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Stefani: All by herself

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By Lorraine Ali

Aug. 30 issue - Svelte, blond Gwen Stefani walks into the upscale Miu Miu boutique in Manhattan sporting a tartan kilt, a Virgin of Guadalupe T shirt and a mustache of cappuccino froth. She eyes a near-perfect pair of shoes: plaid stilettos that are sexy, cool and a little quirky—a perfect fit for No Doubt's frontwoman. She holds the shoe up in the sunlight and a gasp escapes her crimson lips. "Oh. My. God." She's spotted something even more amazing outside the window: a pack of picture-snapping paparazzi and gawking pedestrians—who have all spotted her. She strikes a charm-school pose, casually plucks a dress off a nearby rack and heads for the dressing room. Once out of their sight she breaks up laughing. "If only they knew what a dork I really am."

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Stefani may be a dweeb at heart, but everyone else knows her as pop's No. 1 glamour girl. At 34, she's part 1940s pinup and part 1980s punk, and the one viable heir apparent to Madonna. When she burst onto the scene in 1995 with No Doubt's video "Just a Girl," Stefani set herself apart from both Lilith ladies and Riot Grrls by sauntering like Marlene Dietrich—then dropping to do push-ups like Mike Tyson. She's since dolled up her tomboy style, punctuated her goofy, quivering vocals with breathy coos and gained hip-hop cred from her collaboration with Eve on the rapper's "Blow Your Mind." And this fall she's set to take the step from pop star to megastar. In November she'll drop her first solo album, as yet untitled, and make her film debut—as Jean Harlow, no less—in Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator." "In 1994 [Interscope Records founder] Jimmy Iovine told me, 'You're gonna be a star in six years.' I was like, 'Yeah, right. First off, I won't be with my band then; second, I'll have, like, five kids, and third, there's just no way'." Self-confidence is for motivational speakers, not rock stars.

Stefani grew up 45 minutes from L.A. in the shadow of Disney's original Magic Kingdom. Her brother Eric formed No Doubt with his friend John Spence in 1986 as a punkish ska band; she sang backup vocals and eventually began dating bass player Tony Kanal. Spence committed suicide, and the band almost broke up. They stuck it out and released their first album in 1992 on Interscope, but Eric quit because he felt that the band was becoming too pop. Their second album, "Tragic Kingdom," put No Doubt on the map—and MTV—and Stefani became the girl to watch. "At first it was my brother's songwriting and I was just doing what everyone told me," says Stefani. "I was completely passive, no goals. I was in love with Tony and just happy to be in the band. Then there was three years writing in our garage until 'Tragic Kingdom' came out. I learned how to song-write halfway through that record. Once knew I could write songs, I blossomed. It was like, power. Suddenly you don't have to be dependent on anyone else for happiness 'cause you've got this thing you can do."

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"Don't Speak," the biggest hit off "Tragic Kingdom," was all about Stefani and Kanal's failed relationship and their struggles to stay together as a band. "Some of my best songwriting came out of that nightmare." She eventually hooked up and married Gavin Rossdale, the hunky frontman for Bush. (You know, the band.) No Doubt's last album, 2001's "Rock Steady," was their first departure from giddy ska tunes in favor of simpler pop melodies; it was critically acclaimed and won them two Grammies for best pop performance. Stefani, who's always designed her own clothes, launched her successful fashion line last year, called L.A.M.B.—Love Angel Music Baby.

Stefani's solo debut is a dance-floor celebration of her newfound artistic freedom and fame. Her primary inspiration was Prince, but she's clear on just how far she can push it: "If you're not Prince, you're never going to sound like Prince," she says. "Especially if you're a white girl from Orange County." The record mixes New Wave-ish dance tunes, sexed-up hip-hop beats and tracks using some of the most accomplished production around: Andre 3000 of OutKast, Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes, Dr. Dre, Nelle Hooper of Soul II Soul fame and Dallas Austin. There's also a who's who of '80s talent on hand, from Wendy and Lisa to New Order to Martin Gore of Depeche Mode. But lyrically, Stefani sticks with what's always worked for her—spilling her guts in a spirit of both fun and self-deprecation. On the first single, "What You Waiting For?" (co-written with Linda Perry), she sings about her solo-album jitters to a bumping club beat. "I was so scared before I went in to do this," she says. "I cried all night before I went in the studio." For comfort she relied on such old collaborators as Eve, who hooks up with Stefani for another duo, and Kanal, who co-wrote and produced on the CD as well.

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Working with so many new people wasn't easy for Stefani, who'd been writing with the same crew for half her life. "It's hard for me to take someone else's words and sing them," she says. "Last night there were these lines that Pharrell wrote, and you know, he's great, but our styles are really different. He said, 'Try this [she takes on a gruff hip-hop tone]: 'Da da da I wanna taste you!' I changed it to: 'I wanna make you!' I don't mean this in a stuck-up way, but I needed an attitude song. I feel like I graduated from high school, and I needed a song that felt like throwing my cap in the air." She won't be the only contender with her hat in the ring this November, but we like her chances.

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