So, are you going to ask her about Russell Brand?” says a silver-haired navy lieutenant in dress whites and stiff cap. It is the first day of Fleet Week, when vessels from around the world dock in New York City, and on this cool evening in late May, Katy Perry is performing an outdoor concert for the visiting servicemen and women. The lieutenant may not seem like the typical Perry fan, but he is surprisingly up to date on her personal life, even filling in another officer on her split with the British comedian: “They broke up around Christmas. Didn’t you know that?” he says, and sighs. “Oh, well. They didn’t make much sense anyway.”
There’s being a household name, and then there’s being so famous that even sailors on a tour of duty know your business. In recent years, Perry’s ascent to megastardom has been so dramatic she decided to make a movie about it. The result is the 3-D concert film Katy Perry: Part of Me, in theaters July 5. Shot during her nine-month, 124-city California Dreams Tour, the documentary chronicles Perry’s life onstage and off, through all her ups and downs—including her split from Brand after 14 months of marriage.
Despite being addressed in the film, the breakup is understandably a sensitive subject for Perry. Minutes into our interview the day after her concert, one of her handlers asks to sit in, presumably to screen questions, but Perry demurs. “I’m a grown woman. I can handle all questions that come at me. As long as there is a level of respect understood, then we’re cool,” says the star, wearing a tight black minidress and sitting on the floor of an office in Paramount Pictures’ New York headquarters. And should the conversation go off the rails? “I’ll just use some key word,” she jokes, widening her blue eyes. “‘Help! Help!’”
In fact, Perry needs no help sidestepping questions about the divorce. She refers to it only as “the situation”—as in, “I’m very aware that it’s inappropriate to give too much away, and that really the situation is just between two people.” When it’s noted that she and Brand have been
respectful of each other in the media, she responds cryptically, “The universe will have its way.” Still, the breakup needed to be acknowledged in her film, she says. “I think if people walked out of the theater and that was completely avoided, they would be like, ‘Well, there’s an elephant in the room that’s still there.’” The singer rubs her feet, freed from sky-high Christian Louboutins. “I like to go out there looking like a strong woman, because I am strong. But I am also a woman who goes through all kinds of problems and highs and lows. I wanted to show the complete spectrum.
“There are a lot of things that are personally uncomfortable to show, especially me without makeup and completely bloated or crying,” she adds. “But I’ve realized that it’s time for me to show my audience that you don’t have to be perfect to achieve your dreams. Because nobody relates to being perfect.” She takes another bite of her bunless burger. “I’m okay with picking my nose. I’m okay with having bad dance moves. I’m okay with having horrible lower teeth. That’s what makes me me, and for some reason it’s worked out all right.”
“She’s very blunt and honest, and people relate to her,” says her longtime stylist, Johnny Wujek. Singer-songwriter Bonnie McKee, who has collaborated with Perry on a number of her hits, including “Teenage Dream” and “California Gurls,” agrees. “There’s no puppeteer telling Katy what to do or how to be,” she says. “She has a hand in every moment of her career: every costume, every video, every word, every melody.”
Perry is proud of the fact that she’s “a bit weirder than the average pop star,” as she puts it. Her parents, Keith and Mary Hudson, are born-again Christian ministers, and she and her two siblings were raised in Santa Barbara, Calif., in a strict household. Perry, who changed her name professionally from Katheryn Hudson because of potential confusion with the actress Kate Hudson, was prohibited from listening to what her mother called “secular music” growing up. Instead, the same woman who would later don a cupcake bra in her video for “California Gurls” sang gospel classics like “Oh, Happy Day.” Now 27, she has come a long way from home, but Perry is still close with her family, fondly recalling many July Fourths spent “smuggling fireworks either from the South or from Mexico” with her father. “He loves a firework exit,” she says of the truck stops where they got their goods. “As a kid I was totally like, ‘Yeah!’ Now I realize there are repercussions. I’m like, ‘You’re going to load the car with fireworks? That thing is going to pop off!’”
It’s no wonder Perry, who will perform on Macy’s 4th of July Fireworks Spectacular (NBC, 9 p.m. ET), loves the holiday: She’s full of spark, just like the explosions referenced in her hit “Firework.” But her success hasn’t come as easily as one might think. Prior to earning her status as a pop princess, Perry was an unknown singer-songwriter on the Christian music circuit. Before she became
the first woman in Billboard history to claim five No. 1 singles from one album, 2010’s Teenage Dream, she was dropped by several labels. It’s all part of the story chronicled in the concert documentary.
“There are certain themes you see in the movie: coming out of a constricting, sheltered atmosphere,” Perry says, tucking a lock of purple hair behind her ear. “Not changing when every record label told me that I should be like this other artist who was successful. Overcoming obstacles in so many different ways.”
The marines know all about overcoming obstacles, and thanks to a few days spent at California’s Camp Pendleton filming the video for her single “Part of Me,” Perry now knows something about the marines. In the video, shot in February of this year (not long after Brand filed for divorce), she plays a woman who enlists upon discovering her boyfriend has cheated. “Nine times out of ten, I have a matching visual when I write the song. For this one, I wanted to tell the story of a girl whose heart was broken. She joins the marines, and not only does she get physically strong, but she finds that inner strength again,” says Perry, who got into character by sporting fatigues, going through drills, and dining on MREs, or Meals, Ready to Eat. (“I had the vegetarian barbecue chicken or something,” she recalls. “It’s actually really good. It tasted like a McRib.”) She admits she “didn’t know a lot about people in the service, but it was so intriguing to be at Camp Pendleton listening to everybody’s unique story. They train extremely hard; they’re all, like, Hulks. I have so much respect for them.”
Many in the audience at Perry’s Fleet Week concert were impressed in return. “I thought the video was cool because I’ve done the boot camp and officer training,” said a female lieutenant who first heard the song while stationed in Japan. “Most of us recognize it as ‘the Marine Corps video.’” After the show, several servicemen and women made their way backstage to meet Perry. “As soon as the week’s over, I’m buying a new cap,” said one sailor, after the star autographed the inside of his. “I’m framing this one!”
Performing for the troops was special, Perry says. “It wasn’t just another show. It’s such a tradition, and it felt very vintagey,” she explains. “In the back of my mind, I was like, ‘Marilyn Monroe did this. Of course I want to be a part of that.’” Skilled as she is at working a crowd, she did her homework as well. “I Wikipediaed ‘Fleet Week’ because I wanted to know the history. I don’t want to look like a complete idiot.”
Far from it—the star, who in order to pursue her career dropped out of high school and got her GED, is something of an autodidact. “I like to learn,” she says. “If I could go back [to school], I would study language and the origins of words.” While on tour, she and her team made it a priority to experience the culture of each country they visited, taking in Mexican temples and Argentine tango shows. “Everywhere we went, we tried to do something authentic,” she says. They also bonded by getting tattoos of little peppermint faces and playing pranks on each other, including one called Ding-Dong Ditching, where they’d knock on someone’s hotel door and then run away. “Quite silly,” she admits, and laughs.
Through all the globe-trotting, Perry has come to realize how fortunate she is to call the United States home. “Not to sound overly cheesy,” she says, “but I really appreciate the freedom we have in America—especially as a female.” Asked how she reacted to President Obama’s support of same-sex marriage, she says, “I was really happy; I probably went down to West Hollywood and had a shot. I came from a different mind-set growing up, and my mind has changed. My viewpoint on all these things—equality for women, the choice to love anyone you want—hopefully, we will look back at this moment and think like we do now concerning [other] civil rights issues. We’ll just shake our heads in disbelief, saying, ‘Thank God we’ve evolved.’ That would be my prayer for the future.”
As for her own future, Perry says she’ll one day step back from performing to have a family or be out of the limelight; for anything more introspective, you’ll have to listen to her songs. In “Wide Awake,” she sings, “I picked up every piece /And landed on my feet … /I’m wide awake /Yeah—I am born again.” McKee recalls working on the song with Perry in February. “Katy and I sat down, opened a bottle of wine, and I just said, ‘What are you feeling? Let’s get raw about it,’” she says. “When we wrote ‘Teenage Dream,’ it was really about your first love and how magical that is. I think Russell made her feel that way again, and she felt she had found the person she was going to spend the rest of her life with. And when that didn’t turn out to be what she’d hoped, it kind of made sense to talk about waking up.”
One thing’s for certain: The ups and downs of her life will work their way into Perry’s music. “With songs, I’ve always pledged to be honest,” she says proudly. “I write my songs because I’ve lived them.”
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