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Ayu: "I understand it's my role to realize people's dreams"

Empress of Pop
Like no J-pop star you've ever seen or heard, Ayumi Hamasaki rose to the top by controlling every aspect of her career and persona. Now she wants the world

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Ayumi Hamasaki
An exclusive interview with TIME

'I have very clear ideas of what I want'
In an exclusive interview with TIME, Ayumi Hamasaki talks about her music, her fans and how fame has changed her life

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How about your dad?
I have no idea. I don't even know if he's dead or alive. He left when I was so young, I barely remember him.

Your song Teddy Bear is about your loneliness at that time.
I didn't understand my loneliness until I moved to Tokyo. I moved at 14. I came alone, without Mommy. She came later.

It wasn't long after that that you left your talent agency, then met [producer Masato "Max"] Matsuura at karaoke.
My friend at [Tokyo nightclub] Velfarre knew him, and brought him along to karaoke. When he asked if I wanted to pursue a singing career, I said, "No way."

He was this older guy, and I thought the whole thing sounded fishy. Like they were going to make me do something else. I'd never even heard of Avex, didn't really understand what it was. I thought it was maybe a club. It didn't advertise all the time the way it does now. Eventually [Matsuura and I] came to talk on the phone. I met with him over that year maybe three times.

Then he sent you to vocal training.
I had nothing better to do. Over that year he kept asking, You still don't want to do it? Finally I said okay. I was doing nothing at the time, going to clubs and to [Shibuya teen department store] 109. So he said to take lessons, and I hated it. It was bad. I hate doing things in groups. So I didn't go. But I told the company I was going. I was, I don't know, in my teens. I quit school in the 10th grade, but the lessons made me feel like I'd gone back to school. If there are rules and regulations, I can't help it, I want to break them. I wouldn't even answer my phone because I knew he'd ask about the lessons. I didn't know what to do.

So basically you became a star despite yourself.
I felt I'd lose my freedom. The thought of being told when to get up, when to eat... But then [Matsuura] told me to go to New York. I thought he was kidding. I mean, I was 17. I thought it'd be the same, and that I'd hate it. But it was really great. New York was a relief—not all hierarchical and rule-bound. I lived in a midtown Manhattan hotel, and walked to the lessons a couple blocks away.

Then you returned to Japan, and began writing songs?
Not because I'd planned to. It didn't occur to me to write them on my own. I have trouble voicing my thoughts... I can't communicate very well that way. So I'd write letters to [Matsuura]. He read them and said, "Why don't you try writing songs?" No one had ever asked anything of me before, expected anything of me. Part of me was flattered; part of me was terrified but didn't want to admit I couldn't do it. Plenty of people had patted my head and said, "Aren't you cute." There are so many who only compliment me. Senmu ['managing director' Matsuura] gets mad, but when he praises me, I know I've won it. He's the one who found me and drew me out.

When your songs became hits and your face began to appear everywhere, how did your life change?
It changed a lot. I couldn't go out, though even now I sometimes forget and say, "Hey, I'm just going to the convenience store." My staff looks at me and says, "But you can't." And I'm like, "Why not? ...Oh, yeah." I can't go to 109 much, for example, though I still like to. I have to send my stylists now.

Your image is still very much your own creation, isn't it? What struck me, watching your photo shoot last night [for upcoming album covers], was how much in control you were.
I have very clear ideas of what I want. Like one of my outfits last night; I had the top made out of a pair of pants I found at a boutique. They're French, I think. I had this idea to do a "Fake Japanese" image—you know, like what a foreigner perceives Japan is like.

You're known for spectacular image changes like that one. I suspect that helps fuel the perception that you're less a person than a product. How does Ayumi Hamasaki, the person, feel about Ayumi Hamasaki, the product?
We're similar, in some respects. It's my own image. It is necessary that I am viewed as a product. I am a product. The "Hi, this is Ayu" person on TV is the person I know they want to see. I understand it's my role to realize people's dreams. I'm okay with that so long as my songs are my own. No one can take my songs away from me. For instance, hundreds of people work at Avex. They work hard for me. I understand my words are not my own, that everything that comes out of my mouth affects them. But my songs are my own.

Which of your songs are you proudest of?
I always like whatever I did most recently. It's the closest to who I am at the moment.

What about who you want to be? I've heard you say you have no dreams.
It's true. I don't have dreams. How can I say it? I myself am a dream.

How about your future? I've heard you've thought of going into design.
I don't set goals. Like, that's what I want to be doing however many years from now. I do what I love to do at the moment. If I wake up tomorrow and decide I want to dance, that's what I'd do. Or design clothes. I think I'd throw myself into whatever I'm doing now. It's not about abandoning what I was doing before, or giving up. It's about knowing that if I die tomorrow, I lived the way I wanted to.

Who do you listen to?
Smashing Pumpkins. Joan Osborne. I loved her song in [the movie] Vanilla Sky, so I bought the soundtrack but it wasn't on it. I asked everyone about it, and finally my friend in Hawaii told me who it was. Also Michelle Branch. She's big in Japan now, and really young. Oh, and Kid Rock. If anything I lean toward his kind of music. Like a mix of things—rock, grunge, rap.

There's a rock influence on your latest album.

You talk about how you influence others. Is there someone who influences you?
It was written in some newspaper that I'm a Japanese Britney Spears. I like her, and she's fun to watch, but I don't get the sense that she's her own creation. Who I really like is Madonna. What I admire is she's made it on her own terms. But when I said that in Singapore, the press reported that I wanted to perform with her. That's not at all true. I don't think you should meet the people you most admire. I don't want reality to interfere with my image.

I see a lot of similarities with Madonna, like, for instance, the constant image changes. She's endured for so long by keeping the public interested. Are you confident you can do the same?
Not really.

What inspires you?
I read and watch movies. I can't go to the movie theater much anymore, though, because I get recognized. It's worse sometimes if I wear a costume and try not to get recognized. I watch most of my films on airplanes. I just saw Fight Club, so I'm big on Burapi [Brad Pitt].

Would you act again?
When I was doing it, I hated it. It wasn't fun. Just exhausting. If it was under the right circumstances, though, the right project with the right people who'd make an effort to understand me...

Is that your dog snoring?
Yep, that's him.

Crea—your pen name?
Yes, the name of my Chihuahua. I have four dogs—two Chihuahuas, Crea and Melon, a Yorkie named Ringo (Apple), and Marron [the dachshund]. Crea is the one who looks just like me.

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