Katy Perry's long road -- How the ''I Kissed a Girl'' songstress finally hit it big

It is 94 degrees in Columbia, Md., though you wouldn’t know it by looking at the crowd backstage at the Vans Warped Tour, a traveling circus of commodified angst, music, and alt-culture now in its 14th summerlong run. Young men in identikit rock-star uniforms — skinny jeans, dark tees, and eye-obscuring, artfully unwashed bangs — lounge casually, buffered by energy drinks and a seemingly sweat-proof ennui.

But when 23-year-old Katy Perry comes bounding through, her pinup-girl curves poured into a fuchsia satin-and-tulle minidress and bubblegum-bright lipstick swiped across her mouth like a cartoon kiss, they all stop to stare. ”Helloooo!” she chirps, waving to passersby as her best friend/wardrobe specialist follows behind with the singer’s flamingo-colored, glitter-strewn stilettos in hand, a netted 1940s lady’s hat perched impertinently atop his head. Set against her peers’ stereotypical stabs at rebellion, she is genuinely striking, a cross between an anime character and a flower. ”Isn’t this crazy?” she asks, sweeping her hand toward the scattered buses and makeshift sunshades. ”It’s just like summer camp.”

So why is a girl like this playing alongside Converse-clad Everydudes like Angels and Airwaves and the Bronx? After all, her outré style and rebel-pop ditties have much more in common with Madonna and Pat Benatar. For the answer, look back to last fall when the Warped offer first came in. At the time, Perry was still an unknown major-label hopeful, grateful for the opportunity to reach a nation of teens and twentysomethings via an established package tour. Since then, however, she has become summer’s breakout star, thanks to the massive success of the saucy single ”I Kissed a Girl,” currently in its fourth week at No. 1 on the pop charts, and the follow-up, ”Hot N Cold,” already popular on iTunes and YouTube. Her album One of the Boys has been selling steadily since its release last month. Now she’s probably the most famous act on the bill — more so even than her boyfriend, Travis McCoy, of popular emo-hip-hop crossover act Gym Class Heroes, whose own bus sits nearby.

”Of course I’m not going to assume everyone knows who I am,” she says later, grabbing a moment between radio interviews, meet-and-greets, and the myriad other obligations of a freshly minted pop star. ”I’m so new, and I hate that sense of entitlement. But for a while people have been like, ‘Do you feel famous yet? Do you feel it?’ And at first I was like, ‘No! I’m still going home to my house and my little kitten and making my own dinner and whatever.’ But now I feel it.”

Indeed, when the unofficial Katy Perry fan club includes the singer’s own idols (Her Madgesty has repeatedly professed her fondness for Perry’s ”Ur So Gay”), it would be hard not to. There has been nothing remotely easy or swift about her success, however. ”I’ve heard a lot of ‘no’ in my life,” she says. ”I’ve been on three major labels, signed and dropped, signed and dropped. There were times I lost hope in ever believing anything that any record label person ever told me.”

Growing up in Santa Barbara as the middle child of two deeply traditional pastors, the girl then known as Katheryn Hudson was largely sequestered from the shenanigans of Madonna and other secular stars. ”I wasn’t allowed to listen to any kind of [nonreligious] music,” she says. ”MTV and VH1 were permanently blocked on our television.”

But one day a school friend (”She was so much cooler than me! Everyone has that one friend”) introduced her to Queen, opening the door to a far rock-ier world. And when her older sister began taking singing lessons, 9-year-old Katy insisted on joining in too. Then, at 13, she got a guitar, ”a beautiful royal blue one. It sounded like s—, because I picked it for the color.” She practiced diligently, and at 15 started making trips to Nashville, where ”my parents had some connections in the gospel industry,” she says. ”That’s when I started recording and meeting people and learned how to write a song, craft it, play my guitar better. It was like my school of rock.”

Flush with her Nashville education, she released a gospel disc, Katy Hudson, in 2001. (She later took on her mother’s maiden name to avoid confusion with the actress Kate Hudson.) The beginning of a star-making ascent? Not quite. ”It reached literally maybe 100 people,” she recalls ruefully, ”and then the label went bankrupt. It was not like I was Amy Grant or something. So I went back home.”

Needing a new direction, Perry managed through industry contacts to wrangle an introduction to producer and songwriter Glen Ballard (best known for Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill). ”He took a meeting with me while he was in between sessions,” she remembers, ”and I thought nothing of it. But supposedly he’d been looking for [someone like] me for a long time.” It was a major break, and at 17, she moved to L.A. to work with him. They spent three years writing and recording, but Ballard couldn’t persuade a record company to release their work. ”We tried so many labels,” says the producer. ”But you know, it was the same with Alanis: Everybody turned her down. And then finally, Maverick puts Jagged Little Pill out and it’s a huge hit. I think Katy was just maybe too ahead of her time.”

In 2004, Perry scored yet another big opportunity when she was recruited by superstar production/songwriting team the Matrix (Avril, Britney, Xtina), who had decided to make an album of their own, as performers. Perry was set to be their lead vocalist — the face of the high-profile project. The group recorded an expensive album, shot videos, and braced for a major promotional campaign. Then, just weeks before the disc was set to come out, the whole thing was abruptly aborted. ”That was a shame,” says Ballard, who had remained close to Perry. ”They couldn’t even decide on a single. It just fell apart.”

Despite her disappointment at the time, today Perry feels nothing but relief. ”Thank God that didn’t come out, you know? I had this kind of quirky, unique perspective, and they had a very mainstream-pop perspective, which was really cool, too, but I wasn’t used to it. We made a record that sonically sounds brilliant but doesn’t say much, even though there’s a few songs I still love. My own stuff is very heart-on-my-sleeve.”

In the meantime, she was borrowing money from her parents, looking for a new deal, and barely getting by. ”It turned into a situation,” she says, ”where for years I was telling my friends that I was going to have a record out — like, I had the CD art and everything — and then it wouldn’t happen. They stopped believing in me. I was pretty much a joke.”

Then, in early 2007, she scored a deal with Capitol, which had almost signed her once before. Having reclaimed her songs from each company whenever a deal collapsed, Perry was ready to go — all she was looking for was a label to see an album through, all the way, just once. In June of this year, One of the Boys hit shelves. ”Maybe a week before my record was coming out,” she recalls, ”I kind of went into that state of shock, like, ‘Oh, my God, they totally called my bluff! It’s coming!”’

Judging by the rush of bodies at her Warped Tour appearance, it was worth the wait. The crowd clearly relishes every word, singing along heartily throughout her brief, 30-minute set (one grinning boy holds aloft a homemade ”I’m So Gay” sign). Perry is aware that some people are shocked or put off by the content of a few of her songs, especially the tongue-in-cheek ode to an overly metrosexual ex, ”Ur So Gay,” and ”I Kissed a Girl,” with its thumping beat and teasing bi-curious lyrics (”I kissed a girl and I liked it/The taste of her cherry chap stick/I kissed a girl just to try it/I hope my boyfriend don’t mind it”). Still, she insists, ”they’re not meant to be ‘Oh, no!’ songs! They are my life, and I guess my life is a little bit ‘Oh, no.”’

When she launches into ”I Kissed a Girl,” a lone fan rushes the stage, only to be pulled back by security. Seeing this, Perry grabs the girl back by the hand, and within moments, the stage is a pogo-ing mass of teens giddily shouting the words, dancing with the band, and whipping out their camera phones. Nearly concealed by the sheer number of bodies, the singer jumps alongside them, seemingly happy to concede the spotlight.

Perhaps, considering the long road she’s traveled to get here, Perry has already learned what it takes some artists years to figure out: Share the glory, embrace the unexpected, and most of all, enjoy this moment. It’s quickly apparent that she goes out of her way to pose for photos and greet fans, and she is sweetly affectionate with everyone around her — even this reporter got a big hug and a kiss on the cheek goodbye. She seems remarkably well grounded for a young star. Perhaps it’s due to her straight-arrow upbringing? Today, she says, ”I’m not exactly the poster child for anything religious, and I’m definitely not what I grew up in. But I got this Jesus tattoo on my wrist when I was 18, because I know that it’s always going to be a part of me. When I’m playing, it’s staring right back at me, saying, ‘Remember where you came from.’

”After leaving the nest and seeing some of the world and seeing all kinds of people,” she continues, ”my brain has a little bit of a question mark about what I believe. I’m still searching. Living in the thick of Hollywood and seeing all these people coming in and out and doing stupid s—, seeing career demises [happen] overnight, I sat back and took notes. I definitely am human, I’m flawed. I mean, I’ve got zits galore! But my main focus? It’s music, period. And I’m just getting started.”

Before She Kissed a Girl
Want to sample Katy Perry’s early work? Search these songs on YouTube.

”Faith Won’t Fail” (2001)
A rare snapshot of the singer (then still Katy Hudson) in gospel mode. But with the song’s full-throated vocals and urgent instrumentation, ”Faith” is hardly a Sunday-afternoon church sing-along.

”Broken” (2004)
An indelible pop chorus meets Perry’s rougher rock aesthetic, from the never-officially-released Matrix project. In this video the group looks oddly un-bandlike, but it’s still pretty fun times for a breakup song.

”Simple” (2005)
A wry, catchy anthem from the original Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants soundtrack, with a video showing Perry — in a vintage Queen tee, a tribute to her rock idols — in the midst of rainy rush-hour Tokyo.