Don’t get her wrong, Gwen Stefani’s flattered to be named one of the 50 sexiest artists of all time by Blender. It’s just that she thinks someone else should be on the cover. A certain short, reclusive genius from Minneapolis. “Prince,” she states flatly. “He makes the sexiest music, total makeout music.”
Mightily carnal as Prince’s catalog is, the blonde lead singer of No Doubt is being far too modest: Valley Girl-cute, aerobics-instructor fit, and movie-queen glamorous, Stefani is among music’s sexiest and most likeable stars. “She’s like a homegirl,” attests rapper Eve, who recruited Stefani to sing on the chorus of her top-ten hit “Let Me Blow Ya Mind.” You’d want to hang out with her.”
Stefani’s other recent top-ten partner, Moby, concurs. “She’s attractive… and I’m not. She’s glamorous… and I’m not. She’s the reason the video for ‘South Side’ got played so much. I expected her to be a really self-involved rock star, but she’s lovely and down-to-earth.”
While No Doubt’s 2000 album, Return of Saturn, posted only modest sales, Stefani has given her career a hip-hop-style jump start via turns in other people’s videos. It’s been a deft move, as the 31-year-old has catapulted herself back onto pop’s A list in time for the release of No Doubt’s new album, scheduled for November and tentatively titled Rock Steady. “I’ve been in a good mood,” she affirms, “so there’s a lot of happier songs.”
Grabbing a lime popsicle from the freezer, she scoots across the kitchen floor to lead a tour of her Hollywood digs. All archways and pressed tin, it retains the Spanish flavor it had when Gwen bought it: she hasn’t had time to redecorate. She shows off the courtyard where her sister will be getting married, and the small tiled pool with a waterfall as a backdrop. On the hill above the pool is the large silver pagoda from No Doubt’s “Simple Kind of Life” video.
For the past three months, Stefani’s been sharing her home in the Hollywood Hills with her longtime beau, chisel-cheeked Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale: his band has been recording its new album in Los Angeles. Stefani and Rossdale hooked up five years ago when No Doubt’s breakout single, “Just a Girl,” was climbing the charts and the band was touring as Bush’s opening act.
Despite living eight time zones apart, they’ve been a couple ever since. It’s quite an achievement. Mind you, No Doubt’s last disc resembled a concept album about dreamy grunge boys who can’t seem to commit. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Stefani has rediscovered upbeat pop just as Rossdale has shown a newfound willingness to cohabit.
The tousled Englishman, though, is absent today; he’s out working on his tennis game. But Tony Kanal, No Doubt’s bassist (and Stefani’s ex), has dropped by, looking relaxed and handsome in a vintage Live Aid T-shirt. But all is not quite right–something’s amiss with the top of his head. A tufted blond stripe runs skunklike down the middle of his otherwise dark hair. It’s a rather unorthodox “look.” Understandably, Kanal is a little anxious.
“It looks great,” Stefani says.
“You mean it?” Kanal replies. “I had a mohawk that didn’t work out. We had to fix it.”
“No, it’s excellent,” Stefani assures him.
Kanal grins broadly and lopes off for a dip in Stefani’s pool.
Relaxing in the sunshine, our hostess is the very model of a laid-back California pop goddess. Gwen doesn’t exude raw erotic hunger: her sex appeal comes from her fit body, her tan skin, and the ease and charm with which she moves through the world. She’s dressed casually, wearing a low-slung pair of jeans with two belts, one with a large buckle emblazoned GAVIN. She’s barefoot, revealing her immaculate red toenails; her matching red fingernails have assorted applique patterns on them. There’s an odd mark on her right wrist. Told that that the popsicle has turned her tongue green, she just sticks it out and giggles.
Is that a bruise on your wrist?
No, that’s a steam burn from the kettle, making tea. It doesn’t look like a burn, huh?
Has Gavin got you drinking tea now?
No, but you have to remember that Tony and I went out for eight years and he’s English. He moved here when he was eleven, so I always used to drink tea at their house. I can drink tea all day long and Tony drinks it all day long, but Gavin has one cup when he wakes up and that’s it.
So we’re coming to you as an expert witness on what makes musicians sexy.
I’ll do my best, but I can’t promise you anything too exciting. I don’t even like to use the word “sexy”–I get embarrassed. All I can think of is my dad. Of course, I would go out and buy the magazine like everyone else does, but what do I say? It was only recently that I felt comfortable wearing high heels. But I’m more of a woman now. I feel like I’m not a kid, so girly. It’s hard to talk about what’s sexy because it’s all from your point of view. I guess you’re asking me what my point of view is, huh?
Well, from your point of view, why are musicians sex symbols?
Music is sexy, that’s why. If I’m listening to a Prince song and I hear, “Is the water warm enough? Yes, Lisa” –all of a sudden, I just think of making out. Music creates movement in the body and that’s an expression of how you’re feeling and it’s all intertwined. A song like “Simple Kind of Life,” for instance, when I say, “You seem like you’d be a good dad”: that’s intimate, it brings out emotions, and so it’s sexy.
Who’s the sexiest performer out there? Aside from Gavin.
My all-time favorites, who I grew up worshipping, are Suggs from Madness and Angelo Moore from Fishbone. Those two guys have just melted me my entire life.
What makes them so luscious?
Their dorkiness, their silliness, and their energy. And obviously, Chris Cornell looks hot as hell, but what really makes him sexy is his voice and his talent. It’s like when Gavin played me his record. I was like, “Wow, honey. You’re hot.” ‘Cause it was good.
Tell me something that makes a man sexy that doesn’t make a woman sexy.
Not shaving, not taking a shower, and not caring. Being really stinky and wearing the same clothes every day. I think what makes a man sexy is not being self-aware. That’s what’s really cute to me.
So as a self-aware girl, what have you learned over the years on how to make yourself sexy during a photo shoot?
You get made up like Cinderella and then you walk out there and just make different faces until they go, “That’s a good one.” The thing is, everybody wants to have the perfect body, even though there’s no such thing. You’ve just gotta be happy with what you’ve got. When I look at the video of “Don’t Speak,” all I can see is my stomach just rippling like a jelly doughnut in slow motion during the live performance. I asked my girlfriend who did the video, “Can you cut that part out?” And she said, “No. That’s all the guys in my office are talking about.” So is my jelly-roll stomach sexy? I don’t know. But they thought so.
Gwen, your stomach’s totally flat. You’re the all-American girl. Has Playboy ever approached you?
One time, a guy said he worked for Hugh and gave me a card. I thought it was funny. But it’s hard for a girl because you wake up one morning and you walk down the street and there are cat calls and the guys yelling at you and you’re just like, [makes irritated noise]. And the next morning, you wake up and you walk down the street and no one whistles and you’re like, “No one thinks I’m hot today.” [pouts] You want to be sexy but at the same time, you want to have the respect. When the band started, I was going to great lengths to not be sexy because I was in this all-guy band and it was in Orange County and there weren’t a lot of girls in bands. So my whole goal was to get up there and to not have guys be like, “Show me your tits.”
Is there an outfit that you wear when you want to feel sexy?
For me, being sexy is whether or not I wear high heels. If I wear high heels, I suddenly feel like I’m that girl… cause it makes you walk like that. [wiggles in her chair]
Do you ever wear high heels on stage?
No, I can’t. One time, I had this guy make me these boots and they weren’t that high, but I had to take them off onstage after the first song and throw them in the audience.
Have you ever listened to your own music while you’re making out?
No, I don’t think so.
How about Gavin’s?
I think we made out to his music one time. But you know what we used to make out to all the time? The Goo Goo Dolls, because they were the opening act when we were on tour together.
I remember seeing the two of you sneak off to Gavin’s tour bus together–you were very cute. So five years later, have you and Gavin merged books and records?
Well, the thing is that we still don’t really live together. He lives there [London] and I live here [L.A.] and he’s been staying here for three months because he’s doing a record here. It’s been perfect because we got to really spend time together for the first time and we’ve been going out for, like, five and a half years. It’s gonna suck ’cause we’re getting so used to each other now and he’s leaving next week. But I’ve never been a record collector because I had my older brother; he always brought the music home. Gavin introduces me to a lot of music too.
Gavin told me he sometimes throws your Sting CDs out the car window.
(laughs) I’m so bad about my CDs anyway. I must have fourteen Björk cds. I keep buying them because I keep scratching them.
On the last album the lyrics were mostly about Gavin. The album before that, they were mostly about Tony. Is there a focal point for the lyrics this time around?
Gavin is still a big focal point, I think. There’s a song called “Boys And Girls” that’s about me and the backstage life I get to see. And “Underneath It All” is a love song. I’ve been in a good mood, so there’s a lot of happier songs. I did this thing with the lyrics where I would write ’em right then. I didn’t read Sylvia Plath and get all depressed. I said, “I’m gonna write it right now and we’re gonna do the demo right now and then tomorrow we’re gonna write a new song.”
If the album’s called Rock Steady, it sounds like you’re getting back to your ska roots.
We all went out to eat and decided, “January 2nd, let’s start writing songs.” And we just started writing all these fun, upbeat dancehall songs. After recording four songs, we said, let’s go to Jamaica and record them. Sly and Robbie agreed to produce them, so we went over there and recorded four songs in two weeks. We were at this commune, a studio with these huts. Basically, we hung out in the sun all day long, ate, and then went down in the studio and played some music. It was so… Jamaican-style. We’d be recording and all the electricity would go out, and we’d be like, “Well, let’s go and sit in the dark with the fireflies for a little while and drink.”
You ended up with enough collaborators to start your own record label.
It’s funny because you meet these people and when when you’re talking to them, you say, “We should do something together.” And that’s what happened!
For years, have you been saying, “Oh, we should do something together” and then not actually doing it?
No, it’s just that we never met those people before. I guess we’re popular enough now that we can meet ’em. And then before you know it, you’re in the studio with Timbaland. The only thing now is trying to bring the whole thing together, because you’ve got, like, everyone’s flavor on it.
Previously, the band has gotten stressed when you’ve been front and center–you even made the “Don’t Speak” video about that. So is it an issue that all these side projects have blown up in such a large way?
No, that problem hasn’t been around for a while. Everybody knows that they play a role and everyone’s really important at what they do. Like this record is Tony’s record and last record I considered to be more about the chemistry between me and [guitarist] Tom [Dumont]. And I’m representing the band by doing those things and I think it’s good to have us out there while we’re making this record.
When No Doubt has an argument, who’s the peacemaker?
My mom always used to call me the peacemaker of the family, but I’m not the peacemaker of the band. I’m super-stubborn, I have a big ego, and I can never admit when I’m wrong.
It doesn’t show. Does having these collaborations do so well take some pressure off the next album?
Yeah, it’s definitely been a good thing for our record. It feels like something’s bubbling. But as far as pressure goes, the pressure we put on ourselves is not to hit number one, but to do something good, because otherwise there’s no point. We started this band because we couldn’t help ourselves. We were going to college and so every Thursday and Sunday we practiced ’cause it was the fun thing in the week.
What was your major?
Did you graduate?
No. I transferred to Cal State Fullerton and took courses like painting. In fact, I was going to do the album artwork for Tragic Kingdom; I wanted to do a pinup girl. I remember asking my painting teacher how they made the orange-crate girls. Before our record came out, we played a concert at school on a Wednesday. The next day, I’m in my music appreciation class and everyone’s saying, “Can you sign my notebook?” And I’m like, “Um, I’m trying to learn here.” Then our record came out and we went on tour, and we just never came home for two and a half years. We worked so hard, but we just couldn’t believe that we could actually be on a bus together and not have to worry about money and eat whatever we wanted.
So what’s something you eat now that you wouldn’t have before?
Um, if I went to Del Taco, I could order the works burrito as opposed to a bean-and-cheese burrito and get guacamole on the side. [grins] Whereas before maybe I would hold off that 35 cents and save it for the next meal.
I think you can afford just about anything on the menu these days, Gwen. How did you hook up with Moby?
At that time, Moby was this underground artist and I was coming off of Tragic Kingdom. I was so over-saturated, I just thought everyone thought I was a dork. But Moby called me to do “Southside” and I went down there and recorded it and he wasn’t even there. He was sick and in New York. I called him and he said, just do whatever you want. I’m like, okay [quizzical expression], and just sang all over it. He called me about two weeks later and said, “I’m in town. Can you come down again and do more?” So we hung out and got to know each other a tiny bit. When the record [Play] came out and I wasn’t on it, I was so heartbroken. Then he called me after his record was starting to die out and he says, “We did a remix of the song and we want to put it out.” I went down to do the video, it came out, and that thing had legs, man. It just would not go away.
Did that single lead to your riding motorcycles with Eve?
I almost didn’t do that one because I wasn’t sure I wanted to be the side dish again. But I had told my record company, “If Dr. Dre ever wants me, call me. I’ll do whatever he says.” When I got the call to come down and sing on the Eve track, I thought I was gonna storm in, do my thing. But it was so hard. He totally wanted me to sing out how Eve had sang it, and he is such a perfectionist. He was hearing something in his head and I wasn’t hearing it: I kept trying to sing the song for two and a half hours.
Moby told me that he keeps listening to the Eve track but has a hard time hearing your vocals.
When they mixed it, I didn’t hear my voice either! I told them, “You have to remix it. You have to turn me up.” And then I still couldn’t hear it, so I went down to the studio and muted everything but my voice and I didn’t recognize myself. Dr. Dre had gotten me to sing in a way I never really sang before.
Was Eve in the studio while you were recording your part?
No, I didn’t meet her. And I said I didn’t want to do the video unless I met her. So finally she called me, and she’s just a really cool girl. The shoot took two nights. When you’re freezing cold and you’re on those motorcycles, you bond.
Did it feel different working with a girl?
When I get dressed for No Doubt, the boys are like, whatever. But Eve and I got ready separately, and when we came out, we’re like, “Oh my God! You look so cute! Those shoes are dope!”
I’m guessing the Ruff Ryders don’t do that for her, either.
Yeah, it was girl world. And I thought we looked good together. She’s like a little tootsie roll and I’m a blonde-hair. We looked hot as hell, man.
Did people react differently to you when you had pink hair?
It was a lot more noticeable, so I couldn’t hide. Gavin and I got in a fight and we broke up for an hour or something, so I dyed my hair pink. It was fun for a while. I never meant for it to be that bright and I never meant to have it for a year, but when the record came out, I felt obligated to keep it. People were coming to shows with pink hair and I was like, Oh my God, they convinced their parents to let them do this. Now if I go back blonde, my natural color [she rolls her eyes], it’s going to be a slap in the face. So I had my hair pink for my whole age of being 30.
How is it different being in your 30s?
I love my age right now. Being 28 sucked. And 29 was really hard for me and I don’t know if that was just coming off the Tragic Kingdom tour or if it was just that age. As you get older, it’s not that you’re so smart, it’s just that you don’t have to worry about the stuff you used to worry about. And there’s so much to look forward to — I still need to get married, I still want to have a family, major things.
Is marriage in the future for you and Gavin?
I hope so, yeah. The funny thing is we talk about it and then it ruins it all for us. Gavin told some guy in England, not even in an interview, but the guy said, “So are you guys going to get married?” And Gavin said, “Of course I’m going to marry her.” And I swear to God, I was getting calls from Germany, France, everywhere around the world going, “Oh my God, congratulations!” My mom called me. It kind of spoils it if Gavin’s planning a surprise.
What’s the most you’ve ever spent on phone calls to London in a month?
I’ve worked it out so I never see my phone bills. I hope I have a good calling plan. It’s hard when you’re both as busy as we are. Being in the band is like being married already. Gavin and I are like anybody else: We have our ups and downs. One day, you’re thinking how it’s never going to work out and the next, it’s the best thing in the world. We’re going through a good phase right now. It’s going to be a hard year for us to be apart and touring. I told him I was scared that at concerts, girls would be on the shoulders of guys like this [she mimes pulling up her shirt to flash her tits]. We’ll just see what happens.
What’s the best advice anyone ever gave you?
I don’t even know if I should say this, but my dad sat down with me for that talk–you know, about guys–and he said, “You’re going to meet boys and you’re going to think you’re special because you’re able to get them wound up, but just remember, it’s not you. It could be anyone. So don’t let that fool you.” When I was in high school, I would be in situations where boys were trying to take advantage of me, and I would remember my dad saying that. [She pulls her legs up into a crouching position.]
Are you feeling okay? I know this is your first interview in a while.
Yeah, it’s fun. I love talking about myself. And it’s yummy right now in the heat.
After we’re done with the interview, can I go swimming?
Just dive in. It’s freezing, though. My heater broke and I don’t know what’s wrong with it.
Who’s sexier, Elvis Presley or Jim Morrison?
Elvis. I love that whole ’50s look and his little face.
Kurt Cobain or Robert Plant?
Prince or Anthony Kiedis?
I think Anthony Kiedis. I love him. He’s really hot. Prince is really hot, too. But I don’t look at Prince and go, “I really want to make out with Prince.” It’s more about his talent–when I think of music and sex combined, I think of Prince. He talks about–well, he used to talk about it.
And now he’s a Jehovah’s Witness. Did you hear about that?
I heard about it directly from the man. Everyone has to find their own path and when you have a crazy life like he had, if that’s going to help him feel good, then, um….
I don’t know him personally, but it seems like just a different form of the obsession. Instead of putting it into music, he’s doing it with religion.
Of course. But at the same time, I don’t know his personal journey. Maybe he was lost and now he’s found something that will really help him feel good the rest of his life and that’s none of my business. The thing about Prince is that he’s such a genius and he’s done so much to inspire and influence and just bring people happiness and sexiness that it doesn’t matter what else he does in his lifetime because he already did so much. But of course I want to judge it and be like, “Write those other songs about the stuff that I made out to when I was 16.”
Is there too much sexiness in pop music nowadays, like all the “Lady Marmalade” girls in lingerie?
I have mixed feelings about that. There’s room for everything, but when you start so young, where do you go from there? When I was that age, I was in a band, but I had my dad saying, “You’re not wearing that.” As soon as I was on tour, I was showing my belly button because he couldn’t tell me not to. You flaunt what you think is your best quality to try and get attention. Maybe I’ve lived too long, but some of these younger girls seem like too much too soon, even lyrically. I watch my niece going, “Oops, I did it…” and gyrating and I’m like, you’re only five. Stop it. But then again, I go around in a bathing suit top. I don’t have a boob job, so I can get away with it. Either me or my niece wears a bathing suit top, we look pretty much the same.
Tomorrow is a big day for Gwen Stefani–it’s her father’s birthday. Her family is driving up from Orange County for a celebratory barbecue, and there’s grocery shopping to be done. Pulling on her shoes, she begins to scribble out a shopping list. “I’ve volunteered to make the birthday cake,” she beams, before explaining that this is the limit of her culinary abilities. Usually, this kind of thing is very much Rossdale’s department, and sure enough, he will be handling the rest of the menu.
“We’re a perfect couple,” Stefani says with a smile. “He cooks, and I eat.”
Interview by Gavin Edwards. Originally published (in a substantially shorter version) as “Music Is Sexy” in Blender issue #2 (circa August 2001).