Katy Perry has no clothes on.
But this is not another pop-star publicity ploy: There’s no swinging on construction equipment, no seductive licking of dusty tools. It’s a mild early-fall afternoon in London, and she’s pouring her pinup-girl curves into a red sequined Dolce & Gabbana gown for a holiday-themed photo shoot. Later she’ll insist, possibly delusionally, “I don’t have the most rocking body. Rihanna has a fantastic body. Same with Miley — they can get away with so much more stuff. Me, honestly, I’ve got cellulite. I’m just hiding it.” Right now, though, she’s vamping like a pro. After several setups, the British hipster playing the Mr. to her sexy Mrs. Claus heads for the exit. “Bye, Santa! Thank you!” she yells. Then she adds, in a breathy Marilyn Monroe whisper, “Don’t forget what I told you.”
Odds are he won’t, and neither will we. Yes, we just saw her boobs. But the biggest reveal from the week we spend jet-setting with Katy Perry? Her naked truth.
“You’re gonna see all different kinds of things,” Perry warned at the outset of our adventure, prepping EW for a promotional onslaught that will include multiple events in Berlin, then London. And she’s not kidding: flirting with Santa in September. Sipping champagne with a giant German gentleman with bedazzled eyebrows named Bubbles (he’s a member of the superfan contingent known as Katycats). Late-night tea in a London hotel lobby with a rock icon that will stretch into the wee hours of the morning. Twitter accounts named after her breasts. Near-constant jet lag. It’s an exhausting, exhilarating ride. But that’s what it means to be the biggest pop star on the planet in 2013.
Thanks to 2010’s candy-coated blockbuster Teenage Dream, Perry tied Michael Jackson’s all-time record for the most No. 1 singles from one album: five total, including “California Gurls” and “Firework.” Eye-of-the-tiger anthem “Roar,” the lead single from her third major-label album, Prism, easily became her fastest-selling track to date. Expectations are similarly mammoth for Prism, released Oct. 22 — three days before her 29th birthday. (It too will take the No. 1 spot in the country.) But it’s also arriving in an increasingly crowded field that finds her competing against fellow supernovas like Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus. “There’s a lot more work than there is play, but that’s just the time right now,” she says. “Because you want to go to the next level, and it’s difficult.” Or, in the words of another pop chanteuse: You better work, bitch.
Guten Tag, Berlin!
A groggy Perry is facing down a crowd of stylish German journalists, bloggers, label executives, and tastemakers at the Puro Sky Lounge, a bar lofted 20 stories above the busy streets of Berlin. Amid a sea of artful scruff and infinity scarves, she sits on stage in a zippered blue leather dress, introducing each of Prism‘s 13 tracks. The bouncy party ode “This Is How We Do” (“This one goes out to the ladies at breakfast/…In last night’s dress!”) pours through the speakers — and inspires Perry to seek out some of her own social lubrication. “I’m getting a glass of champagne,” she announces.
The track that closes the album is decidedly less fizzy: “By the Grace of God” is about the dark days following her 2012 divorce from actor-comedian Russell Brand, and she tells the audience that she’s going to turn away from them because it’s her “most vulnerable song.” But she stares straight ahead as the vocals build: “I looked in the mirror and decided to stay/Wasn’t gonna let love take me out that way.” Does she worry about putting her personal pain out there? “I don’t really want to edit myself,” she says later. “I think that fantastic songs have come out from my highs and my lows, and that’s maybe the struggle with being a real songwriter. A lot of the times my peers are just picking songs. They shop for songs like they shop for shoes. That’s why they can put out records really fast. That’s just not my style.”
Inside the hotel garage the next afternoon, Perry is dancing with a robot cat playing Shania Twain’s “I’m Gonna Getcha Good.” The toy was a gift from a fan, and Katy now refers to it as “the mascot.” “I know what I’m getting everyone for Christmas!” she exclaims. That’s a lot of dancing cats: Her travel team includes a security guard, an assistant, hair, makeup, a stylist, a publicist, and at least one of her four managers. Upstairs, a gaggle of European journalists are waiting to interview the star about the launch of her new perfume, Killer Queen — named for a song sung by one of her heroes, Freddie Mercury. She does back-to-back-to-back roundtable Q&A’s, somehow managing to answer even the most banal questions with humor and charm: Asked about the smell of her childhood, she replies, “Well, if you’ve ever smelled a Bible, that’s what my childhood would smell like. The pages of a Bible.” (Tales of Perry’s religious upbringing are well-known; her traveling-minister parents raised her and her two siblings in Santa Barbara and strictly limited their access to secular culture. She even has Jesus’ name tattooed on her left wrist. Hence the biblical aromas.)
Following the junket, it’s time for the next phase of the launch, to be held at a giant Sephora-like cosmetics store. Never one to do things small, she will arrive on the back of a Harley, leading a full motorcycle brigade. Around the perimeter are roughly 2,000 screaming Katycats. Perry immediately begins greeting the crowd of waving smartphones. She signs. She smiles. She poses. A teenage boy in a blue hoodie screams, “Katy! You’re ze best!” She stops for a photo op with him. “Tonk you so much,” he gushes in a thick German accent.
Inside, though, a flank of photographers are growing restless. Several threaten to leave and start packing up their gear. Perry walks in minutes later to a chorus of boos from the frustrated paparazzi. She snaps back, “Listen, I was only late because I was signing for my fans!” It’s a tense scene, but Perry keeps calm and turns toward the contest winners waiting for their moment with the pop princess. Watching it all on the sidelines is 21-year-old Flor, a fashion-design student from Hamburg and one of the original Katycats. She saw Katy in concert five years ago and has been dedicated ever since. “She’s so personal and authentic,” she explains. It’s not hard to see why fans flock to Perry. She does meet and greets after every concert, and seems to genuinely engage with them, not just brush past them with a scribbled autograph. It’s that accessibility that’s helped her log more than 45 million followers on Twitter. (That, and the fact that she’s pretty great at tweeting — funny and real and often scatological. “I want people to feel like they relate to me,” she’ll say, “as a normal girl next door…ish.”)
After the signing and a picture session with several fragrance executives, she spends another half hour in the store chatting over champagne with Flor and Bubbles and five other hardcore Katycats. In the street, the crowd is still chanting her name. “It’s like the Roman Colosseum out there,” Perry quips. “Okay, sacrifice me!” She heads out for one more autograph/photo-op lap. It is her last night in Berlin, after all.
Tiny paw prints, each one stamped with Prism and its release date, lead down a Mayfair alleyway to a secluded pub called Mr. Fogg’s. Another listening session awaits, but this time the crowd hasn’t been asked to surrender their phones, which means there’s a chance the album could leak. Perry is not pleased. “If it gets out, I will be furious,” she says to her team. “This is on you guys.” Perry doesn’t like when things are out of her control. On stage she’s goofy and girlish — the tough, decisive businesswoman put away for now. But make no mistake: Every aspect of her career is meticulously planned. “I know what’s going on at all times,” she reveals later. “Nothing goes out there into the public unless I’ve created it or approved it.” Moments later she’s sitting on a small stage as the first notes of “Legendary Lovers,” a Bollywood-inspired ode to epic passion, ring out. Is current boyfriend John Mayer the inspiration? “Yeah, he is,” she says, and admits she’s in love.
Within hours, Perry is stripping down for the sexy-Santa shoot. In between setups, she sits in a makeup chair, discussing a new Britney Spears video teaser (“It looks good,” she says, sounding surprised) and Beyoncé (“I love Beyoncé. I think Beyoncé is a living legend”). And she talks about booking a different hotel when she comes back to London with Mayer. “We don’t go outside in big places,” she says. “We find our safe spots.”
The shoot wraps around 9 p.m. London time, and the team heads to Nobu for dinner. Ngoc Hoang, one of her managers, tells Perry that Stevie Nicks is staying at her hotel (Johnny Depp is also a current guest) and wants to have tea, but they’re not sure she’ll have time. Perry looks over director proposals for the video for the next single — the tender, Mayer-inspired ballad “Unconditionally.” It needs to be special, she says, since it’s her favorite song on the album. During the drive, her makeup artist notices a paparazzo tailing the car on a motorcycle. At least five more are waiting outside the restaurant, but Perry quickly slips in. Once she finds herself sandwiched between her longtime stylist Johnny Wujek and dancer Malik LeNost, she seems to relax. Wujek, LeNost, and hairstylist Jen Atkin have each brought Barbies with them to dinner and use restaurant props (forks make excellent teasing combs in a pinch) to pose the plastic dolls in mock high-fashion poses. Perry laughs and drinks her champagne. For some, the party carries on till 5 a.m., but Perry retires right after dinner. “I don’t do brown liquor anymore,” she says. “When I’m done with my show, I can relax a little bit more. But when I have a schedule to keep, there’s no way.”
The next day, after finishing a workout and a two-hour business meeting, she arrives at the hotel restaurant in a chunky cardigan and crushed-velvet dress that Lisa Loeb would have killed for circa 1994. Lunch is a Caesar salad with chicken, hold the anchovies. (“You can’t really mess up a Caesar,” she says. “No offense to beautiful Britain, but they’re not known for their cuisine.”) She’ll need the fuel: She’s landed the coveted closing-night spot at London’s iTunes Festival — a mammoth monthlong concert series featuring the likes of Lady Gaga, Justin Timberlake, and Kings of Leon. “Can everybody be ready to run through it in two minutes?” Perry asks as the team comes together for rehearsal. She’s wearing the same dress as earlier, now with a sports bra and black sneakers. The set opens with a new song, “Walking on Air,” an aerobic club track inspired by ’90s dance heroes CeCe Peniston and C+C Music Factory. It’s one of the most dance-heavy numbers, augmented by wind machines and flowing white sheets. LeNost may be coming down with pinkeye, so Perry doesn’t touch his arm during the run-through like she’s supposed to on stage. Anti-bacterial gel is passed around liberally. Nobu Katy was fun; Rehearsal Katy is tough — blunt and focused and very detail-oriented. (“She’s totally grown up,” says Dr. Luke, who has co-produced Perry’s last three records. “She’s become more assured of herself. She’s grown to be a real boss.”) Wujek comes in with two different plaid schoolgirl skirts and asks for her take on the hemlines. “A little longer,” she says. One more run-through, and it’s a wrap for the night. Katy slips on her John Mayer tour hoodie. “It’s so comfortable,” she says. “And it just makes me happy.”
On the ride home, Hoang tells Perry that Stevie Nicks wants to meet at 11:30 p.m. As the car pulls up to the hotel, Perry notices a handful of fans standing outside in the rain and requests that they be brought inside. “Have I met you before?” she asks one. Six girls and one boy, their eyes as wide as saucers, stand patiently as she takes photos with everyone. They’re doused in Killer Queen. “When I was younger and coming up and I was meeting all my heroes,” she says later, “I was just so excited. And then some of them, I was like, ‘Oh my God, you are such a c—. I’ll never buy a record of yours again!’ So I keep that in mind.” Soon enough, though, she has to go; Ms. Nicks awaits.
“Did I tell you Stevie is a Katycat?” Perry asks the next afternoon while getting her makeup done for her iTunes performance. The legendary Fleetwood Mac frontwoman was apparently so taken with her that she brought her a gold crescent necklace and a handwritten note. Wujek sits in the adjoining room, playing Lorde’s new album on his computer. Seamstresses flit in and out. It’s controlled chaos. “Okay! It’s time for my preshow poop,” she exclaims to the room. Next come vocal warm-ups, which sound like a cross between goat noises and the Jodie Foster dialogue from Nell. The sound of an eight-piece string section tuning up for “Firework” drifts from upstairs. Perry touches up her lipstick in the prized Hello Kitty mirror that she brings with her everywhere, and tour manager Harry Sandler comes in to escort her to the venue. They walk arm in arm through a twisting hallway; at the end of it, her dancers, backup singers, and band are waiting. This is their first major performance since the California Dreams tour ended in January. “We’re back on three,” she says. Everyone puts their hands in the circle. One. Two. Three.
The show goes off without a hitch. Perry thought it was good, but not as good as rehearsal. Performers Iggy Azalea and Ellie Goulding and actress Anna Kendrick all come backstage to say hello. Katy, meeting Kendrick for the first time, gives her a big hug and squeezes her butt. “I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean to manhandle your bum,” she quips. After the celebrities file out, a 6-year-old fan with spinal problems named Gracie comes in with her mom and dad. She pulls a piece of paper with a series of questions out of her tiny pink purse. What’s your favorite song? “‘Firework.'” What’s your favorite animal? “Cats.” What’s your favorite color? “Purple.” Katy signs the purse, as well as her ticket and a T-shirt with a picture of a cat printed on the pocket, and then gives her a Hello Kitty bracelet from her own personal stash.
It’s finally time for Perry to leave. She flies to Paris tonight for the Chanel runway show, to be followed by another listening party and TV appearance. Then it’s back to New York to begin rehearsals for her Oct. 12 musical-guest spot on Saturday Night Live. My car pulls up a few minutes later, but hits a traffic jam almost immediately. I creep out to see what the holdup is. It’s Perry, leaning on a metal barricade and eating fries from a cup in a fan’s hand. There are about 100 Katycats crowded around. They know she’ll stop. They know she’ll talk to them. The girl with the golden fries, whose Twitter handle, @katysleftboob, has more than 13,000 followers, thinks she may have pneumonia from camping out for the iTunes show. She’s there because “Katy means to us what Jesus means to her.” Perry is running late and has a flight to catch, but not everyone has had their picture taken yet. So she keeps smiling.
Today, Oct. 25, is Katy Perry’s 29th birthday. “I am one year away from dirty 30,” she says excitedly. Since we last saw each other, Perry, now back in L.A., has shot the Dangerous Liaisons-esque video for “Unconditionally” on a second trip to London, and early reports say that Prism is on track to sell nearly 300,000 copies in its first week. This morning she performed for a Lakewood, Colo., high school on Good Morning America, and tonight she’ll fly to Australia. “I was up at 3 a.m., so, like, my lips are falling off from dehydration,” she jokes. There’s still a lot ahead, but a significant weight has been lifted. “I’m just so relieved that Prism is out and in some ways I feel more understood,” she admits. “I enjoyed my time with you,” she adds earnestly, “and I’m really looking forward to the story.” Pause. “And I will f—ing cut you if it’s, like, one paragraph.”
Katy, on her divorce from Russell Brand
“We all go through breakups, and we all get depressed and desperate. The lyrics [for ”By the Grace of God”] are very exact and autobiographical — that’s how I write. But you can hear me finding my strength throughout the song. Sometimes you look in the mirror when you’re crying, and it will make you cry more because you’re feeling sorry for yourself. And then sometimes you look in the mirror and you’re like, ‘Snap out of it! Come on — grow up!’ There’s almost, like, this inner warfare that comes out.”
Katy, on Miley Cyrus
“Even though there’s a lot of sensationalism around her, they’re still actually pretty good songs. She’s what, 19 or 20? She’s just living her life. She’s super young, and there’s no directing book on how to do this. Each of us find our own way, and some of us make it out alive and some of us don’t. I mean, Madonna was naked [too]. The thing is, people come to me and ask me, out of default, what I think about all these girls, but at the end of it all I shouldn’t be considered the behavior police, because I’m not always going to be on my best behavior!”
Katy, on her ”Legendary Lover” John Mayer
“I actually wrote it in an email one time, and after I wrote it I looked — we had a long courtship before anything was [public], just writing letters to each other — and seeing ‘legendary lovers,’ it sounded so nice. And I was like, Oh, well, that sounds like a nice song title: ‘Legendary Lovers.’ Some things float into my mind, and I process them, and I make songs about them.”
Katy, on being pitted against Lady Gaga
“Gaga and I like to publicly dismiss [the rivalry] because it’s not healthy. You want to feel music. You want it to resonate and relate to you. You can’t look at it like a competition because you ruin the reason why you love music. But I think that sometimes our fan groups are so big and strong, they use it as ammunition.”
Katy, on her relationship with God
“My upbringing was so strict and sheltered and rigid, and now it’s a lot more loose. I believe in God, [but] not as an older guy with a long beard sitting on a shiny throne, or heaven or hell as a destination. I believe you can have your own hell on earth from the actions you do. If you don’t have that accountability, then why don’t you just do everything selfishly or be a menace to society? I have a lot of spiritual, New Agey stuff that I’ve applied to my life now.”
Show Us Your Hits! The No. 1’s
”I Kissed A Girl” (2008)
“I think it worked because it was a zeitgeist idea. Everyone was talking about bisexuality and experimenting. Then all of a sudden you have a soundtrack [for it]. Bada-bing, bada-bam.”
”Teenage Dream” (2010)
“One of my favorites. To me, it brings up a lot of nostalgia.”
”California Gurls” (2010)
“This one showed off the really fun, carefree side of me.”
“That’s my epitaph, I think. Its message has been really profound. I still love singing the song because it’s not cheesy but it does its job. I feel like that song has legs.”
”Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” (2011)
“That music video was so fun to make — creating the Kathy Best character. I’d love to play Kristen Wiig’s younger sister. I like self-deprecating comedy.”
“Sort of an accident. Dr. Luke was going through these different beats on his laptop, and he stopped on this one and I went, ‘Wait, hold on!’ And he said, ‘Well, that’s for Three Six Mafia’ or something. I go, ‘I know exactly what I’m writing on that song. Let’s do it.'”
”Part of Me” (2012)
“It’s funny, because I wrote it before it became relevant in my own life. People need coffee to wake them up, and maybe sometimes my songs.”
“I thought, ‘The summer is over. We’re all going back to school. We gotta face our boys. We can’t have this relaxed, lazy, fun summer attitude anymore.’ So it’s almost like a piece of armor you can take with you.”