Full disclosure: The first time I ever met Gwen Stefani was in 2001, when I was a freshman in college, at the afterparty for the VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards. (Remember those, anyone?) It was at The Park on 10th Avenue and my brother was with me. She was wearing the wide-gage fishnet stockings, cargo pants, wife beater tank top and pointy toed boots that John Galliano had designed for Dior, and she standing on the patio on the second floor. Feeling a little tipsy, my brother, who is truly a lifelong No Doubt fan and only dated blondes who would entertain his SKA music preference, went up to her and asked for an autograph. We didn’t have paper or anything, so we found a pen and presented her with a pack of Marlboro Lights, which she laughed at (at us?) and signed. I still cringe every time I think of this.
Point of the story: I have been a Gwen fan for more than a decade. Since No Doubt’s 1995 record Tragic Kingdom, to be exact, though in the pre-internet world the record didn’t make it to Missouri till about 1997. (I’ve crossed paths with Gwen a few times since then, and I’ve told her the story of the brother and the nicotine autograph and she just laughs. Thank goodness.) Which is why I was so enthusiastic about seeing her again for Harper’s Bazaar’s September issue cover story. I’ll include that and some of Terry Richardson’s fabulous pictures below, but after the two of us finished dishing on her style choices – few women have done more for platinum blondes and red lipstick since Marilyn Monroe – we started talking about her new album, Push and Shove, which I can’t wait to get my hands on. So I thought anyone who is as a devoted fan of the Gwen songbook as I am would find some of these thoughts interesting. And then, for the rest of us fashion folk, check out the full article below.
On the new record’s sound: “It’s really upbeat, which is surprising, it’s kind of a combination of everything we’ve ever done. It has that reggae thing in it, it has a lot of 80s sounds, it’s very happy and upbeat, but it’s confessional too. My last records and my solo stuff were not to be taken too seriously. They were dance records. They were, like, silly. They’re not about being deep, but [this record] is a little deeper. This is more like a No Doubt record. I think it sounds like us. It sounds so much like us, but fresh. In a new way. I definitely think it’s the best work we’ve ever done. I’m sure everyone says that about a new record and I am always like, my favorite thing is whatever I’m working on. But it’s true: this is my favorite thing.”
On being nervous about releasing a new record: “Yeah, I’m nervous. I haven’t put a record in a long time, and there’s so much passion that you put into it. And then all of a sudden, it’s out. This is the best part because no one has heard it, because you’re so proud of it and you love it, and no one has criticized it. I’m really excited for the people I know who have followed us and are supporting us. They’re going to love it. If I love it, they’re going to love it.”
On writers block: “To be honest, by this point in a career, it’s hard to get inspired. You’ve already sort of done it all. [When you’re starting out] you don’t have that house, and you don’t have that car. There’s ambition. Look, we had to fight for it, and all that desperate-we-want-to-do-it-so-bad is what made it so good. It’s really an inspired record.”
On being shocked by No Doubt’s early success: “We weren’t working towards fame. That’s what’s weird. We were working toward playing shows and getting more shows, but not because we ever thought we’d break through. We were in a scene that we thought would never go mainstream. The idea of getting on the radio was beyond all possibility. This is in the middle of grunge, remember. I’m sorry, but why would that happen? It was Nirvana. And then it just got on the radio. And then Tragic Kingdom came out and we went on tour and we never came home.”
On writing lyrics now: “Do I write in a diary? Not now. I used to have journal, of course I did. But now with the kids and stuff, it’s like, when? I don’t have time to go to the bathroom, let alone do a journal entry. This was the first time I wrote with someone else, besides when I did my solo stuff. [Tony Kanal and I] just sat on the couch and we actually wrote lyrics together. Normally, I would write all the lyrics, but I couldn’t do it. I needed someone to go, ‘What about this?’ I needed someone to push me. Piece it all together, torture torture torture, and then we’d have the whole string of the song, and then I’d just have to write the lyrics. Which was a whole other thing: what am I going to write about? But, interestingly, even though I have so many blessings in my life, there’s always something to complain about. That’s life.”
On the last song that made it on the album, Undone: “The last song we we wrote was a song called Undone. I had gone to London and I said I’d go work on it, and they were like, ‘She’s not going to do it, she doesn’t work on anything when she’s not here.” But I got to London and one night when the kids were at the their grandparents’, and I was looking at old videos, watching Garbage videos, and the stuff you do when you have the luxury of that time. And I said, I’m going to pull that song out. I did it. I wrote the words. I got back to LA and they were like, ‘What? You did something?’ That turned out really good. We didn’t struggle over it. Sometimes it just happens.
On the color pink: “You know, I’m feeling pink again. Ten years ago, when I did pink the first time, I was like I never want to see that color again. It represents girls. It’s like I had that line in ‘Just A Girl’: Take this pink ribbon off my eyes.”
On the song, Just a Girl: “When I wrote that, who knew? Who knew! I can remember sitting on the my bed, and my sister was on the phone, I’m at my parents, it’s three in the morning, and I’m writing this song. It’s so weird, right? I didn’t even think anyne would ever hear that song, let alone it become a hit. Recently, we just did some small impromptu acoustic things, and we did that song and I was wondering,’How is this song going to work now? Am I the other girl that I used to be? But it totally still works. Obviously, I’m not that girl anymore, but it still works.”
Halfway through my lunch with Gwen Stefani, she does something that I never thought I’d see her do in public: She shuffles her feet under the table and kicks off her shoes—peep-toe stiletto ankle booties. “Oh, what’s the point?” she says in her distinctive Southern California drawl. “You can’t see ‘em anyway.” For a girl whose personal style has been deftly calculated and copied for two decades—trends she can take responsibility for include belly shirts, bindis, and even adult braces because “I always told myself when I got rich, that’s the first thing I’d do”—this was an unexpected moment of fashion fatigue.
When she divulges her day’s schedule, however, it’s clear why her booties were benched. Before meeting me for lunch, she’d dropped off her older son, Kingston, six, at school and reviewed mixes for No Doubt’s latest album, Push and Shove. After we’re done talking (and after she chats with Charlize Theron on her way out of the restaurant about the benefits of bald heads, which I’ll get to later), she collects Kingston and takes him to a costume shop to create a Spider-Man wardrobe. “He just discovered superheroes, and he’s obsessed,” Gwen says. “It was like when I discovered Marilyn Monroe: ob-sess-ed.” Next she has a fitting, will put her kids to bed, and then head to a night shoot for the video for “Settle Down,” the first single off the new album. That’s just Monday. On Thursday, her husband, Bush front man Gavin Rossdale, comes home from an East Coast tour and plays the Staples Center in Los Angeles; then they’ll pack up Kingston and his younger brother, Zuma, four, and board Rossdale’s tour bus for a family road trip to Las Vegas.
“It’s, like, the real deal, dude,” she says. “It’s superfun being a mom, but it’s hard too. Finding that balance between work and family is the hardest thing I’ve ever done—by far.” But to be perfectly clear, those bare feet are no indication that she’s slipping in the sartorial department. (The toes are perfectly manicured in a fire-engine red polish.) In fact, the 42-year-old is still fit, fabulous, and glamorous, boldly sporting her signature accessories: platinum hair and scarlet lips.
“I’ve always been a girl who loves to dress up,” says Gwen. “I already put my makeup on twice today: I put it on to take my kid to school, and then I went home, washed my face, and put it on again to have lunch with you.” She even wears it at home because “I like to make my husband like me more,” she says, laughing, “and he likes it when I’m wearing makeup.”
Gwen recalls how she felt when, at the age of 25, she spent eight hours in a hair salon in Long Beach getting her coveted white-blonde locks. “It was like I’d unlocked the key. I remember feeling like, ‘I have arrived. This is me. Finally.’” The red lip came when her grandmother gave her a crimson lipstick when she was in high school. “I remember sitting in my ghetto, beat-up Honda Prelude and putting on that lipstick in the rearview mirror and being like, ‘Uh-huh, I like that. That’s the shit right there.’ I never stopped after that.”
Earlier this year, Gwen arrived at a party at Stella McCartney’s L.A. store wearing a killer black sheer-paneled jumpsuit. Of that particular ensemble, she says, “I came home and it was hanging in my bathroom, and I was like, ‘Yes.’ I wondered if it was going to be too much, but when I put it on, it was the perfect amount.”
While she is (no pun intended) no doubt proud of her physique, it’s not Gwen’s favorite topic of conversation. “I hate talking about my body [all the time]; it’s ridiculous,” she says, referring to the number of times someone has asked how to get her six-pack abs. “There is no secret: You just have to eat healthy, work out, and torture yourself!” Jumping around onstage for a few hours for thousands of screaming fans is great cardio, and she says she hits the gym when her hectic mother-of-two schedule allows. “But it’s more for my brain than it is for my body.” Not that it’s all about mental health. On how she stays sample-size: “I like to wear clothes too much, so I try to keep focused.”
Other questions she’s tired of fielding are those about hair maintenance. “Do you think Marilyn Monroe had to talk about this?” she asks, smiling. “Well, I heard she did hers with a Q-tip every 10 days, so I try to follow Marilyn’s rule.” I mention that she’s never been photographed with dark roots, and she points to the houndstooth fedora she is wearing. “And you’ll never see me with roots either.”
When No Doubt was just starting out in the late ’80s, rehearsing in a studio that Gwen and her brother built in their grandparents’ house with bandmates, she wasn’t able to spend much time on girly stuff. She was one of the boys, taking shifts driving their first tour bus—a vehicle that got so greasy from the guys’ unwashed hair, she couldn’t see out of the windows. “I did my own makeup, my own costumes; I did everything myself. I didn’t even know there were stylists.” She made many of her now iconic music-video outfits, though she admits that she used a glue gun as much as a sewing machine. “I remember there was a point when all the guys were sitting around eating pizza, and I finally said I needed some help. So I got an assistant, but guess who he was? A roadie. He took my first Prada dress, which Gavin had bought for me, the first designer piece I ever owned, and he washed it, and it came back this big,” she says, indicating Barbie doll—size with her fingers.
Gwen is, in a word, chill. She is a well-liked, scandal-free member of the Hollywood glitterati. As we leave lunch, she bumps into Charlize Theron (“Hey, girl,” is Gwen’s greeting), who has just shaved her head for a role in Mad Max: Fury Road, and has no problem teasing her about the look. “You’re insane—you’re like a skinhead!” Gwen says. “I’m so jealous.” Theron compliments her on what she’s wearing and mentions that her baby, Jackson, lives in one of the onesies that Gwen designed for her Harajuku Mini clothing line.
Think about it: We’ve never seen Gwen falling out of a nightclub; we’ve never seen her mug shot; even on morning school runs, she is a rock-star mother. Gwen lets out a Valley Girl giggle when I say how unaffected she is, then gives an interesting explanation: While her onstage persona is a jumping, screaming extrovert, in her real life she is, in her own words, “passive. I was never a rebel.” She credits that to her relationship with her strict Roman Catholic parents, who she lived with, unbelievably, until she was 25. “When I started dating Gavin, I was still at my parents’ house. Yeah, it’s a little weird,” she says with a smile. (She had a midnight curfew when she went to the prom with Tony Kanal, her bandmate and then boyfriend.) “My mom calls me a peacemaker. I want everyone to be happy. But I have a superbig opinion on everything artistic that I do. I know what I like and I know what I hate—that part of me isn’t passive.”
Gwen insists that fame and gossip don’t affect her. “That someone would say something untrue or bad about me doesn’t bother me. It’s like water off a duck’s back.” This attitude applies to everything from best-dressed lists to rumors that her marriage is falling apart. “None of that stuff matters. There’s something in me, being this passive person, that those kinds of things don’t upset me. I know they can say anything; they can just make something up. But what are you going to do? It’s not part of my reality, so it’s okay.”
This resilience also comes from the fact that the band was never seeking fame, she says. She was always in it for the music. “We didn’t even do it because we were trying to make it. Now everybody wants to be famous. It doesn’t even matter what you do,” Gwen says. “Let me tell you how that first record happened: My boyfriend had broken up with me and I was devastated, so I wrote all these songs. I didn’t even know I could write. I was just a girl who was in love with this guy, then suddenly I’m a songwriter, and I’ve gotten you back so good. I went from being nothing, from being an ordinary, nerdy girl, to having power.”