la femme ciara
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Mesh top by Christian Siriano, custom fishnet top by Natalie Joos, shorts by Marc Jacobs and shoes by Christian Louboutin. (Click to enlarge image)

It's no surprise that the woman who sang the 2007 hit "Like a Boy" ("Wish we could switch up the roles") likes to dress like one too. She butched it up in the video for the track -- a year before Beyoncé's ballad "If I Were a Boy," was released. But as evidenced by the pretty white dress she also donned in that clip, she certainly likes to keep people buzzing. Ciara has always represented a wonderful combination of gender-specific hot stuff and provocative androgyny. The slinky "Crunk&B" diva, who started out with her big brown eyes set on the modeling world, can rock men's and women's looks with equal aplomb. She's been photographed out and about in Givenchy menswear ensembles (she and designer Riccardo Tisci are pals) yet for this story was game to pose in some punk-meets-Donna-Reed looks.

"I don't wear a dress regularly," Ciara tells me after the shoot, "but even if I do, you have to put some attitude into it. I like a leather skirt, which gives you some toughness, but a feminine touch too. I like the androgynous thing with a hard edge: I make things rock 'n' roll -- but still pretty." Similarly, the recording star's everyday look has taken on a certain no-muss directness. She's willing to just throw something on, whether it be a KTZ T-shirt, jean shorts, combat boots, or some combination of the above. Especially when she's hanging with the boys, putting her feet up on the coffee table for "football Sundays." ("I love the competitive energy and spirit of sports," she told me, sans affectation.)

"Tough yet pretty" might also describe Ciara, her fifth album, which exploded onto the #2 position on Billboard's Top 200 in July (right behind Jay Z, whom she toured with in '09). In its review, the Los Angeles Times dubbed her "one of R&B's most adventurous beat-seekers."

"The album is light and upbeat," says Ciara. "There's a lot of love in it -- a lot of heart and passion. It reflects the spirit and energy that I'm feeling right now. What people are hearing is my true self-expression and the energy I'm living."

She started creating the album, originally titled One Woman Army, two years ago. Gradually it came to reflect a very personal vision full of open feelings. And it turns out a lot of those feelings involve relationships, sensuality, and s-e-x. "I want my fans to get to learn more about me," says Ciara. "I've been very blessed with my success, but my music hasn't given a clear voice to who I am." The resulting album brims with attitude and sizzle; with the song "Read My Lips," you get an innuendo-laden invitation for a guy to go "down, down" on his "favorite dish." Even the gays will find this track delectable!

Screen Shot 2013-08-26 at 10.44.34 AM copy.pngCheckered top and shoes by Missguided, custom fishnet top by Natalie Joos, skirt by Erdem and necklace by Marco Bologna. (Click to enlarge image)

Another highlight is "I'm Out," a raunchy romp with Nicki Minaj, which celebrates ladies' sexuality with even more high-diva abandon. The video features Ciara and Minaj cavorting in white leather bodysuits as they carry on about things you won't hear mentioned on the Disney Channel. "She invited me to be on her album, Pink Friday Roman Reloaded: The Re-Up," says Ciara of Minaj, "and I invited her to be on mine. I didn't feel like there was any other person I wanted for that song. She came in and murdered the verse!" Not shockingly, the two had fun making the video, despite the exigencies of the shoot. "We didn't sleep," Ciara informs me. "We shot for about 25 hours. After a while, my body kept dancing, but my brain wasn't there. At the end, I joked, 'Now, I'm out.'"

But she's in when it comes to exploration and being more open to the public these days. Just like her music, Ciara herself is way less guarded than she used to be. "I thought it was better to be private," admits the 27-year-old. "But self-reflection helped me to say, 'You need to live more. If you worry so much about things, your head is going to explode. Just live. Something has to give.' I was holding back so much that I wasn't letting myself explore and live."

Which means Ciara is now open to talking about her relationship with the avant-rapper Nayvadius "Future" Cash, who is an executive producer of the album and collaborated on the first single, "Body Party." It's a sultry act of musical seduction ("My body is your party, baby/Nobody's invited but you, baby"). The video imagines the couple's first meeting, where their flirty banter culminates with a seal of approval from Ciara. "He reads," she says, as he walks away.

"He's very understanding," she tells me, "and he's my best friend. It's important to have a feeling that you can talk about anything and know a person's going to be there and support you. When we're together, it's not about who we are. I feel very normal, very safe and loved.

"Being able to speak about it is a whole different thing for me," she goes on. "I'm not thinking or caring too much about what anybody has to say anymore. Once you start over-thinking and worrying, you start getting close to insanity. I want my sanity and a life and happiness." (It's partly for that reason that Ciara won't crank out bitter songs about ex-lovers. "It'll come to light," she says. "Whatever energy a person gives you, they'll have to deal with that. I'm not necessarily going to be so direct in a song.")

ciara_cover_3.jpgBra top by Jeremy Scott, custom fishnet top by Natalie Joos, skirt by Christian Dior and boots by Daniele Michetti.

She talks a lot about her "energy" and her "journey," but don't dim your chakras worrying about it: the woman has a giddy side too. In fact, she can be extremely playful, trying on different accents to entertain herself while gently throwing people off with her charm. "You're the Meryl Streep of hip-hop," I joked when Ciara launched into an unexpected bout of Cockney on our first meeting. But beneath the poses, Ciara gets things done with maximum efficiency, willing to go the extra mile in her combat boots.

Ciara Princess Harris was born in Austin, Texas as an only child to two parents in the military. She grew up on army bases from here to Germany. "I'm what you call 'love rich,'" she relates. "We didn't have all the money in the world, but I had all the attention. I grew up spoiled with love.

"I wasn't trained to sing and dance," she adds, "but I knew I had something special and decided to explore it. I've been growing in front of the world, and I want to keep growing." Dad helped by regularly gliding around with her wherever they happened to be living. "He taught me some of my moves," Ciara beams. "Some mean footwork!"

She initially considered going into modeling -- a no-brainer -- but music beckoned. Her triple-platinum debut album, Goodies, came out in 2004, when she was just 18. The title song was a sort of anti-"Body Party" that hinted at abstinence, announcing that "the goodies ... stay in the jar" -- an ear-catching change from all the other hooker-y stuff out there. "I was young," remembers Ciara, "and wondered, 'What do I want to say to the world for the first time?' Every other song was about, 'Money makes the world go round.' But it has to take more than that." Indoctrinated by fire into the biz, Ciara learned from Missy Elliott, who wrote and performed with her on the Goodies hit "1, 2 Step," an electro-inspired mid-aughts party anthem whose video helped Ciara establish her individual style. She wore a gold cross chain dangling over her exposed navel offset by boy-cut jeans and sneakers.
 

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Mesh top by Christian Siriano, custom fishnet top by Natalie Joos and shorts by Marc Jacobs.

The gold and silver kept dangling as her second album, Ciara: The Evolution, hit the top slot on the Billboard 200; the subsequent Fantasy Ride provided "Love Sex Magic," a smoky duet with Justin Timberlake. "Every girl loves to dig in and pull out their inner sexuality," Ciara tells me, "but I don't believe you have to force it." One reason she likes the tomboy look, in fact, is that by covering things up she exudes more sexuality than by going the more obvious route.

But then came a rare misstep for the golden girl. Not so sexy was the commercial failure of her 2010 album, Basic Instinct, which went back to R&B basics. The artist started to realize that she deserved better marketing to match her slick moves. In February 2011, she penned an open letter to Jive Records on Facebook, bristling at the lack of promotion and asking to be let go of their arrangement.

When I ask Ciara to elaborate, she cites "creative differences," the need to try new things and the fact that the company was reconfiguring. "Jive inherited me," she says. "They didn't discover me or know me. I was very fortunate that they let me have a go pass, to be able to have a new home." Her release reunited her with her original mentor, L.A. Reid, who then signed her to Epic. "He's the reason I'm here in the first place," she says. "He gives you a strong level of confidence."

As the Epic album keeps growing, Ciara is preparing a tour, but she says it won't all take place in huge arenas. She wants an intimate experience for her fans, to mirror her new, more open-for-business attitude. "I'm making choices I feel good about," she says, glowing. "It definitely feels good to get love from my fans. I work so hard. I'm hoping to share with other young girls, and even men, to never give up.

"And I feel like my journey's just beginning. On this journey, there's much I haven't done. I still feel like a little kid. I still have my youthful energy and spirit. I'm super excited by my future." You're not the only one, princess.

Go behind the scenes of our photo shoot with Ciara:
 

Styled by Natalie Joos / Hair by Cesar Ramirez using Kerastase /Shu Uemura at Dew Beauty Agency / Makeup by Yolanda Frederick using MAC Cosmetics for Goldfinger Creative Agency, Atlanta.

Producer: Stephanie Porto / Photographer's Assistants: Jeff Allen and Jordan Zuppa / Stylist's Assistant: Yety Akinola/ Props: Chris Stone/ Digital Tech: Justin Chan

Shot at Fast Ashleys Studio

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