Leaving pop novelty and broken hearts behind her, Katy Perry has grown into her formidable talent.
San Ysidro Ranch is a ritzy hideaway in the wine country of Southern California, where major celebrities cluster. The Montecito foothills rearing up behind the property make a spectacular backdrop for all the charming heritage buildings, and on a pretty day it is a nice place to wait for someone who is stuck in traffic in Los Angeles. So, when Katy Perry roars in like a Bond girl in her low, growly, bright-red Maserati GranCabrio Fendi and hurls it into a parking space, it’s like the beginning of a movie.
I adore a capable woman who can drive like James Bond (especially since she has to chauffeur me around all day). Why did she buy a Maserati? Perry says, “Because I didn’t like the Porsche. And it’s rented.” She is in a girly-girl’s flower-print dress in shades of mauve—is it vintage? Or is it a vintage-inspired knockoff of a 1960s dress? She shakes her head: “Ach! It’s just a . . . little dress I found,” she says. “One of those little dresses everyone has. That you just—throw on. And you’re dressed.” And are these Repetto ballet shoes on her feet? In the same bright orange as her nail polish? “Yes, ma’am. Easy to pop on and off.” And is that thick mass of lush raven hair all hers? She laughs. “Probably straight off the airplane from India.”
As the incarnation of a global megabrand, she is a boss, a manager, and she acts like one: She already has today’s itinerary tightly planned for us. Right now, we’ll take a brief walk in the garden where the mountains loom so she can point out the high trail she’ll be hiking tomorrow (she does a two-hour hike at least twice a week). Then she will drive us to lunch at La Super-Rica in Santa Barbara, her favorite taqueria. Oprah has sung its praises, she says, as has Martha Stewart; it is “superquaint and cute and inexpensive.”
Following lunch, she has arranged a private tour of the lovely cactus gardens of Lotusland, an important property she wants more people to know about. She has homes in New York and Los Angeles, but Santa Barbara is Perry’s hometown; I find it very sweet that she is acting in a semi-ambassadorial capacity for Southern California with one of her busy hands.
Her other hand is in the midst of making her third pop album (her others have made her $45 million, according to Forbes), but she won’t talk about it: She even took back the words “halfway through,” which is where she’d first said the album was, “because that’s too much of a jumping-off point.” She’s careful. Does she never get fazed by the massive machine she runs? “Of course I get fazed,” she says patiently. “And when I am in between records, sometimes I doubt myself. I’ll be like: Did I just get lucky, or did I mass-manipulate the world into thinking that seven songs were worth a number-one position? And then I go back into the studio and I start writing, and the true essential oil of who I am comes bubbling back up and reminds me that it’s always been inside of me, that nobody can take this away no matter what comment anyone makes. It’s going to be there because it’s what I was born with and it’s what I’ve worked on my whole life.”
Today is Saturday: Sunday she is off to Cancún to publicize the latest Smurfs movie (she is the voice of Smurfette. She’d like to flex her acting muscles further); next week she will be photographed for Vogue—the results are on these pages; then she goes to New York City to launch her third perfume. After Purr and Meow! she chose Killer Queen (great name: picked because as a girl she adored Queen and thought Freddie Mercury “really knew what a woman was”). She will attend Vogue’s gala evening at the Met celebrating the years of punk. Does she know what she’ll be wearing? “Dolce & Gabbana,” she says, bright-eyed. “And a crown.” She is also just back from a tryout field trip as a Unicef goodwill ambassador, which is not an easy gig. Asked to choose between two areas of need, she picked Madagascar, which had more focus on women and babies, rather than Rwanda (more focus on HIV/AIDS). The absolute poverty stunned her, which must be the point of an induction trip: to see how resilient the celebrity is. From my viewing of official footage of Perry fist-bumping shy kids, I’d say she is gutsy enough for her powerful public image to be useful to Unicef.
She is exceptionally sweet company. The other thing I love her for is that she rescues me from my brand-new voice recorder (tiny, Japanese, purchased in frantic haste only minutes before we meet, which means its configurations are bafflingly different from those of the one that broke in my hand this morning). When finally I succeed in switching it on, I cannot tell if it works. Omigod, is it recording? Is it recording?
Perry takes it, pushes buttons briskly with both thumbs, says, “It is now,” hands it back, and laughs aloud at my mortified face. In a singsong voice she says, “I knoooow. Kids today! And their technoooology.” She will take the recorder from me several times during the day, to check it is working. She is 28, younger than my younger daughter, but she is the logistics boss here. I tell her the only other interviewee who ever assumed control of my recording machine was another singer, Luciano Pavarotti, and that simply because he was so fat that my arm (holding the recorder) would not stretch across his massive chest, so he held it himself. Perry uses the same model herself as an audio notebook to record snatches and fragments of songs in the making, and to my delight she plays one as a “little experiment: This is like its rawest form, and I titled it ‘Bad Photographs’ because the idea is that when people are in a relationship they only take photographs when they are happy, and sometimes when it ends you realize maybe it would be important to take photographs when it’s not happy. So I have this idea—” And her voice comes curling out of the machine: “Looking back we should have taken photographs . . . of all the unhappiness . . . coz now my mind’s playing tricks on me. . . . I forget we are not meant to be. . . .” Click. Then she sings over the top of it. “You know what I am saying? So I put it in this song last night. That’s how I write a song.”
The line outside the taqueria is long, and we have maybe 20 minutes to wait. “This is La Super-Rica,” quips Perry, “but I used to come here when I was superpoor, too.” Outside is space that nobody owns, so people don’t press, but the minute we’re inside the door, the crowd of amateur photographers steadily increases. Over and over, Perry says, “Sure!” in a bright tone and poses with a bright smile, or puts an arm around the wife, or (in one case) both wives, or holds the hand of the child, or children, then says, “Thank you!” in the same upbeat voice. One man has her with a half-dozen family members, and then says rather throatily to Perry, “OK, now a solo!” which is not a question but a demand. She says no. My recording is full of voices saying: “You know the two little girls calling Katy, Katy? These are my daughters, they want to say hi”; though the kids mostly don’t say hi but simply gaze with huge round eyes. She works assiduously and her manners are perfect, but the pressure is relentless.
Once they call our number—Vogue and Perry fight for possession of the tiny bill; Perry wins—we sit and eat, and she is mostly left in peace, absent the occasional guerrilla pesterer. The food is meltingly good, and she is pleased when I vacuum up a homemade taco with absolute relish. “When I was younger, I used to be a part of the surfing-and-skateboarding community,” she says. “And after a whole day of having saltwater in my mouth was this taco. It always, always hit the spot.” She points out the window. “There is a charity shop right there that I would go to after I ate here. Lunch and a new dress.” She urges me toward a tamale, and I dig delicately into what looks like a puddle of damp piecrust to find more deliciousness. She says, “We used to have ladies when we lived here—Hispanic ladies in church—drop these off at our house on Sundays. It was nice. It was one of the perks.” I’m guessing there weren’t too many perks. No, she says, they were few and far between.
The waiter brings horchatas, which she is worried I will not like, but the icy, milky-thick cinnamon taste is a fabulous counter to spice and hot peppers. “Do you like cinnamon?” she asks. I do: It was the smell of America when I first used to come, in the 1980s. All the coffee I ever drank in the USA appeared to have cinnamon thrown on top, I tell her, before Starbucks changed everything. Perry (who was born in 1984) puts on a face of mock awe and whispers: “You knew a life before Starbucks?” and then, “How do you get on with cheese and things?” I tell her I’m very fat at the moment, and she jokes, “Oh, yeah, I can’t even fit through a doorway.” Pitch-perfect.
This is why Russell Brand fell for her in a minute and a half, I’m thinking: because of the quick-fire slapstick/deadpan, adult/childish wisecracking and point-scoring. When they were both on form—and in love—they must have come over like Hepburn and Tracy. Brand was “a magical man” when she met him four years ago, she says, and he has always looked like a romantic little package—an all-eras history boy with his Regency hair, skinny Tudor legs and codpiece, and Wuthering Heights recklessness. “He’s a very smart man, and I was in love with him when I married him,” Perry says. “Let’s just say I haven’t heard from him since he texted me saying he was divorcing me December 31, 2011.”
I murmur something about Brand’s bad-boy reputation but add that his native land, the UK, forgives him because he’s hysterically funny. She responds, “Hysterical in some ways. Until he started making jokes about me and he didn’t know I was in the audience, because I had come to surprise him at one of his shows. So. Hysterical to a point. I mean, I have to claim my own responsibility in things. I do admit that I was on the road a lot. Although I invited him time and time again, and I tried to come home as much as I possibly could. You saw that in the movie.”Katy Perry: Part of Me, a documentary released last year that has garnered $32 million worldwide to date, covers the period before, during, and after her time with Brand. “That wasn’t edited to leave footage out—there wasn’t any footage of him.”
The marriage lasted fourteen months. “At first when I met him he wanted an equal, and I think a lot of times strong men do want an equal, but then they get that equal and they’re like, I can’t handle the equalness. He didn’t like the atmosphere of me being the boss on tour. So that was really hurtful, and it was very controlling, which was upsetting. I felt a lot of responsibility for it ending, but then I found out the real truth, which I can’t necessarily disclose because I keep it locked in my safe for a rainy day. I let go and I was like: This isn’t because of me; this is beyond me. So I have moved on from that.”
You’ve had another relationship since, I say, having read various gobbets of stuff from Web sites that she was seeing the musician John Mayer in an on-and-off way. She says, “Yes.” Is that ongoing or over? She says, “Over.” Oh, my. I had made the tabloid reader’s assumption that she was stepping out with Mayer as a classic “revenge” relationship, to show ol’ Rusty Brand what he was missing—but she cuts in: “No, not at all. No, I was madly in love with him. I still am madly in love with him.” With John Mayer? That wasn’t what I expected to hear at all. “All I can say about that relationship is that he’s got a beautiful mind,” she says. “Beautiful mind, tortured soul. I do have to figure out why I am attracted to these broken birds.”
When lunch is over, we set off for Lotusland, an astonishing place if you’re a fan of botanical gardens (which I am, even if I wouldn’t recognize a bromeliad if it walked up my garden path). Perry loves Lotusland. Though she’s a native, she discovered the estate only recently, via her interior designer (the L.A.-based Commune, featured in Vogue’s May issue), and she has taken friends there to show them around. The fascination of the place for Perry is in the founder of the gardens, Ganna Walska, a Polish woman of great beauty and notoriety (an irresistible combination for millennia) who had six husbands, some talent as a singer, and (finally) vast pots of money for her cactus habit. We explore her house, as well, and a wardrobe of such of her clothes as are not in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. We even try one or two things on—very carefully.
Back at the San Ysidro Ranch, where Perry is staying the night, we sit in the Old Adobe house and she talks about love and work and what life’s about. Katy Perry is old enough, I guess, that her extremely odd childhood (aspects of which have been well documented) is now far enough in the past for its events to have been forgiven and forgotten. Still, it seems to have left a long shadow. Her parents, Keith and Mary Hudson, were evangelical traveling ministers and unwaged, relying for income on what the congregations raised. Perry says there would be great times, and there would be times when they were on food stamps. The atmosphere at home, she says, was “not fun.” Referencing the biblical injunction not to spare the rod and spoil the child, she told me, “My parents did not spare the rod.” I say she was born in 1984, and isn’t that somewhat late in the twentieth century for physical punishment? She says not necessarily, if you come from a Bible-believing family with a father from the South (he was born in Memphis). She tells me she has mild OCD and believes it stems from her desire as a child to try to control the atmosphere around her.
I was surprised to learn that she really did not get the opportunity to “go to school much” because of her parents’ itinerant life. Though she was born in Santa Barbara, from the age of three or four she moved around the country about seven times. At ten—which is a little late for catch-up from kindergarten—the Hudsons moved back to Santa Barbara for good, but she says, “I wasn’t going to great schools, because my parents didn’t believe in public education. They wanted the education to be influenced by their religion, so I was going to these halfway education-slash-Christian schools that were like pop-up shop–style education.”
No one can help how badly one’s dumb or downtrodden or damaged parent copes with child-raising. But Perry’s parents were none of these things, and certainly not dumb. “And my father is hilarious. That’s where I get my sense of humor from.”
Me: Well, of course I was going to ask you where you got your sense of humor. Perry (deadpan): “Oh, you’ve seen it already? Sooo, he’s very funny and a practical joker, but he’s more emotional and driven. I mean, my mother is very emotional as well, but my dad is more of the guts of the family. He was the main preacher, so he kind of had this little Pentecostal flair, but they are born-again. So there’s a little bit of my background.”
She says her mother was “very smart. She went to a couple of girls’ schools in Carmel and then went to Berkeley and studied abroad in Spain. She speaks French, she used to be a painter, but now she is just in the ministry. She used to be a reporter, actually. She wanted to be Barbara Walters.” Hard to understand why a woman who understands the value of (and benefited from) study appeared to disdain schooling for her children—Perry has an older sister, who works for her, and a younger brother, a musician. (Mrs. Hudson is reportedly writing a memoir, which I hope I get to review.) Perry herself is very forgiving of her messed-up education, though she recognizes (and regrets) her weaknesses: “I have a problem reading,” she said at one point, and she tries to listen to tapes to get stuff into her head. Her parents, she says, are different now; far from merely being tolerant of her strolling-player life, they’re “participating.”
Perry started singing when she was nine—in church, during the collection of “tithes and offerings.” She’d heard little “secular music”—the stuff that most American kids grow up with—which was forbidden in her own house. But by dripping “Chinese water torture on my parents little by little and day by day,” she eventually came out from under. She wrote and recorded a gospel album when she was fifteen. Her mother went with her to record it in Nashville. It didn’t sell, but she’d begun her climb.
As we sit in the Old Adobe house in the lengthening shadows, she has asked the waiter for “some of those cookies” that are up in the main reception, with a light in her eye that tells me they’re dangerous cookies. I say preemptively, We had a huge lunch, and she says, “Are you judging me? Are you saying a woman can’t eat cookies?” “Well, hellooo,” says a voice from outside, and there is a young man standing there in the half-dark. “Do you know Orlando Bloom?” Perry asks me. We say hello, Miranda Kerr says hello, too, and their son, adorable little Flynn, says hello. It’s always funny watching top-of-the-poppermost celebrities meet and greet one another. Everyone’s performing except the baby.
After the Blooms disappear into the night, Perry says, “Please, can I play you my song now?” Are you kidding? Do we go sit in your car? We sit in her car. She hooks her phone into its cradle and turns it on, and her swooping, emotional voice chokes me up almost at once. I don’t have my notebook in the car, nor my recorder. So I can’t remember the words (unlike the one about the unhappy photographs, for which I even remember the tune), only the tone of her voice, and the emotion roaring like a seashell in your ear. It is a sad song, very sad. It’s not about Russell Brand. It’s about the other broken bird.
She says, “I hope I don’t have to live as a widow.” Whaaat? “An emotional widow,” she explains, and after a pause to think, she says, “No, I don’t believe that. But I think that I can just right now focus on me and strengthening myself and my emotional support system.
“I’m not in a relationship, I’m just on my own—I am myself in my own bed,” she adds. “I have to be happy being alone, and I am happy.” She tries so hard, Katy Perry. It’s what she does. “I believe that I will be loved again, in the right way.” Bright-eyed, she looks up. “I know I’m worth it.”