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Interview BuzzFeed.News

Buzzfeed.News Interview July 18, 2018
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Part 1

The New Gwen Stefani Is A Lot Like The Old One

Stefani has always been a study in contrasts: a sexy tomboy; a rock star who loves her man and her manicures. So why are we still surprised every time she tells us who she is?

Posted on July 17, 2018, at 10:47 a.m. ET

In 1995, No Doubt were asked to perform alongside Primus and Fishbone at a Roe v. Wade anniversary show. It was the latest benefit concert put on by Rock for Choice, a reproductive rights advocacy group founded by the all-women rock band L7. When No Doubts frontwoman, Gwen Stefani, got onstage, she told the audience, If I got pregnant right now, I wouldnt get an abortion. But isnt it cool that nobody can tell me what I can and cant do?

The organizers, Stefani later recalled, were not pleased. They were like, We wouldve never asked Gwen Stefani to be involved if we knew she was going to say that. It was a stance that Stefani found hypocritical: They were pro-abortion, she said. Not pro-choice.

That memory was included in one of the first major magazine profiles of No Doubt, published in Details in April 1997. On the cover, Stefani posed in a bra and panties, her hands in the shape of a heart just below her chin. GWEN STEFANI, the headline said. THE GIRL U WANT. The reason you wanted her? She was hot but approachable, a frontwoman for a rock band who wasnt mad, or aggressive, or ugly; she wasnt like Courtney Love or Kathleen Hanna or any of the other women who performed at those Rock for Choice concerts. She liked embracing her feminine side something that, when she was coming of age, she simply didnt see modeled in music. I didn't know where I fit in, she recalled. All the women around me that I could look at were in bands like L7 or Hole. They were angry, and I didn't really feel like that.

Stefani also prided herself on not being political. I'm really not the type of person that's a big feminist, she told Billboard in 1995. I'm a more old-fashioned kind of girl, a real girly girl. As the cover of Spin declared, she was a Riot Girlie: the diminutive version of the riot grrrls whose aggressive, alienating style had become the rock scenes primary female energy.

In hindsight, Stefanis rise functioned as a pivot in the history of feminist rock: the first of many moments in a backlash that would transform a movement fueled by anthems like Holes Doll Parts and Bikini Kills I Like *bleep*ing into a sparkly mimeograph of itself, a retort to the stereotypical notion of humorless feminists who hated lipstick. However false that dichotomy, it remained the guiding logic of the mid-90s, when the label of feminist was subsumed by a different way of being a girl in the world. This new mode was just as public, yet far more palatable to mainstream audiences, in part because it traded transgression, rage, and the rejection of feminine norms for the consumption and cultivation of innocent sex appeal. I love makeup, Stefani told Spin in 1996. I love getting my hair done. I love getting pedicures. Im the furthest thing from a rock chick.

In the years to come, Stefani would often be likened to Madonna a comparison she hated. When she thinks of Madonna, she thinks of sex, Rolling Stone explained. And this is the point when she thinks of herself, she does not. In 2011, she rejected the claim that Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Katy Perry were her heirs: I dont see myself in those girls, she replied. I see these girls as more going for the sex-symbol thing. I was more, in the band, like a tomboy. But Stefani was always the sexy tomboy, blending seemingly irreconcilable styles into an aesthetic that became the blueprint for what would become girl power. It was a look that her own father, when asked in 1997 about her sex appeal, described as the healthy, athletic, happy, honest approach.

Sexy but pure. Strong but accessible. The perfect Trojan horse, as Garbage lead singer Shirley Manson put it. She seems very benign and wholesome, but underneath lurks an incredible toughness and powerful directness. Nobody can copy her, because shes this uniquely extraordinary contradiction. The ability to reconcile those contradictions has always been at the very heart of her appeal. And while the specifics of the contradictions have changed as shes evolved as a pop star, the core of it has not. As Stefani herself said back in 1997, I think earlier there were ideas that since Im a rock chick that I would be some slutty wild woman. But Im totally the opposite.

These days, Stefanis band arent selling 14 million albums a year, as they did in 1996. But her relationship with country star Blake Shelton, coupled with reembracing spirituality, has made her the happiest [shes] ever been. Her style is more feminine than ever before, she recently told InStyle, probably because Im super in love and have a really manly man. Her clothing brand recently expanded to include an eyeglass line and Target collection brings in upwards of $90 million a year. Shes arguably never been more successful a point celebrated in her newly launched Vegas residency, which doubles as a sort of triumphant culmination of two decades spent proving shes the opposite of what audiences might assume.

Back in the '90s, Stefani was the antidote to the caricature of the angry feminist.

Somehow, though, were still surprised every time Stefani tells us who she is. When Shelton was named Peoples Sexiest Man Alive last year, it was treated as a moment to reflect: How did someone like Stefani end up with someone like him? Some might see the shift in Stefanis public image as an inevitable ideological trajectory: the social liberal who, with age and distance from school, mellows into a more conservative version of their once radical self. But Stefani was never radical. She remains a white girl who grew up in the hotbed of the conservative movement in Orange County; she has always seemed annoyed by accusations of appropriation, reticent to claim feminism or the advocacy that stems from it, and has always spoken openly about her wish for a traditional family life.

Back in the 90s, Stefani was the antidote to the caricature of the angry feminist. And if then she insisted on having it both ways being just like the other girls, but not like the other rock girls it follows that over the last two decades, shes become an original brand ambassador for having it all. Shes evolved into an avatar of the cool, hot, successful working mom, even as she rejects the sorts of feminist conversations that have drawn that ideal into question. And shes still less interested in being the kind of woman or the star you want her to be than the one she's always been.

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