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Weekend Cover Story: Blessed by a 'Genie'

With the summer's hottest single, the girl who grew up singing the national anthem for the Pirates and Penguins could be pop music's next superstar

Friday, August 13, 1999

By Ed Masley, Post-Gazette Pop Music Critic

Someday soon, if all goes well, she hopes to buy a pair of shoes she swears are nothing short of "totally amazing."

Christina Aguilera says there were a lot of other artists who were after the song "Genie in a Bottle." She got it, and it's been No. 1 for almost a month. (Yaariv Milchan) 

It would be her "little splurge," she says.

To celebrate.

For now, there is no time for such frivolity -- with all the photo shoots, the interviews, the live performances, the TV special tapings and, of course, the travel time that comes with being No. 1.

She's lucky she's able to make it home to Wexford once a month or so to see her mom.

It's Tuesday when we speak, in her third week of ruling the charts with the summer's most smoldering single -- a single that may, in fact, have caused the recent heat wave -- and Christina Aguilera would seem to be doing her best to keep from coughing in the cell phone as she travels down the road from one promotional obligation to another.

She's been fighting a nasty case of tonsillitis for a few days now. But this is no time for a star to be sick.

The Aguilera show goes on. As it must. She's got her photo shoots and interviews (all in the past week) for TV Guide, Teen People, Entertainment Weekly and, of course, the "endless European press, including photo shoots," as her RCA publicist calls it.

The night before we speak, the singer tapes a show called "Summer Music Mania" for UPN in San Diego with her best friend from the Mouseketeer days, Brit-Brit -- or, as those of us who are not Aguilera call her, Britney Spears.

Somehow, she sneaks in a taping of "House of Style" for MTV.

And then, it's off to join the Lilith Fair, which brings her home to Western Pennsylvania for a 20-minute third-stage set today, accompanied only by piano, at the Coca-Cola Star Lake Amphitheatre.

"I am so, so anxious to go back home," she says. "I'm just missing it terribly, 'cause first of all, I'm under the weather, and you know, all you really want to do is just be with your mommy, and have her pamper you and give you some chicken soup and stuff that hotels can't make, you know what I mean? Not the way your mommy makes it."

Aguilera hopes to use her set at Lilith Fair to show a different side -- "a more intimate side," without the dancers in their little genie outfits.

Just piano, Aguilera and a microphone.

"We wanted it to be more of just a very real show," the singer explains, "because I think the Lilith acts will bring in more of a real crowd, not so much the teen music buyers. It'll bring in more of a variety of women who are there to listen to real music, like Jewel or Sarah McLachlan."

She'll use the occasion to focus on ballads -- "Reflection," for instance, the tune she recorded last year for the soundtrack to Disney's "Mulan."

It's on ballads, she says, that she feels she can just completely put her heart and soul into the music.

On a similar note, she'll be covering Etta James' "At Last."

"That's my little finale," she says, with much excitement. "It's a great song, isn't it?"

She's loved the blues since childhood, though the voice that really turned her head was just a shade less soulful.

Julie Andrews.

"My earliest memories," Aguilera says, "are definitely of singing 'Sound of Music.' When I discovered Julie Andrews and 'The Sound of Music,' I immediately fell in love. I had the soundtrack on a little tape. I'd put it in my boombox in my room. And I would just, like, close my door and open my window and just sing out. I don't know. It was such a release for me, growing up, for any bad energy or anything that was going on, tension or pain that I was going through. Singing was a way of releasing that. It really made me happy. I would just sing that all over the place."

Her mother, Shelly Kearns, remembers being stopped by people on the bus when Christina was 3.

She was singing, her mother recalls, just singing to herself, a song from "Sound of Music," more than likely, and the passengers all just thought her voice was "unusually good for such a tiny girl."

At 6 or 7, Aguilera started performing in public around the neighborhood, at backyard parties, stuff like that.

"And you know, back then, it was always like 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' " she says. "And I'd be like, 'A singer.' But then, as I grew up, it became more and more definite that this is what I want to do, that I can't ever imagine myself doing anything else."

And now she doesn't even have to imagine it, really. Her single is huge. Her video guarantees that boys, at least, will want to see a whole lot more of Aguilera in years to come.

And with her debut album set to hit the streets on Aug. 24, Time magazine has already declared her "one of the most strikingly gifted singers to come along since [her hero] Mariah Carey."

She's poised, the writer goes on to enthuse, to become pop's next big female superstar. For her part, Aguilera can't believe it.

"I am so amazed," she gushes. "I'm awestruck. I'm living my dream. It's amazing."

Aguilera's rise to No. 1 may strike those unfamiliar with her story as an overnight thing, when, in fact, it's taken years of work -- a lifetime, really.

At 9, she made her national TV debut on "Star Search."

And the fact that Aguilera lost says all you need to know about the show.

Theatrical producer Jude Pohl, who ran a local "Star Search" at the time, recalls being floored by a videotape of a 9-year-old Christina.

"We were just amazed," he says. "We called her right away, but we already had our people scheduled for the year, so we just had her come and perform as a guest performer at the finals."

The following year, Christina won it all. As Pohl recalls, one girl refused to go on after hearing Aguilera sing.

"It wasn't that she had a big voice," Pohl explains. "She had an adult voice. We could have had her compete in the adult female vocalist contest if she had been behind a curtain."

By 1991, the year Christina won Pohl's contest, she was a regular singing the national anthem at Penguins games. At Steelers games. At Pirates games. Wherever duty called.

The same year, Aguilera's family moved to Wexford. Christina was actually born (Dec. 18, 1980) in Staten Island and moved with her mother, since remarried, and sister, Rachel, to Beaver County in 1987 to live with her grandma for a while when her parents got divorced.

At 12, she joined the Mouseketeers with Britney Spears and other future stars, including Keri Russell of "Felicity" and Justin Timberlake and JC Chavez of 'N Sync, on the "New Mickey Mouse Club."

She'd auditioned two years earlier at what her mother says was "basically a cattle call" in Pittsburgh. Christina was one of a handful Disney chose to screen test. Two years later, the show's producers called and said they'd liked her screen test at the time but found her kind of young and decided to wait until she got a little older. She stayed with the show for two seasons, until it was canceled.

Looking back on her days of Mouseketeering, Aguilera says, "It was great preparation for what I'm doing now because of the fact that you had so much on-camera experience every day. And it was really great to be around a lot of other kids who enjoyed performing and were just as passionate and driven about it as you were. So I'm not surprised at all at the success of my fellow Mouseketeers."

Asked to speculate on why so many of her fellow Mouseketeers have gotten famous, Aguilera strikes a blow for honesty and says, "I think it was a good casting agent, first of all."

Although they only get to see each other when their schedules coincide -- at Summer Music Madness, for example, or the recently taped Teen Choice Awards -- she's still good friends with Spears. So don't let those Internet postings to the contrary fool you.

"It sort of hurts our feelings," she says of the rumors. "There is no rivalry. We're two completely different artists. And I think once people get to know me better as an artist, they'll see that."

With her debut album, even, Aguilera has done her best to target an older demographic, in addition to the younger kids who made the Backstreet Boys a cottage industry.

"My voice can sound very mature," she says, in a classic case of understating the obvious.

She signed to RCA last year, the same week she was tapped by Disney for the soundtrack to "Mulan."

The album was nearly completed before a steamy little song called "Genie in a Bottle" came to Aguilera's attention.

"I almost didn't record it," she says, "because there were a lot of other artists out there that were after this song, so we had to fight a little bit to get it."

Even then, she says, she wasn't sure she felt the song should be her lead-off single from the album. It fit in a little too well with the current state of pop, she says. And she wanted to stand out more.

"I think what's going on in pop right now," she says, "is very hook-driven, and a lot of times, I think it lacks real soul and real feeling and real emotion. And I wanted to make sure my first single would convey that kind of soul. And I didn't think that 'Genie in a Bottle' would come across as much as another song might have. Being that I've always looked up to great singers like Mariah or whatever, I wanted a 'Vision of Love'-type single, one that would really let me let loose. But 'Genie in a Bottle' is great and, you know, I still have yet to release some big ballads, so that's in the future."

As the singer's career has progressed from local talent shows to "endless European press," she's always had her mom's support.

"I basically could tell from a very young age," her mom explains, "that this was sort of out of my hands. It was out of her hands. I mean, I know it sounds corny, but it's literally something that she seemed like she was born to do."

She was never a stage mother, though.

As Aguilera says, "I feel bad because I would go to these competitions and you have a chance to witness real stage mothers. And people always ask me, 'Was your mom like that?' "

If anything, she jokes, "Maybe I was a stage child."

She's the one who did the pushing, Aguilera says, "but she knew that I wanted to do this and she really helped me out."

The most amazing thing about her mom, she says, is that she's trusted her to go out in the world and do what needed to be done.

"As I've gotten older," Aguilera says, "a lot of my friends' moms would always be like 'Aren't you scared to let your daughter go and do this? Don't you even care?' But she's been so courageous in giving me the freedom to go out and do this. A lot of other mothers wouldn't allow their children to do it out of fear or out of not wanting to cut the apron strings."

As mom explains her strategy, "The route I took was to prepare her for the bad things. Since she was little, my main concern has been to try to bring her up in a way that she would keep her head about her. As things developed, I kind of thought that this is where she might end up and just in case, I wanted to make sure she knew that it was a gift from God and not to abuse it, to try to help people with it and to try not to get a big head about it. And so far, I'm very proud of her."

Every so often, though, being a mother, she checks with Christina to see if she's still having fun. And she is, despite the occasional drawbacks of fame. Like the prom, for example.

As detailed in Vibe, Aguilera attended the North Allegheny prom this spring and felt that the girls in her class were ignoring her.

"I don't know, girls always give me grief," she says. "It's, like, awful."

She knew it would happen, she says. That's why, at first, she didn't plan on even going to the prom. Instead, she took two dates -- a blind date and a "special" friend.

"I just wanted to go and have fun," she says. "But all the girls ignored me. I was lucky if one or two girls actually came up and said 'Hi' to me, even girls that I did know, which was sort of disappointing because all I wanted to do was, like, hang out and be a normal kid."

She sighs.

"But sometimes, kids that go to school and don't live my kind of lifestyle treat me differently, which is really, really sad."

The evening had its moments, though.

"I mean, the guys all talked to me."

We're sure they did, which leads us to the subject of this "Genie" song, a song Aguilera insists -- in Vibe, in USA Today, to your humble reporter -- is not about sex, no matter how suggestive Aguilera sounds when purring "If you want to be with me/Baby, there's a price to pay/I'm a genie in a bottle/You gotta rub me the right way."

It's not about sex, she says.

It's about empowerment.

And self-respect.

It's a message song, she says. And one that young girls need to hear.

The way she sees it, "If you listen to the words, 'My body's saying let's go but my heart is saying no.' My heart is saying no. So it's really a song about self-respect and treating me the way I want to be treated before I just give my love away to anybody."

And it's really sexy, I remind her, 'cause I'm helpful that way.

"Yes," she says, "it is sexy."

Then with a laugh, she asks, "But what song isn't sexy, right?"

I think better of answering "War Pigs."

Or "Green Acres."

Now that "Genie in a Bottle" has granted her wishes and made her a singing sensation while her vocal chops have inspired at least one RCA executives to blather, "She's our Streisand," Aguilera has all sorts of plans for where she'd like to go from here.

She'd like to act, for one.

And being half-Hispanic, Aguilera says she'd love do a Spanish album.

Having contributed vocal arrangements to "Genie," she knows she'd like to do more writing next time.

And maybe produce.

In short, she isn't kidding when she says, "I won't be pigeonholed as a teen artist."

Not with that voice anyway.

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