, and there's a lot of logistics and physics behind something like that," says Perry. Not that EMI executives are complaining. "I learned pretty quick not to bet against Katy's ideas because she's almost always right," says Thompson. "They are effective, the performances," adds Perry coyly.
Not surprisingly, Perry applies herself to the movie business with the same confident instincts and dogged focus. Not only has the hitmaker started to read the trades dutifully -- all of them -- but she's insisted on being intimately involved in every step of the editing and marketing of Part of Me, not to mention the film's very creation. "It was an idea that snowballed in the greatest way," she says: to invite two "scruffy boys from East London" (Ed Lovelace and James Hall) to "pack a suitcase, spend a year on the road, bring a camera, a boom, sit in a corner and just catch it all." Perry's only directive? "Throw the net out wide and we'll edit from there."
Three hundred hours of footage later, she stammers when attempting to describe the experience of watching interviews from her Matrix days or one clip from 2004, when a fresh-faced 20-year-old Perry lays out for Mom and Dad her hopes for the future: "I want to do something with my life. I want it to stand out like a sore thumb. I don't want to just be like everyone else." Says Perry: "I have never, like, gone outside of my body and seen myself, you know? And this is me seeing everything."
Lipsitz, for one, was impressed with Perry's hands-on approach. "Katy is so detail-oriented and has strong opinions," says the executive. "We saw her notes on every poster, trailer and TV spot. She knows her fan base so well, and her business acumen is incredible."
Paramount Motion Picture Group president Adam Goodman concurs, calling Perry "a studio executive's dream. She did a lot of homework and was very sophisticated in her observations and criticisms," he says. "She doesn't let anyone give a canned answer, and she tries to find the best solution and drives it home." Plus, he adds, "She's incredibly dependable. If she says she's going to show up at a certain time, she does, which is unusual for someone in the music industry."
Asked for her take on the biggest difference between the movie and music industries, Perry responds: "You have to respectfully fight for your vision. With movies, testing is like a science, so if yours is edited in a way that tests well and you don't like it, then you're shit out of luck." Perry experienced this firsthand -- fortunately in her favor -- when she challenged Paramount to a trailer "duel:" her "grittier," more "rough around the edges" version of a two-minute-long clip versus the studio's.
"The feedback is, people don't like to see me cry," she says, "and I don't want to alienate my fans, but I wanted a trailer that I would be moved by as well." Ultimately hers won out, but it also tested better. "I've always been highly involved in both the artistic and the business side of things because if you're too right-brained and not a little left-brained, you can lose the whole ship. You have to have that balance or else you don't get to take those artistic chances."
Of course, promotion for the movie already is in high gear even as eleventh-hour edits still are being made. On June 13, Perry hosted a surprise fan screening at L.A.'s The Grove; a week earlier, she was doing the same in London, where she also stepped out with new boyfriend Rob Ackroyd, guitarist for Florence + The Machine, whom she was seen with at this year's Coachella music festival. And the MuchMusic Awards cocoon-dress performance was merely a prelude to the premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, which will shut down the highly trafficked intersection of Hollywood and Highland on June 26.
In true fairy-tale fashion, Perry has reached the highest heights of the music industry while suffering the low blows of a love lost. Weeks ago, she moved out of the Los Feliz home she shared with Brand; on Jan. 20, she stopped following him on Twitter (he followed suit four months later). Still, on more nights than not, Perry, unlike most millionaire twentysomethings, insists she'd rather stay in than "go out and get twisted. … Because I probably have to wake up and work in the morning. And I have a lot more to lose."
When she does socialize, Perry says it's "with the same 10 friends I had when I first moved to L.A." -- among them actress Sharon Woodward, her stylist/co-collaborator Johnny Wujek, longtime confidants Marcus Molinari and Mia Morretti (all of whom have a co-starring role in Part of Me), along with celebrity pals such as American Idol alum Adam Lambert and blogger Hilton, who since meeting the singer in March 2007 (he was the first to endorse and promote her music, posting the ballad "Waking Up in Vegas" on his website a full year before it was released) maintains that she hasn't changed. "Katy has made a conscious decision and works at her normalcy," he says. "It could've been easy for her to go in the Beyonce direction, where everyday is a superstar day, and she constantly has security around her. I see Katy more like Pink: They're both normal people who do normal things and don't get caught up in the hype of what it means to be an internationally famous pop star. Because once you get addicted to the Kool-Aid, it's hard to get your feet back down to the ground." Perry's response? "I'm very proud of that," she says.
Perhaps in an effort to pay back (metaphorically speaking) those who extended a hand to a struggling artist, Perry is soon adding another entry to her ever-growing résumé: label head. "I'm preparing for it now," she reveals of the as-yet-unnamed imprint. "And when this record label does come to fruition, I'm going to try and avoid the things that take away any fighting chance for an artist to have financial success. As people are coming to me with opportunities, I'm thinking, 'How would I want to be treated?' "
Perry is reminded of a difficult decision she made in her prefame days to hang onto her publishing at a time when she was "so broke" and ever more desperate for success. "Someone was offering me a price, which at that time seemed incredible, but now looking back on it was a complete gyp," she says. "As a songwriter, that's your asset." According to a source, the deal on the table was just under $1 million, and while it tempted Perry, she decided "to bet on herself" and secured an administration deal with Warner/Chappell instead -- a smart move seeing as she has not only earned an estimated $7 million from single sales but pocketed at least another $6 million as a co-writer on her 12 radio smashes.
"She's a really good songwriter," says pop elder and fellow chart-topper Nelly Furtado. "Women are often seen only as pop icons, and people don't stop to think that these songs are coming from a very musical place. I would put Katy Perry in that bracket -- she writes her hits. That's talent."
But does Perry still buy into the wide-eyed, heart-fluttering sentiment of songs like "Teenage Dream?" "This is real so take a chance/Let's run away and don't ever look back?" "Absolutely," she insists. "I still believe in love and marriage. I've just learned lessons along the way. I regret nothing."
-- Additional reporting by Leslie Bruce, Sarah Lindstedt and Pamela McClintock.
KATY PERRY'S CALIFORNIA DREAMS TOUR BY THE NUMBERS*
- $583,333: Average nightly concert gross
- 124: Number of sellouts, constituting every show of the year-long tour
- $59.5M: Gross after 124 shows
- 102: Cities visited during the trek's 22-country run from February 2011 to January 2012
- 1,207,386: Total tickets sold
- 17 Costume-changes during the two-hour show (eight in one song!)
* sources: Billboard BoxScore, Pollstar, Capitol Records
Update: A previous version of this story listed the numner of sell-outs as 54; It was corrected.
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