July 16, 2005 at 04:00 AM EDT

Her middle name is Princess, so somebody was expecting great things from Ciara Harris — and she didn’t waste much time rising to the challenge. As Ciara remembers it, the moment she knew she was destined for pop stardom came thanks, appropriately, to Destiny’s Child. The then high school freshman — a cheerleader and aspiring model from Riverside, Ga. — had skipped school to watch Beyoncé and Co. perform live on Good Morning America. ”I had goose bumps,” she says of the show. ”It was this weird feeling: I want to do this. I’m going to do this.” The 14-year-old sat on the edge of her bed and sobbed.

Five years later, the uninitiated might mistake Ciara for a bootylicious wannabe, as she sashays across a Beverly Hills restaurant with her blond hair and bodacious backside. But anyone familiar with R&B would recognize the genre’s ingenue of the moment. Since its release last September, Ciara’s debut, Goodies, has hovered near the top of the Billboard 200, and its three wildly entertaining singles have led some to dub her ”the first lady of crunk & B.” ”[Most artists] just have one hit, then they’re gone,” says Ciara (pronounced Sierra). ”But I knew it was only a matter of time before people realized it was a good album.”

A good album with a flawless hip-hop pedigree. Her breakout hit, ”Goodies,” is a girl-power anthem that was given the ”okaaay” by hitmaker Lil Jon and spent seven weeks at No. 1 on the pop charts. The follow-up, ”1, 2 Step” (featuring Missy Elliott), was equally massive. And the car-hood-humping video for Ciara’s third effort, ”Oh” (amped up by a Ludacris cameo), has garnered plenty o’ airplay.

The instincts are flawless as well. Despite the anti-diva image Ciara promotes, she’s about as laid-back as a triple-shot latte. ”I’ve always been like, ‘Go get it,”’ she says. ”If there were a pair of shoes I wanted, I was gonna get ’em. Some way, somehow.”

Within a year of her bedroom epiphany, Ciara hooked up with a local manager, who soon scored her a gig writing songs for Atlanta’s Red Zone (she penned tunes for Mya). That taste of the industry only increased her appetite for stardom. ”Every day I dreamed of singing my own single on the radio,” she says. ”But not everybody believed in me.” Until she met producer Jazze Pha (Toni Braxton, OutKast) in 2002. Within five days of meeting her, he signed her to his new Sho’Nuff label. ”What was really lacking is the Janet Jackson, high-energy dance [music],” says Pha. ”Ciara fills that void. She’s pretty, she can dance, she can write music, and kids love her. Everyone loves her.”

Well, almost everyone. Over the past few months, gossipmongers have been spreading a bizarre Internet rumor: The singer, the story goes, was born intersexual and (stay with us here) recently outed herself as a ”lesbian hermaphrodite” on Oprah. ”I don’t know how that rumor got started, but I know who I am,” she says. ”I’ve never even been on Oprah!” Her eyes narrow. ”The music business is just like high school. People build you up so they can see you tumble.”

Clearly, these people don’t know who they’re messing with. ”Ciara’s got the eye of the tiger,” says Barry Weiss, president of the Zomba Label Group, which released her album. ”She’s a strong, tough young woman. She’ll be just fine.” In the immediate future alone, she’s got a fourth single (the candle-lit ballad ”And I”), a tour with 50 Cent in the works, and a starring role in her first feature film (a still-untitled project that’s like Bring It On but with volleyball), due out in 2006. ”I want to be on the level of Michael and Janet,” she says. And if that doesn’t pan out, her Plan B is typically modest in scope. ”I’ll go into real estate. I’ll be the next Trump. Now, that’s a good game.”

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