BY ALLISON KUGEL
Gwen Stefani spent her childhood and adolescence in Anaheim, California, a suburban girl living just a stone’s throw from Disneyland. It was her older brother, Eric, who founded No Doubt, the hybrid ska/punk/rock band that would help Stefani make her way into the musical limelight with their 1995 breakout album Tragic Kingdom. The band’s unique sound, coupled with Stefani’s platinum blonde hair, red lips and punk rock fashion sensibility, made the singer a rock star status in the 1990s.
With lyrics torn from the pages of Stefani’s personal diary – about falling in love, break-ups, make-ups and mending a broken heart – her music has always drawn in listeners with its raw vulnerability. Her down-to-earth nature and self-deprecating sense of humour helped to seal the deal with fans, making her one of the most successful female recording artists of the past 23 years.
Her first solo album, 2004’s Love. Angel. Music. Baby., along with her L.A.M.B. fashion label, catapulted her into the music and style icon stratosphere in the early 2000s. Follow-up albums like 2006’s The Sweet Escape and No Doubt’s 2012 reunion album Push and Shove capped off two decades of non-stop recording and touring for the Grammy-winning artist, as she focused on raising her three sons with then husband, Bush lead singer Gavin Rossdale.
In the summer of 2015, the California girl experienced an earthquake in her personal life when her marriage to Rossdale imploded amidst a cheating scandal. An unexpected romance came in the form of country crooner (and Gwen’s The Voice co-star) Blake Shelton, whom Stefani began dating later that same year. She then did what she does best, pouring her emotions into her most personal music to date, with 2016’s This Is What The Truth Feels Like album and a subsequent tour.
This year, Stefani, mom of Kingston, 11, Zuma, 9, and Apollo, 4, is preparing to embark on her Las Vegas Residency at Zappos Theatre at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino. It’s called Gwen Stefani: Just A Girl – an homage to her first single to make the Billboard Hot 100 Chart and her own personal anthem, which she says still holds true today.
Was this Las Vegas residency a family decision? Did you sit down with your three boys and say, “Mom’s going to perform in Las Vegas instead of touring. What do you think about that?”
Honestly, my kids don’t really have too much of a say on what the schedule’s going to be. But as a mom, if you look at my touring for the last ten years, I haven’t really toured. In the past, I did tour for seven years. It’s hard with the kids, because they’re in school and I’m not home schooling, and you can’t pull them out. It’s not fair on them. I did my last tour because I had this unexpected life crisis and then the music came pouring out of me from that. I didn’t even plan on making any music. It was such a lifesaver and a beautiful moment for me to be able to write again. I put that tour on at the last minute [ the This Is What The Truth Feels Like tour] and went on a summer tour with the kids. It was so much fun for them. They love touring, but it isn’t realistic. So, I’ve been thinking about doing the Vegas show for a while now. The Las Vegas residency will really work for me as a mom, because it’s these little chunks of time where you can fly in and out, and it’s workable.
It’s a shifting of priorities.
Yes. After that last tour, I felt like, “I’ve toured a lot in my life!” I love it, but it takes so much out of me as far as being able to focus on the rest of my life with the kids. I have three kids and it’s a big deal. Any parent would probably go, “How does she do it?” It’s almost impossible to do and it’s a lot of balancing. The residency is just perfect for where I’m at right now.
What does performing live give you, personally and energetically?
Being on stage for me … I always forget how much it’s a part of who I am. I’ve done it for my whole life, pretty much. I always think I don’t want to do it. I always think it’s fine if I never do it again. Then when I get on stage, even when I’m sound-checking, I’m like, “I love this!” I love my music, I love being up there, I love the attention and I love being able to share that love with people and get that exchange. I don’t understand why I like it so much.
It feeds your soul. You’re connecting with source and you’re in a zone.
It’s my gift. It’s what I’m here for. I’m obviously at the end of my journey of being a musician…
Why would you say that?
Well, because of my age, and I’ve been doing it for 30-something years. It’s perfect for me to be able to do a Las Vegas show, because not only does it work for me as a mom, but it also works creatively. It’s a new challenge. It’s going to be a way to express myself and do my whole catalogue of music that defines every single period in my life; all the crises and all the joys. Creatively, I couldn’t have done it any sooner. I had to have all these songs. It just feels like the perfect next chapter for me.
You’re taking the audience on a journey of your life, and to do that you have to have lived.
Exactly! And I also think people who are going out for that weekend in Las Vegas; it’s so different from, for example, if I’m performing in Philly and it’s about Philly culture, and the audience is just coming out for that one night and getting a babysitter. You know what I mean? This Vegas show is a bigger commitment for people. They’re going for the weekend and they’re making a memory. You’re competing with the Las Vegas nightlife, you’re competing with the gambling, the partying and with the hotels and all the expenses. It’s a big commitment for people, and they’re coming to me from all over the world.
And they’re going to get a more intimate experience with you than they would in a stadium setting.
It is a much smaller audience than I’m used to, under 5 000 people. It’s going to be so different and that’s something I need. When you’ve toured for however many years I have, it’s super awesome, but let’s do something new! That’s why even doing The Voice for the last couple of years was so inspiring for me. I think everybody wants something challenging and new to look forward to.
You went to see Jennifer Lopez’s Las Vegas show, All I Have. I’m assuming the two of you discussed her residency. Did she give you any advice?
I’ve always looked up to Jennifer in the sense that we’re exactly the same age, and I remember when No Doubt was coming out and she hadn’t done Jenny From The Block yet, but she had that song out, Waiting for Tonight. At the time, I was working with Prince and he started comparing me and Jennifer, and at that time I didn’t even see how I was in the same category with her. She was Jennifer Lopez and I was in a band called No Doubt. But now here we are, doing these residencies all these years later, and we’ve known each other through the years. She’s always invited me to her kids’ birthday parties and things like that. She is a crazy worker. I cannot believe how much she works! I know I do, but I look at her and I’m like, “Wow!”
It doesn’t seem human, right? Multiple television shows, a Las Vegas residency, albums…
I know. I don’t understand it. Going to see her, and I’d never seen her do a performance live, I was studying the production of her show. The show was incredible, and she works so hard on stage. I admire her a lot and it was so inspiring to see… and scary! When I came backstage to talk to her afterwards, she comes out of the dressing room looking like a Barbie Doll. She was breathtaking on stage, but when you see her up close, it’s like, “What?! It’s not possible. You are so gorgeous!” She was just so glamorous. We talked for awhile and she was like, “Yeah, I’ve just done 100 shows…” And I’m like, “Whoa, that’s a lot of shows!” And she still has 40 more to go. She’s really enjoyed it, but she said it is challenging.
I think you’ll find it challenging, but one of the best experiences of your life.
It is challenging, and as performers we have a completely different perspective on doing a concert than the audience. The challenge isn’t about us. We’re going to be us every time we get up there. We may have that one night where we’re off because of whatever might be going on. A lot of times, you just never know what you’re going to be like on stage. But at the same time, we’re pretty much consistent. It’s really about the audience. What are they going to be like and are they into it or not?
What are you presenting to the audience, artistically, with your Just A Girl show? You’re also a fashion designer and you have a strong aesthetic vision. Between the sets and the costumes, how will everything tie together on stage?
I’ve really tried to put together a show that has a nostalgic feel. The show is full of hit songs that are recognisable and take you back to that time period in your life. And of course, the real reason for doing Vegas is the costumes. I’m working with Rob Zangardi and Mariel Haenn, who I’ve been working with now for, I don’t know how many years. They are just incredible. They did Jennifer [Lopez’s] show, and they’ve also worked with her for years. They really get me. I think there’s going to be about five costume changes, which is a lot for me considering that with No Doubt I never did any.
I remember. With No Doubt, it was just you out there with your cut off t-shirts!
Yeah. But now I’m working with designers to see what they come up with. There are different chapters as far as what I want to look like, and I basically have it all worked out. Now it’s just putting it all together.
The title of your show, Just A Girl, is the title of one of your biggest hits, but it has a double meaning for you. You’re always saying, “I’m just a girl from Orange County…” Is that your way of keeping yourself grounded?
Honestly, I think if you really knew me or saw my family and how I grew up, I am 100% the same person I have always been. When I wrote that song, Just A Girl, I was 25 years old, going to college, still living at my parent’s house, and I was very naïve. I had a boyfriend at the time that lived at his parent’s house. I was driving one day and I’m thinking, “Wow! I really have a different position in this world, being that I’m a female.”
Did something happen that made you stop and think, “I’m going to be treated a certain way because I’m a girl”?
It was just more of a realisation that I had. I think we all do as females. I’m walking down the street and some guy just whistled at me? What does that even mean? Suddenly, you’re aware of your sexuality and that you’re ascribed a certain value because of it. It was when that hit me, that I wrote the song, Just A Girl. Nobody was paying attention at the time. Nobody was ever going to hear the song. I didn’t even know how to write a song. It was just so naïve. I guess I wanted to figure out a way to say, “This is my DNA.” And really, my DNA is I am just a girl from Anaheim [California]. I’m just me, and I’ve never been anything else. I know that’s what got me to this point, by being honest, real and sharing my story with people. That’s all we can do in this life, and I’m nothing more than that. But at the same time, by using my gift, being aware of it, trying to respect it and being confident in it, I’ve gotten this far. Music is so powerful, and for a song like that to still be relevant twenty years later? In a way, it’s even more relevant now. We have so much going on with female empowerment and what’s our place? When I read the lyrics of that song I think, “My gosh, that must have been a godsend,” because I know I didn’t think that up on my own. I always thought it would go out of fashion, or I’d be too old to say “just a girl” but it still works.
Has Blake had any creative input with this new show?
Obviously he’s my best friend, so I’m bouncing stuff off him all the time. He’s one of those people in my life that’s super-supportive and gets me motivated. There’s a whole bunch of songs about him in the show, so that’s fun. Like anybody with their best friend, we share everything together. I’ll tell him, “I picked my dancers. There were 500 girls that tried out!” And I’ll send him videos. Just things like that.
Did you choose Planet Hollywood as the venue?
I feel like they chose me, and what’s really cool about it is that Planet Hollywood is also the Zappos Theatre now, and the Zappos team is just incredible. They’re taking over the theatre with their creativity and it has a very futuristic feel. I also give $1 of every single ticket sold to the children’s charity, Cure 4 The Kids Foundation. It’s going to add up to be a crap load of money! It’s something I’m going to be really proud of. You get very motivated about giving and helping, and making a difference, but you really don’t think as one person you’re ever going to in your life. I feel that to be able to get up there and share my story, and then make that kind of money to give away is amazing. I feel so proud of that.
What’s your routine before you step out on stage? Do you pray? Do you meditate? How do you gear up to give your best performance?
I don’t meditate. I’m a prayer. I pray, but first I do my make-up. My make-up is huge for me. I have this song called War Paint. Putting on my makeup and getting ready, there is a kind of meditation in the preparation. Make-up is art, and it’s like getting into character when I put it on. I’ve always done my own make-up for shows. And the praying for me is really important. We do a group prayer circle. In the last few years, and when I toured for the last show, the payer is not just before, but also during [the show]. When I think about how ordinary I’ve always been, and to think that I’ve created all these songs, I don’t know where they come from. I always think that it’s got to be a channelling and it just comes through me. It’s a spiritual thing that has been given to me to share. When I’m in the music, the music takes me right back to those moments in my life. And some of those moments are sickening, you know what I mean? Certain memories are upsetting. That’s why I say this is not just a show for me, it’s my life. It’s real for me and I think that’s why I’m very anxious about it.
It’s going to be a tremendous spiritual, emotional and physical undertaking.
And I’m very lazy! I like to not have to work out and not have to be committed to something. And I love to be with my children, of course. But it is such an amazing opportunity and they don’t just hand them out to everybody. I feel really honoured to be able to do it. I’m thrilled to see who’s going to show up and it’s going to be a lot of fun. I’m going to look back on this and say, “I can’t believe I did that!”
Gwen Stefani: Just A Girl runs at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino’s Zappos Theatre. Order tickets at https://www.caesars.com/planet-hollywood/shows/gwen-stefani.
Allison Kugel is a syndicated entertainment and pop culture journalist, and author of the book, Journaling Fame: A Memoir Of A Life Unhinged And On The Record. Follow her on Instagram @theallisonkugel.