''The Dutchess'' could launch Fergie into super-celebrity -- The singer says her new album is her destiny

Fergie is hardly the portrait of a world-famous rump shaker on this lazy afternoon spent hanging out at the Brentwood, Calif., home of her boyfriend of nearly two years, Las Vegas star Josh Duhamel. Stripped of makeup and casually dressed in a tank top, denim boy shorts, and Nike sneakers, the 31-year-old Black Eyed Peas singer lounges on a fluffy suede couch in the sunlit living room while Duhamel huddles with a landscaper in the backyard. ”He’s building me a big vine wall,” she says. Outside, a small patio leads to an infinity pool and Jacuzzi overlooking a hilltop hiking trail. ”Paparazzi sometimes stand over there and try to take pictures of us. He’s building something so they won’t be able to see us.”

That landscaper had better hurry up. Fergie’s been a pretty big hip-pop star for the last few years, but now, with her first-ever solo album, The Dutchess (due Sept. 19), shaping up to be a monster, she could reach a whole new level of celebrity. Her first single, the playfully profane ”London Bridge,” is already a ubiquitous party anthem, hitting No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart just three weeks after its debut. On Aug. 12, it made the second-biggest leap in Hot 100 history when it skyrocketed from No. 84 to No. 5. ”I wanted to come aggressive first just to let people know that I’ve arrived,” she says of ”London Bridge.” ”This is not a small project for me. This is my destiny. This is huge. I’ve been waiting my whole life [to make a solo album]. A lot of times in the context of the Peas it’s inappropriate for me to express all of my drama on our albums, so this is my chance to do that.” Ah, yes. Her drama.

Born Stacy Ferguson, Fergie grew up in Hacienda Heights, Calif., a Los Angeles suburb where her parents taught at local public schools. She was a natural performer who landed a Hollywood agent by age 8, appearing in TV commercials (McDonald’s, Duncan Hines, Hello Kitty) and providing the voice of Sally Brown in two animated Peanuts specials (1984’s It’s Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown and 1985’s Snoopy’s Getting Married, Charlie Brown). From 1984 to 1989, she costarred alongside Jennifer Love Hewitt, Mario Lopez, and Eric Balfour in the Nickelodeon variety show Kids Incorporated. A year after she left, she formed the cheesy R&B-pop trio Wild Orchid with Kids alum Renee Sandstrom and childhood friend Stefanie Ridel. Eventually they inked a deal with RCA and released two albums — 1996’s Wild Orchid and 1998’s Oxygen — which failed to take off. ”We were uncategorizable,” she claims. ”Too urban for pop radio, and too pop for urban radio.”

Frustrated by RCA’s efforts to push Wild Orchid in an increasingly saccharine direction, Fergie drifted toward L.A.’s seedy underground club scene. ”My whole look changed,” she says. ”I would cut my own bangs, and dye my hair, and dress really freaky.” She also began experimenting with drugs — first Ecstasy, then crystal meth. By the time Wild Orchid began working on a never-released third album, Fire, Fergie’s drug use had started to take over her life. ”I spent all my childhood actor money,” she says, ”and I had collection agents after me because I built up credit card debt.” She demurs when pressed for details about that dark period, but says she kicked crystal meth cold turkey with the help of hypnotherapy in 2001. The next year, she split from Wild Orchid, moved back home, signed up for unemployment benefits, and struggled to get her career on track. ”I was hustling — using the [frequent flier] miles that I earned from Wild Orchid to work with whatever producers I knew that had a home studio.”