Have You Met Gwen Stefani?
Story by Kat Gillespie / Photography by Jamie Nelson / Styling by Nicola Formichetti / Hair by Sami Knight / Makeup by Michael Anthony
26 May 2021
I'm slightly disappointed to log onto Zoom and find Gwen Stefani in Los Angeles. I wanted to see the ranch. Stefani spent most of the pandemic in Oklahoma with her fiancé and fellow The Voice coach Blake Shelton, with whom she has recently collaborated on a string of country radio hits, alongside a kitsch Christmas song. For a ska-pop superstar, it's a pivot, but Stefani and Shelton are cute together — picture-perfect in their opposite attraction.
Country Gwen exists, her urban counterpart assures me, but on this particular MacBook she's nowhere to be seen. I'm not sure what crude regional stereotypes I was expecting (Stefani spitting sunflower seeds? Shelton line dancing in the background?) but I get Californian sunshine instead, illuminating a version of Stefani more familiar from my teenage years, when Love. Angel. Music. Baby and its follow-up The Sweet Escape spawned millions of fans, haters and imitators. She's platinum blonde, red lipsticked and wearing a black-and-white outfit that matches the decor. The checkerboard pattern can be traced back to an even earlier era, when Stefani and her No Doubt bandmates were '80s teenagers obsessed with two-tone acts like Madness and The Specials.
Cowboy boots wouldn't fit this picture, and nor would Stefani's glitzy showgirl outfits from The Voice, where she just wrapped another season as a celebrity coach. As she prepares to release her fourth solo record, and enters the fifth decade of an extraordinarily successful music career, Gwen Stefani is re-re-branding as... Gwen Stefani.
Top: Local Boogeyman, Pants: GCDS, Shoes: Valentino, Earrings, bracelets and rings: Dena Kemp (The Residency Experience), Necklaces: Gwen's own, Engagement ring: Gwen's own
"But what is that?" Stefani asks with seriousness, as we consider the possibility of some essential, inherent Gwen. "Everyone's interpretation of what I am and how I sing, I mean, that's what this era is about for me."
Said era kicked off in January, with the music video for "Let Me Reintroduce Myself." It saw Stefani playfully revisit the wardrobes of album cycles past, from the ab-bearing tomboy tank tops of "Hollaback Girl" to the club kid blue hair mascara of '90s No Doubt. Her Harajuku Girls also make a return. The entire visual is a huge flex, not only for the sheer volume of iconic career moments recreated in dutiful detail, but the fact Stefani can still fit into the clothes originally worn during all of them. She looks eerily the same, frighteningly good, ageing in reverse at the same pace as her frequent collaborator Pharrell.
Pop stars are expected to be young forever, in looks but also in their capacity to innovate new trends. Which makes the nostalgic music video a curious choice. Doesn't Stefani know by now that the cardinal rule of pop is to avoid repeating yourself? That even the hottest artists in the world are basically required by law to create completely new eras from scratch every six months in order to appease fans and maintain maximum TikTok-ready relevance?
Of course she does, but that doesn't mean she has to participate. Stefani isn't trying to chase down her contemporaries, despite clearly possessing the physical fitness required. "It's really a blessing to be able to have such a long career, where there really is nothing to prove anymore," she says. "It's a different energy. You know, it's really just about doing it to do it, as opposed to trying to make a statement or make a mark."
Corset: Ronald van der Kemp, Bracelets: Dena Kemp (The Residency Experience), Earrings: Lana Jewelry (The Residency Experience), Engagement ring: Gwen's own
Even the Saweetie remix of her latest single "Slow Clap" happened on a whim, after the younger artist happened to post a video of herself vibing to Stefani's 2004 single "Luxurious" on Instagram Stories. They knocked out the song and accompanying video in a day. Neither seems bothered by the Old Navy meme. "It was just this little video that we did on the fly," Stefani says. "It just happened. It just feels good to put new stuff out there."
In 2018 Stefani embarked on a Las Vegas greatest hits residency, Gwen Stefani – Just a Girl, and it has given her a sense of perspective on her own legacy. "You make a new record because that's what is exciting for you," she says. "But people really just want to hear the records after a while that were the backdrop to their lives, a 'Don't Speak' or a 'Just a Girl' or a 'Hollaback Girl,' or whatever it was for them. So, you know, it's hard — you can only be new when you're new, and that's just the truth, and I know that."
She says she was pleasantly surprised that "Let Me Reintroduce Myself" charted at all, and that she only found out it did when Shelton walked into the kitchen to show her the iTunes numbers. "I burst out crying with joy, because it was like, 'Whoa, really?' I think I'd set myself up to be quite realistic about where I'm at."
Stefani, endlessly polite and self-deprecating in conversation, which on her end mostly consists of endearingly earnest run-on monologues, says she still has "tons" of insecurities. I get the impression she has been trying harder to give herself credit lately. She recalls recently hearing Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" on the car radio and finding herself in awe of the song's timeless catchiness.
Suit: Balmain, Earrings and choker: Lana Jewelry (The Residency Experience), Necklaces: Gwen's own
"But then I started thinking," she says, in a goofy Cher Horowitz tone. "Like, I have a few of those myself." She talks of this realization as a genuine breakthrough, which is a little worrying for a woman who has sold 40 million records. No shit, she has a "few of those." More of them than Lauper, actually.
More new music is coming along slowly, but I've caught Stefani on a day when the horizon looks closer than usual, and while things haven't quite fallen into place yet, she's feeling more confident that they eventually will. "I'm at the end," she declares. "The idea of going for a session and not being with my kids or the idea of taking time away from Blake doesn't fuel my fire like it did two months ago. I need to decide, wrap it up, put out the project."
Crucially, there's no rush. The album will simply arrive sometime this year, tracklist and title currently undecided.
"You're talking to me at a weird transitional time," Stefani says repeatedly throughout our conversation, which sometimes takes on the cathartic tone of therapy. But having time in the first place is a new feeling.
Bracelet and choker: Dana Kemp (The Residency Experience), Obsession necklace: Lidow Archive, Gold necklaces: Gwen's own, Clothing: Blumarine, Boots: Philipp Plein
NO DOUBT WERE A BAND for nine years before getting on the radio. Enough time for Stefani and bassist Tony Kanal to be in a long term relationship then break up and write a whole hit album about it. All of the Fleetwood Mac drama was resolved pre-fame, which enabled the group to capitalize on the surprise success of Tragic Kingdom singles like "Don't Speak" and "Just a Girl" with a world tour that lasted almost three years. Three more albums followed, and Stefani has reinforced her household name status in every decade since, launching a solo career and multiple fashion lines while never totally cutting the cord from her original musical project.
In other words, record executives have been dictating Stefani's schedule since the mid-'90s. She even sings about it on Love. Angel. Music. Baby opener "What You Waiting For," in which her biological clock ticks like a metronome. Interscope Co-Founder Jimmy Iovine, who discovered No Doubt and continued to work with Stefani on her solo output, was quick to point out that his client's prime childbearing years were also her last opportunity to cross over into pop stardom. And after her first record went number one, it only made sense to lay down some new tracks straight away.
"I had the baby, the first one, and it was only like eight weeks after I had him, that Jimmy was calling me saying, you've got to go in the studio with Akon," Stefani recalls cheerfully. "Like, Akon wants to work with you. Like, no, I'm nursing my baby. But then I couldn't say no." And then? "We wrote 'Sweet Escape.'" And then? "I went on a world tour." And then? "In the month that I got home from that one hundred and whatever shows it was, I got pregnant with Zuma. So then that was that." (It wasn't. Admittedly: "Then it was like, No Doubt, let's do another record.")
Things are different now: "You can just drop singles and you don't have to put a record out. But if you want to put a record out, you can work on it slowly." But even as she talks of slowing down, speculating that she might not even go on tour after the pandemic ends, in the next sentence Stefani's back to admitting that there's more work to be done, that she wants to write a couple more songs for her new record, "just to make sure."
Earrings: Lana Jewelry (The Residency Experience) Choker: Chanel, Necklaces: Gwen's own, Gloves: Laurel DeWitt, Top: Local Boogeyman
"The creation is the thing that fuels me so much," she says. "Whether or not I get the response that I would hope to get — because that's what I'm used to, because I'm so damn spoiled and I've tasted the blood of success — I still got to do the creative journey."
Like any good lyricist, she reaches out to her listener, hoping to convey a more universal point. "It's just probably the same for you as a writer," she guesses. "You know, it's the anticipation. You're in it now. You're getting the information. This is what you live for. You're doing the interview and then you're going to write it. And that's going to be the challenge."
GWEN STEFANI WAS PUTTING out diary entry pop when Olivia Rodrigo was still in diapers and Taylor Swift was but a humble Pennsylvania Christmas tree heiress. She struggles to pen lyrics that aren't confessional ("I'm not a creative writer when it comes to like, 'Oh, let's just write a sad song about something that didn't happen to me'"), and occasionally re-traumatizes herself when performing old hits. Return of Saturn deep cut "Dark Blue" triggers "crazy, just horrible" recollections of a past relationship. Even "Don't Speak" felt emotional onstage in Vegas.
But after releasing an excruciating divorce album, This Is What the Truth Feels Like, in 2016, Stefani is back to writing happy songs only. She's getting married, after all. She won't be releasing any of her trademark breakup anthems anytime soon. "Girl," she laughs, "I think I've had my fair share."
Bow: Laurel DeWitt, Earrings: Lana Jewelry (The Residency Experience), Bracelets: Dena Kemp (The Residency Experience), Shirt: Vintage Archive, Dress: Erdem, Tights: Capezio, Shoes: Marc Jacobs (Lidow Archive)
Stefani and Shelton's relationship has puzzled some fans. Shelton, a country radio phenomenon, never endorsed Trump in the 2016 election, but he did come close. Earlier this year, he was criticized for releasing a song called "Minimum Wage," about finding small joys during periods of economic struggle, at the peak of a recession.
Is Gwen Stefani a Republican now? She's not offended by the question, or really anything I have to ask. She has been famous for so long that she expects and even embraces scrutiny. "If you're going to be a star, that's what you get," she says. "You know what I mean? You get what you get, and you don't get upset, at all."
As for her politics, it's read-between-the-lines."I can see how people would be curious, but I think it's pretty obvious who I am," she says. "I've been around forever. I started my band because we were really influenced by ska, which was a movement that happened in the late '70s, and it was really all about people coming together. The first song I ever wrote was a song called 'Different People,' which was on the Obama playlist, you know, a song about everyone being different and being the same and loving each other. The very first song I wrote."
One of very few multi-racial bands playing stadium shows for hoardes of American teenangers in the 1990s, No Doubt did very literally embody those second-wave ska principles of inclusion. Stefani even wore bindis and saris on stage as a symbol of cultural exchange with Kanal, who is Indian-American, briefly kickstarting a white girl facial jewelry trend that it's safe to say would not fly in 2021.
Rings (left): Dena Kemp (The Residency Experience)
"The Specials and The Selecter and all those groups, and what they were doing in the late '70s was this whole kind of anti-racism, we come together, Black and white ska movement," Stefani elaborates on the band's founding principles. "And we were sort of echoing that in the '80s when we did it, we were like the third generation of ska."
Ska she's always happy to discuss, but Stefani was brought up to keep her electoral preferences personal, and that rule has held for her entire career. "The whole point of voting, is you have this personal space to feel how you feel," she explains. "I use my platform to share my life story and to engage with people and to exchange whatever gift I was giving. I'm not a political science major. I am not that person. Everyone knows that. So why would I even talk about it?"
It never has been. Looking back, it's weird that "Just a Girl" is so integral to Gwen Stefani's brand. She's never written anything else with remotely the same message, and or publicly identified as a feminist. To Stefani, it's just a song about growing up, and "all of a sudden you realize your gender." It wasn't meant as a protest or anthem: in fact, being her breakout hit, she didn't think anyone other than her bandmates and some local fans would ever hear it.
"I don't even know if I knew what feminist at that time was," she says. "I was very sheltered growing up with my family. I wasn't political. I wasn't angry." Even now: "I don't need to go on Instagram and say 'girl power.' I just need to live and be a good person and leave a trail of greatness behind me. Stop talking about it and stop trying to bully everybody about it. Just do it. And that's how I feel like I've lived my life."
WHEN STEFANI WAS GROWING up in 1970s Anaheim, her father got a job doing market research for Yamaha, which required frequent business trips to Japan. He'd bring home Sanrio toys, as well as anecdotes about the Tokyo district of Harajuku, where teenagers were dressing like Elvis, and "taking all these American things and making them Japanese." His daughter was entranced. "He would be telling me these things my whole life, like my whole life. I had a deep fascination."
So when No Doubt played Japan in 1996, Stefani describes, "It was a pretty big deal for me." The tour was the first time she'd traveled outside of the United states, save one trip to Italy when she was 21. "I just was inspired," she recalls. "It's a world away. And at that time it was even further, because you couldn't see it on the internet. I don't think a younger generation can even imagine what it's like to not have access to the world."
From then on, Japan became one of Stefani's biggest career motivations, especially when it came to her solo albums. If she could just write more hits, she'd get to tour there again, see the street style, visit the vintage stores. "If you read the actual lyrics [in 'What You Waiting For?'], it talks about being a fan of Japan and how if I do good, I get to go back there," she says.
In the meantime, she decided she'd bring Japan to Los Angeles. "I never got to have dancers with No Doubt. I never got to change costumes. I never got to do all of those fun girl things that I always love to do. So I had this idea that I would have a posse of girls — because I never got to hang with girls — and they would be Japanese, Harajuku girls, because those are the girls that I love. Those are my homies. That's where I would be if I had my dream come true, I could go live there and I could go hang out in Harajuku."
Earrings, bracelets and rings: Dena Kemp (The Residency Experience, Gold Necklaces: Gwen's own, Top: Local Boogeyman, Pants: GCDS, Shoes: Valentino
Dancers Maya Chino ("Love"), Jennifer Kita ("Angel"), Rino Nakasone ("Music") and Mayuko Kitayama ("Baby") would go on to accompany Stefani for her next two album cycles, dancing on stage and in her videos while also making silent, but very well-dressed, awards show appearances. Kita, who'd grown up in LA, visited Japan for the first time on Stefani's tour.
In a 2006 interview with Blender magazine, comedian Margaret Cho compared the Harajuku Girls to a minstrel show. The backlash against them has been consistent ever since. Stefani, to this day, disagrees.
"If we didn't buy and sell and trade our cultures in, we wouldn't have so much beauty, you know?" she says. "We learn from each other, we share from each other, we grow from each other. And all these rules are just dividing us more and more."
Hello Kitty merch was harder to come by when she was a kid, but in other ways, life felt easier. "I think that we grew up in a time where we didn't have so many rules. We didn't have to follow a narrative that was being edited for us through social media, we just had so much more freedom."
Earrings, bracelets and rings: Dena Kemp (The Residency Experience), Necklaces: Gwen's own, Dress: GCDS, Shirt: Faith Connexion, Tights: Capezio, Shoes: Marc Jacobs (Lidow Archive)
Stefani's penchant for rule breaking has always been apparent in her music as much as her aesthetic. Genre-wise, she's a randomista. The chart success of No Doubt's bouncing ska beats felt like an accidental post-grunge-era glitch in the matrix, and it's insane to this day that one of Stefani's biggest solo hits samples "If I Were a Rich Man" from Fiddler on the Roof, by way of '90s British dancehall duo Louchie Lou & Michie One. That another, "Wind It Up," features earnest Sound of Music yodeling.
"I just make up whatever comes out," Stefani says of her songwriting process. "I don't even know where it comes from. I feel like it just comes from the source. It's not trained, and it's not perfect, it's just real."
She looks back on the Love.Angel.Music.Baby era as unusually experimental and artistically fulfilling. "It was just a really incredible time, and a very creative time. I feel like it was just a really creative project."
STEFANI VIEWS HER CAREER success as mostly a matter of luck. Pop stardom is God-given and mysterious."Because the fact I made it, it doesn't make any sense," she reflects. "It's written in the stars. You know what I'm saying? I'm not the most talented. I'm not the most pretty. I'm not the most smart. None of those things. But I made it, right?"
Clothing: Blumarine, Bracelet and choker: Dena Kemp (The Residency Experience), Obsession necklace: Lidow Archive, Gold necklaces: Gwen's Own
Every week on The Voice she watches objectively gifted musicians fail at becoming artists. "I watched people that went through that without seeing their faces, without knowing what color they are. And I chose the ones that pulled my heartstrings. And even though they were so talented, none of them have had careers. It's made me look at myself and even feel even more amazed by the fact that anyone cared or cares."
If all of this is actually so out of her control, then Stefani feels safe stepping back a little bit. "I don't have that fuel in me like I used to, because I already won," she says. And now she has other victories in mind. "Being a good human, a good mother. I want to have a good marriage. I want to be a good wife. I want to win at finding peace. I want to win at finding other hobbies that I'm good at."
But at the same time? "If I'm inspired, I'm going to try to do something with that inspiration." That's the most fun part: whatever else comes after has always been an amazing bonus.
The "Let Me Reintroduce Myself" era, whatever form it may eventually take, isn't a desperate grab at former glory. It's Stefani refusing to evolve for the sake of it. She's poking fun at the whole idea of having to compete with past personas alongside current ones, while acknowledging the fact she's grateful to still be in the game at all.
"You don't know what you're doing," she says, somehow both confident and resigned. "You're a cartoon of yourself at this point, and you don't know what people are thinking. They're wondering, what? Why are you still here? And I'm like, I don't know. They said I could be here. So I'm here!"
Photography: Jamie Nelson
Styling: Nicola Formichetti
Hair: Sami Knight
Makeup: Michael Anthony
Nails: Carolyn Orellana
Wardrobe director: Marta Del Rio
Production: Katrina Kudlick
Digitatech: Sean MacGillivray
Logo design: Luca Devinu
Story: Kat Gillespie
Location: Hubble Studios