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Throwback: Time Magazine's feature and interview with Ayumi Hamasaki

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#1 kinjiki


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Posted 18 October 2014 - 09:56 AM

Empress of Pop
Like no J-pop star you've ever seen or heard, Ayumi Hamasaki rose to the top by controlling every aspect of her career and persona. Now she wants the world

"Good. Beautiful." the photographer throws a thumbs-up from atop a ladder, and Ayumi Hamasaki swings her legs off her perch on a raised horizontal mirror. An assistant hurries over with a pair of furry mules. Hamasaki slides into them and shuffles quickly to the computer monitor. The 20 photo assistants, stylists, makeup artists and record-label entourage at the shoot now gathering behind her look on in silence while Hamasaki leans forward, concentrating on the digital images of herself flickering on the screen. Dressed in a futuristic black kimono over scuffed jeans, her face painted like a cross between a geisha and Gene Simmons, she projects an almost apocalyptic image that is both of this world and completely out of it—half-human, half-manga, totally pop star.

Her energy is certainly otherworldly. This shoot is for the CD sleeves accompanying the techno and acoustic remix versions of her latest album I Am ..., which is throbbing in the background. Typically for her, she's selected an entirely new image—"fake Japanese," or traditional getups refracted through a foreigner's stereotyping lens. Hamasaki arrived at the Tokyo studio more than nine hours ago to shoot the two album covers, after staying up all night with her staff awaiting delivery of special makeup equipment she'd ordered online from Los Angeles. Though she spent hours testing the airbrush device on her managers' faces, then some hours more in extravagant costumes and uncomfortable poses, Hamasaki is wide-eyed and wired while her staff rubs their eyes.

Finally, Hamasaki speaks. "I think ... 72, not 73," she declares in a voice scratchy from the long hours, pointing a spectacularly manicured finger at the numbered frame on the screen. The staff applauds in relief. It's past midnight on Valentine's Day when Hamasaki doles out little wrapped gifts before she retreats in a hail of cheerful thank-yous and goodbyes. Everyone slumps over. The boss is gone.

At 23, Ayumi Hamasaki, Ayu to fans, is the most powerful figure in Japanese pop music. She's sold more records than any other musical act for two years running in the world's second-largest music market. Her frequent makeovers determine the course of fashion. Her huge black eyes peer out from billboards in every corner of the country. Fans memorize her lyrics, transform into Ayu clones and swear she's changed their lives. Marketers clamor for her endorsements, borrowing her name and image to peddle everything from cell phones to doughnuts. Her announcement last fall of a courtship with Tomoya Nagase, the actor and lead singer for Tokio, led the news for days.

Like her megastar predecessors Seiko Matsuda, Akina Nakamori and Namie Amuro, Hamasaki's fame was spun out of the air by clever marketing. But Hamasaki is the rare J-pop queen who has seized her own power, wielding it to control her career right down to the fonts on her tour posters and the makeup on her oft-photographed face. For fans, the story of her by-the-bootstraps climb to pop royalty makes her even more worthy of idolatry. But for her record label, Avex, Hamasaki represents both its most valuable asset and the grave danger of having all its eggs in one star's basket—a danger so potentially costly that its top executives refused to be interviewed for this article, in part for fear of further stapling the label's name to hers. As for Japan's struggling, $3-billion recording industry, Hamasaki embodies both its best hopes and its greatest limitations as she attempts the tricky leap to overseas markets. While some J-pop acts have actively sought fans across Asia, superstars like Hamasaki haven't had to—until now. With the Japanese market slackening due to the recession, the industry and its stars can no longer afford to stay home.

The formula for Hamasaki's remarkable success so far seems based less on her talent for music than for marketing. Though she writes her own lyrics and has even begun to compose, Hamasaki lacks the vocal pyrotechnics of Hikaru Utada, the dance moves of Amuro, the supermodel allure of Hitomi. Yet she outsells them all. Her record sales hit $189 million last year, more by half than Utada, her closest competitor. Hamasaki drives her prodigious sales by pumping out singles at a rate of about one every two months, each one accompanied by an attention-grabbing image change. Her album LOVEppears came out with two different covers, for example, one in which she was made up to look Caucasian, the other black—and fans had to have both.

"I've never seen anything like it," says Leslie Kee, the Singaporean celebrity and fashion photographer who shot Hamasaki's past three album covers. "She controls every detail of her image. She knows what she wants, likes, needs, hates, and is very, very particular." Last year, she sparked mad runs on oversized aviator sunglasses, military-fatigue prints and fox tails dangling from belt loops, and swept a slew of fashion awards for titles like "Best Jeanist" and "Nail Queen" from grateful industry associations. "If we stock what she's wearing," says Hiroko Kishi, a Tokyo-based buyer for trendy boutiques, "it's guaranteed to sell." There's even a black market in sneak reports from Hamasaki's magazine and album-cover shoots, with moles reportedly pocketing up to $10,000 for divulging her latest image change to designers desperate to catch the next Ayu-instigated trend.

Unsurprisingly, Hamasaki's sway over pop culture attracts marketers who are keen to borrow her magic; and she's happy to share. All but two of her singles to date have been tied in with either a commercial or a TV program. She currently endorses the products of six companies, from Panasonic digital cameras to Kirin sports drinks. When she began appearing in ads for cosmetics maker Kose, its mascara went from No. 4 to No. 1 within two months and a new lip gloss sold 500,000 units in its first two days on the shelves.

But it takes more than fashion sense to propel a pop star to stardom of this scale. Hamasaki's own fans can't quite explain what it is about her that incites such frenzied devotion. "How can I put it?" muses Chika Tamura, 16, gazing at a poster of her idol in a crowded HMV shop in Tokyo's Shibuya district. "Ayu is the me I wish I was. She just ... gets it." As a singer, her very imperfections endear her to her legions of fans, who range well beyond teenage schoolgirls. "Her voice is screechy, even irritating sometimes," says Arisa Kaneko, a 28-year-old TV writer. "But that just makes her more human. You know she's singing her heart out." For Ken Yoshida, 27, of Ise City in Mie prefecture, the Hamasaki-devoted site he maintains on the Web "makes my life worth living."

On the afternoon following the late-night photo shoot, Hamasaki is curled up on a butter-colored leather couch in the secluded "artists' room" in Avex's Tokyo headquarters. Her wire-haired dachshund pup, Marron, snores at her side; the latest addition to her menagerie of small dogs is tuckered after gnawing her wood-soled mules while Hamasaki napped. She's too tired to care. In appearance, she's a startlingly different character today than the exotic creature of last night. Her pale, clear skin is free of makeup, her coppery hair swept off her face except for her trademark fringe. She wears a black net top and a denim micromini-skirt over a tight pair of jeans. Around her neck hang a large turquoise-studded cross and, incongruously, the tab off a soda can (a typically unique fashion touch). She talks like she's got a clothespin clamped over her nose, though it sounds less cartoonish than in her TV appearances. She refers to herself girlishly in the third person. Her casual, halting speech never stiffens into formal keigo.

Despite her childlike persona, you can't help but sense Hamasaki was never truly a child. Born in Fukuoka on the southern island of Kyushu, she was just a toddler when her father walked out. "I don't even know if he's dead or alive," she says. Raised by a single mother and a grandmother, she began modeling locally at seven, in part to earn money for the family. It was an unusual and lonely childhood in this country of steadfastly nuclear families, but Hamasaki says she wasn't aware of what she was missing. "I thought Mommy's life was strange, not mine," she says. "I didn't understand my loneliness until I moved to Tokyo."

Hamasaki made that move at 14 to pursue an acting and modeling career. Old magazine spreads feature the sweetly smiling young starlet clad in bathing suits or prim outfits that would never make it to her own wardrobe. After bit parts in five low-budget movies and a handful of TV dramas, she tired of acting and, with her tiny frame, did not have a future in modeling. Canned by her talent agency and dropping out of school in the 10th grade, Hamasaki frittered away her days shopping at trendy Shibuya boutiques and her nights dancing at the massive Velfarre nightclub in Roppongi.

Then a friend who worked at the club, owned by the record label Avex, invited her out for a night of karaoke that forever changed her life. The friend had also invited Masato ("Max") Matsuura, who introduced himself to Hamasaki as a producer. "I'd never heard of Avex," Hamasaki recalls, laughing. "When he asked if I wanted to pursue a singing career, I said, 'No way.' He was this older guy, and I thought the whole thing sounded fishy." Over the following year, though, Matsuura persisted. Finally she relented to his request that she at least attend vocal training, only because "I had nothing better to do." But the classes were dull and the teachers harsh. "I felt like I'd gone back to school," she says. "If there are rules and regulations, I can't help it, I want to break them."

Finally she confessed to Matsuura that she'd skipped most of the classes. But instead of writing her off, he proposed sending her to New York for some real training. "I thought he was kidding," she says. "I mean, I was 17." Reluctantly she went, staying in a midtown hotel for three months, taking singing classes a few blocks away. "New York was a relief—not all hierarchical and rule-bound," she says. When Hamasaki returned to Japan, Matsuura proposed another challenge. Because she has trouble voicing her thoughts, Hamasaki had over that year corresponded with Matsuura through letters, which must have echoed of simple yet poignant lyrics. "He read them and said, 'Why don't you try writing songs?'"

The idea that she could express herself in song imbued her with a new sense of direction. "No one had ever asked anything of me before, or expected anything of me," she says of Matsuura, whom Hamasaki and everyone else at Avex calls by his title, senmu, or managing director. "Part of me was flattered; part of me was terrified but didn't want to admit I couldn't do it. Plenty of people had patted my head and said, 'Aren't you cute.' Senmu gets mad, but when he praises me, I know I've won it. He's the one who found me and drew me out." He stuck by her, too, when superstardom didn't occur overnight. Her first two singles in 1998 stopped at No. 20 on the charts; her next four barely broke the Top 10. Then Love Destiny busted into the No. 1 slot in April 1999, and every one of her singles have hit the top three since.

The responsibilities that came with her ascension as a recording star were a fair trade-off for the joyous release of writing. "The 'Hi, this is Ayu' person on TV," she says, slipping for a moment into her alter ego's nasal, anime-character voice, "is the person I know they want to see. I understand it's my role to realize people's dreams. I'm O.K. with that so long as my songs are my own. No one can take my songs away from me."

She is complicit in the brutal arithmetic of fame: trading the freedom she cherished for the right to tell her story through songs. Indeed, she has transcended mere songstress status and become something even more venerated in our consumer driven society. "It is necessary that I am viewed as a product," she says. "I am a product."

Avex, her record label, is all too aware of Hamasaki's extraordinary power over the company's fortunes. Her record sales account for a stunning 42.6% of Avex's overall revenues, according to Oricon Global Entertainment, Japan's version of Billboard. That makes her largely responsible for its Japan-leading 14.8% market share. Its reliance on one monster star leaves the company vulnerable: last summer, Avex stock tumbled on the news that the release of Hamasaki's latest album would be delayed until this January. "Right now, Ayu equals Avex," says Katsuya Taruishi, chief analyst for Oricon. "If Ayu goes, so does Avex."

And if she goes on, so too might the Japanese music industry as a whole. Hamasaki's next career move—her attempt to conquer foreign shores—will also have enormous implications for the industry, which faces a slowing market at home. Still, Japan's music business is considered lucrative by global standards; after all, consumers pay $23 for an album, compared to $13 in the U.S. Record labels also see quicker, fatter returns on their investments in artists: the homogeneity of tastes and blanket marketing here can make for huge hits and instant stars. But a rapidly aging population means the proportion of record-buying youth is dwindling dramatically from year to year. There's also the problem of CD piracy. Though Japan never caught the Napster craze for downloading music free from the Internet, the hot trend now is to burn copies of CDs, which in Japan can be rented cheaply. It doesn't help that young people's allowances are also being drained by cell-phone bills—an average $63 a month. Record sales sagged to $2.9 billion last year, from $3 billion in 2000—and the industry expects another dip this year.

Avex's fortunes mirror that of the industry: analysts expect the company's earnings to fall 6% for the fiscal year ending March 31. With the outlook in Japan unlikely to improve anytime soon, Avex has set its sights abroad. Avex Asia, a subsidiary based in Hong Kong, is set to go public this summer. Though current laws forbid Japanese records being sold in Korea, Avex is establishing ties in Asia's second largest music market by linking up with S.M. Entertainment, a Korean label, and launching BoA, a Korean teen, in Japan.

But Avex's best bet abroad, as at home, is Ayumi Hamasaki. Her image appears prominently in record stores from Singapore to Taiwan, and her videos run repeatedly on MTV Asia. When the music network presented its first Asian awards show in February, fans begged for Ayu, even though MTV Japan is a separate network with its own awards. To everyone's surprise, she accepted. For all her popularity abroad, Hamasaki had never once set foot in any Asian country outside of Japan. Avex had long exhorted her to look abroad, says Yugo Tsuzuki of the international marketing division. "But she makes her own choices. Many Japanese artists include English lyrics in songs, for instance, but she says she can best express herself in Japanese."

Last year, however, she had a change of heart. On the days following Sept. 11, the images of commercial airplanes slamming into the World Trade Center played over and over again on Japanese TV. "I couldn't believe it was real," Hamasaki recalls. The calamitous events halfway across the world affected her deeply, overhauling her vision for the album she was then working on. While earlier songs focused on her own loneliness and confusion, I Am ... takes on issues like faith and world peace. "In the beginning, I was searching for myself in my music," she explains. "My music was for me. I didn't have the mental room to be conscious of the listener; I wrote to save myself." However, in A Song Is Born, inspired by 9/11, she writes:

Remember once again

How our earth should appear

And then try somehow not to forget.

I know, I know no one wanted all of this.

The planned album cover, an element Hamasaki considers crucial to conveying her message, was also tossed. "I knew it wasn't the time for gaudiness, for elaborate sets and costumes," she says. "It sounds odd coming from me, but I realize what I say and how I look has a great impact." She decided instead on portraying herself as a sort of peace muse, standing in a desert clad only in vines, a white dove perched on her shoulder.

I Am ... differs in another important respect from her earlier albums: it is her debut as a composer, under the pseudonym Crea—the name of her pet Chihuahua. "Typically, I do everything at the very last minute," she says. "It's always difficult for me to explain to the composer what I'm looking for. I'm not a professional; I lack even basic knowledge about writing music. But I discovered that if I do it myself, it's quicker and closer to what I have in mind." The results are surprisingly good. While Maria sounds slightly unfinished, the songs Evolution and Endless Sorrow are among her best.

A concert crowd of 7,000—and 150 million more in households across Asia—watched Hamasaki perform Maria at the MTV awards show in Singapore, dressed in a kimono she designed bearing the Japanese characters for "love," "peace" and "future." According to MTV, Hamasaki was a top draw on a show that featured international stars like Mandy Moore and Enrique Iglesias. "She has a huge fan base in this part of the world," says Mishal Varma, who produced the show. "The kids love everything about her. She's got her finger on the pulse, quite like Madonna does."

When she arrived in Singapore, Hamasaki was unprepared for the response. Thousands of fans mobbed her at the airport and in her hotel. She and her entourage somehow managed to duck the crowds to sneak in a meal at Singapore's outdoor dining stalls. But cell-phone-networked fans got wind of her movements and by the time her white Mercedes pulled up at the airport, screaming boys and girls threatened to crush Hamasaki as she edged, encircled by bodyguards, to the VIP lounge. She was exhilarated by the trip nonetheless. "The fans were ... impassioned," she says, chuckling incredulously. "I couldn't even have anticipated that kind of welcome. It made me realize how much the people of Asia support me and that I had to go back." With that in mind, she relocated a planned photo shoot for a coffee-table book in late February from L.A. to Hong Kong. It was, typically, a last-minute change. "That's just how she is," sighs Yuka Kikuchi, Hamasaki's manager. "In her broad strategy, Asia is the next step. That's her: she just makes up her mind and moves."

Hamasaki's timing seems, as usual, spot on. "Her level of enormous popularity does not last," says industry analyst Taruishi. "Even Madonna hit a peak, and though she remains one of the top artists in the world, her records don't sell out." Given Hamasaki's admiration for Madonna, such a career arc sounds acceptable to her. So, too, do sudden swerves into clothing design, say, or dance or even again into movies. She insists those are mere options, though—not hopes or goals. "I don't have dreams," she says, slowly, shaking her head. "How can I say it? I myself am a dream."

'I have very clear ideas of what I want'
In an exclusive interview with TIME, Ayumi Hamasaki talks about her music, her fans and how fame has changed her life

Ayumi Hamasaki, Ayu to fans, is the most powerful figure in Japanese pop music. She's sold more records than any other musical act for two years running in the world's largest music market outside the U.S. Her frequent makeovers determine the course of fashion. Her huge black eyes peer out from billboards in every corner of the country. Fans memorize her lyrics, transform into Ayu clones and swear she's changed their lives. At 23, she rules Japanese youth culture—and therefore influences all of Asia's.

Though Hamasaki rarely gives in-depth interviews, TIME's Lisa Takeuchi Cullen sat down with her in late February to talk about her upbringing, her musical influences, and what she thinks about her fans in Asia.

TIME: Who's this?
Hamasaki: Marron. He's a wire-haired dachshund. He's still just eight months old—a puppy—but doesn't he look like an old man?

Yeah, because of his whiskers. Anyway, thanks for taking this interview. What intrigued us is that despite your popularity around the region, the Ayumi Hamasaki that people know is based on an image. What we'd like is to introduce the real Ayumi Hamasaki to our readers. Yoroshiku.

Listening to your last album, I thought it had a worldly outlook. Your manager told me the terror incident in New York had an impact on you. What did you think when you saw it on TV?
I thought it was a movie. I couldn't believe it was real. I've been to New York many times, and I couldn't accept it was really reality.

Did it influence your music?
Yes. It inspired one of the songs on the album [A Song Is Born].

And the image on the album cover. The white dove—a symbol of peace.
I had a completely different idea for the cover at first. We'd already reserved the space, decided the hair and makeup and everything. But after the incident, as is typical of me, I suddenly changed my mind. I knew it wasn't the time for gaudiness, for elaborate sets and costumes. It sounds odd coming from me, but I realize what I say and how I look has a great impact.

I'm told it also influenced your decision to go to Asia.
I'd never been.

Yeah, although I'd been to the U.S. many times.

How did you feel about your fans at the MTV awards show [in Singapore]?
I'd heard a lot of Asian people were rooting for me, but I had no idea. I was stunned. They were... impassioned, especially compared to Japan. I couldn't even have anticipated that kind of welcome. It made me realize how much the people of Asia support me, and that I had to go back.

You began composing on this album. What instigated that?
The way I work, typically, I do everything at the very last minute. Even if I was given two months, I'd do it in the last three days. It's best of course to ask someone who's a professional to do it.

Because it's faster?
Actually, no. It's hard to decide how to match words to music. It's not like it's twice the work. It's always difficult for me to explain to the composer what I'm looking for. I'm not a professional; I lack even basic knowledge about writing music. But I discovered that if I do it myself, it's quicker and closer to what I have in mind. When I start from scratch, I can do exactly what I want.

Compared to A Song for XX, your first album, it's like a different person is writing the lyrics on your latest. Your earlier songs focus on loneliness, and they seem more autobiographic. I Am..., though, takes on a broader view, touching on issues like faith and peace.
In the beginning, I was searching for myself in my music. My music was for me. I didn't have the mental room to be conscious of the listener; I wrote to save myself. I didn't understand what it was to write songs. But over time I began to see many things, my influence, the responsibilities that gave me.

Does that weigh you down? For instance, when I talk to kids in Japan, it seems to me they have no dreams, no aims. But when I ask whom they admire, it's you.
There were times it weighed me down. Like I was being chased. I pushed myself... even when it was impossible, I couldn't say so. I know everyone at [record company] Avex works hard for me, relies on me. Now, I don't mind. I accept it. I can lean on others, too. I feel it's okay to show that side of myself, and that's made it easier.

Let's talk about your past. You were raised by a single mother, which was rare at the time. Did that make you feel different?
I thought Mommy's life was strange, not mine.

You call her Mommy? That's so American.
Yeah, she told me to.

She lives in Tokyo now?
Yes. We're still close.

How about your dad?
I have no idea. I don't even know if he's dead or alive. He left when I was so young, I barely remember him.

Your song Teddy Bear is about your loneliness at that time.
I didn't understand my loneliness until I moved to Tokyo. I moved at 14. I came alone, without Mommy. She came later.

It wasn't long after that that you left your talent agency, then met [producer Masato "Max"] Matsuura at karaoke.
My friend at [Tokyo nightclub] Velfarre knew him, and brought him along to karaoke. When he asked if I wanted to pursue a singing career, I said, "No way."

He was this older guy, and I thought the whole thing sounded fishy. Like they were going to make me do something else. I'd never even heard of Avex, didn't really understand what it was. I thought it was maybe a club. It didn't advertise all the time the way it does now. Eventually [Matsuura and I] came to talk on the phone. I met with him over that year maybe three times.

Then he sent you to vocal training.
I had nothing better to do. Over that year he kept asking, You still don't want to do it? Finally I said okay. I was doing nothing at the time, going to clubs and to [Shibuya teen department store] 109. So he said to take lessons, and I hated it. It was bad. I hate doing things in groups. So I didn't go. But I told the company I was going. I was, I don't know, in my teens. I quit school in the 10th grade, but the lessons made me feel like I'd gone back to school. If there are rules and regulations, I can't help it, I want to break them. I wouldn't even answer my phone because I knew he'd ask about the lessons. I didn't know what to do.

So basically you became a star despite yourself.
I felt I'd lose my freedom. The thought of being told when to get up, when to eat... But then [Matsuura] told me to go to New York. I thought he was kidding. I mean, I was 17. I thought it'd be the same, and that I'd hate it. But it was really great. New York was a relief—not all hierarchical and rule-bound. I lived in a midtown Manhattan hotel, and walked to the lessons a couple blocks away.

Then you returned to Japan, and began writing songs?
Not because I'd planned to. It didn't occur to me to write them on my own. I have trouble voicing my thoughts... I can't communicate very well that way. So I'd write letters to [Matsuura]. He read them and said, "Why don't you try writing songs?" No one had ever asked anything of me before, expected anything of me. Part of me was flattered; part of me was terrified but didn't want to admit I couldn't do it. Plenty of people had patted my head and said, "Aren't you cute." There are so many who only compliment me. Senmu ['managing director' Matsuura] gets mad, but when he praises me, I know I've won it. He's the one who found me and drew me out.

When your songs became hits and your face began to appear everywhere, how did your life change?
It changed a lot. I couldn't go out, though even now I sometimes forget and say, "Hey, I'm just going to the convenience store." My staff looks at me and says, "But you can't." And I'm like, "Why not? ...Oh, yeah." I can't go to 109 much, for example, though I still like to. I have to send my stylists now.

Your image is still very much your own creation, isn't it? What struck me, watching your photo shoot last night [for upcoming album covers], was how much in control you were.
I have very clear ideas of what I want. Like one of my outfits last night; I had the top made out of a pair of pants I found at a boutique. They're French, I think. I had this idea to do a "Fake Japanese" image—you know, like what a foreigner perceives Japan is like.

You're known for spectacular image changes like that one. I suspect that helps fuel the perception that you're less a person than a product. How does Ayumi Hamasaki, the person, feel about Ayumi Hamasaki, the product?
We're similar, in some respects. It's my own image. It is necessary that I am viewed as a product. I am a product. The "Hi, this is Ayu" person on TV is the person I know they want to see. I understand it's my role to realize people's dreams. I'm okay with that so long as my songs are my own. No one can take my songs away from me. For instance, hundreds of people work at Avex. They work hard for me. I understand my words are not my own, that everything that comes out of my mouth affects them. But my songs are my own.

Which of your songs are you proudest of?
I always like whatever I did most recently. It's the closest to who I am at the moment.

What about who you want to be? I've heard you say you have no dreams.
It's true. I don't have dreams. How can I say it? I myself am a dream.

How about your future? I've heard you've thought of going into design.
I don't set goals. Like, that's what I want to be doing however many years from now. I do what I love to do at the moment. If I wake up tomorrow and decide I want to dance, that's what I'd do. Or design clothes. I think I'd throw myself into whatever I'm doing now. It's not about abandoning what I was doing before, or giving up. It's about knowing that if I die tomorrow, I lived the way I wanted to.

Who do you listen to?
Smashing Pumpkins. Joan Osborne. I loved her song in [the movie] Vanilla Sky, so I bought the soundtrack but it wasn't on it. I asked everyone about it, and finally my friend in Hawaii told me who it was. Also Michelle Branch. She's big in Japan now, and really young. Oh, and Kid Rock. If anything I lean toward his kind of music. Like a mix of things—rock, grunge, rap.

There's a rock influence on your latest album.

You talk about how you influence others. Is there someone who influences you?
It was written in some newspaper that I'm a Japanese Britney Spears. I like her, and she's fun to watch, but I don't get the sense that she's her own creation. Who I really like is Madonna. What I admire is she's made it on her own terms. But when I said that in Singapore, the press reported that I wanted to perform with her. That's not at all true. I don't think you should meet the people you most admire. I don't want reality to interfere with my image.

I see a lot of similarities with Madonna, like, for instance, the constant image changes. She's endured for so long by keeping the public interested. Are you confident you can do the same?
Not really.

What inspires you?
I read and watch movies. I can't go to the movie theater much anymore, though, because I get recognized. It's worse sometimes if I wear a costume and try not to get recognized. I watch most of my films on airplanes. I just saw Fight Club, so I'm big on Burapi [Brad Pitt].

Would you act again?
When I was doing it, I hated it. It wasn't fun. Just exhausting. If it was under the right circumstances, though, the right project with the right people who'd make an effort to understand me...

Is that your dog snoring?
Yep, that's him.

Crea—your pen name?
Yes, the name of my Chihuahua. I have four dogs—two Chihuahuas, Crea and Melon, a Yorkie named Ringo (Apple), and Marron [the dachshund]. Crea is the one who looks just like me.

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