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Hamasaki arrives at the MTV awards in Singapore and is mobbed by fans

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

Empress of Pop

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The formula for Hamasaki's remarkable success so far seems based less on her talent for music than for marketing. Though she writes her own lyrics and has even begun to compose, Hamasaki lacks the vocal pyrotechnics of Hikaru Utada, the dance moves of Amuro, the supermodel allure of Hitomi. Yet she outsells them all. Her record sales hit $189 million last year, more by half than Utada, her closest competitor. Hamasaki drives her prodigious sales by pumping out singles at a rate of about one every two months, each one accompanied by an attention-grabbing image change. Her album LOVEppears came out with two different covers, for example, one in which she was made up to look Caucasian, the other black—and fans had to have both.

"I've never seen anything like it," says Leslie Kee, the Singaporean celebrity and fashion photographer who shot Hamasaki's past three album covers. "She controls every detail of her image. She knows what she wants, likes, needs, hates, and is very, very particular." Last year, she sparked mad runs on oversized aviator sunglasses, military-fatigue prints and fox tails dangling from belt loops, and swept a slew of fashion awards for titles like "Best Jeanist" and "Nail Queen" from grateful industry associations. "If we stock what she's wearing," says Hiroko Kishi, a Tokyo-based buyer for trendy boutiques, "it's guaranteed to sell." There's even a black market in sneak reports from Hamasaki's magazine and album-cover shoots, with moles reportedly pocketing up to $10,000 for divulging her latest image change to designers desperate to catch the next Ayu-instigated trend.

Unsurprisingly, Hamasaki's sway over pop culture attracts marketers who are keen to borrow her magic; and she's happy to share. All but two of her singles to date have been tied in with either a commercial or a TV program. She currently endorses the products of six companies, from Panasonic digital cameras to Kirin sports drinks. When she began appearing in ads for cosmetics maker Kose, its mascara went from No. 4 to No. 1 within two months and a new lip gloss sold 500,000 units in its first two days on the shelves.

But it takes more than fashion sense to propel a pop star to stardom of this scale. Hamasaki's own fans can't quite explain what it is about her that incites such frenzied devotion. "How can I put it?" muses Chika Tamura, 16, gazing at a poster of her idol in a crowded HMV shop in Tokyo's Shibuya district. "Ayu is the me I wish I was. She just ... gets it." As a singer, her very imperfections endear her to her legions of fans, who range well beyond teenage schoolgirls. "Her voice is screechy, even irritating sometimes," says Arisa Kaneko, a 28-year-old TV writer. "But that just makes her more human. You know she's singing her heart out." For Ken Yoshida, 27, of Ise City in Mie prefecture, the Hamasaki-devoted site he maintains on the Web "makes my life worth living."

On the afternoon following the late-night photo shoot, Hamasaki is curled up on a butter-colored leather couch in the secluded "artists' room" in Avex's Tokyo headquarters. Her wire-haired dachshund pup, Marron, snores at her side; the latest addition to her menagerie of small dogs is tuckered after gnawing her wood-soled mules while Hamasaki napped. She's too tired to care. In appearance, she's a startlingly different character today than the exotic creature of last night. Her pale, clear skin is free of makeup, her coppery hair swept off her face except for her trademark fringe. She wears a black net top and a denim micromini-skirt over a tight pair of jeans. Around her neck hang a large turquoise-studded cross and, incongruously, the tab off a soda can (a typically unique fashion touch). She talks like she's got a clothespin clamped over her nose, though it sounds less cartoonish than in her TV appearances. She refers to herself girlishly in the third person. Her casual, halting speech never stiffens into formal keigo.


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