Katy Perry slowly descends into frame, nine months pregnant with her first child. Via a webcam into her Los Angeles home, she looks like the Virgin Mary via Andy Warhol in a voluminous azure dress and a matching pearl-studded headband. "The conception was not virginal, I'll tell you that," she says with trademark cartoonish verve.
All that's visible of her house is a lustrous brown curtain, the stage for her recent promo activities. She estimates that this is her 70th interview about her fifth album, Smile. (Going by the banal, grin-and-bear-it US radio interviews, she has the patience of a saint.) Baby and record were neck and neck until production delays bumped the latter to August 28th: the girl she and her fiance, Orlando Bloom, have nicknamed "Kicky Perry" comes first.
Katy Perry had been the world's biggest pop star: a poorly educated Pentecostal kid turned weapons-grade saucepot who equalled Michael Jackson's record for scoring five No 1 singles from one album, and who gave the most-watched Super Bowl half-time show of all time
The pandemic only slightly skewed her plans: the 35-year-old singer always intended to release the album, have a baby and skip touring, resenting the suggestion that she should have to choose. That said, it has helped that every pop star is working from home.
“It’s not like I was some witch with a spell: I’m going to do it this way, so you’re gonna do it this way,” she says with mock glee. “But, yes, I probably don’t have as much Fomo as I would have if the world hadn’t shifted.” Last night she was filming a video until 2am, her last big commitment. “There is definitely a groundedness of: ‘Here’s the music, enjoy, love ya, I’m out!’”
There’s a striking dissonance between Perry’s intensive promo efforts for Smile – a partial return to her vivid pop-EDM roots – and her laissez-faire attitude to the outcome. It’s a new protective layer. Last time she released an album, its lacklustre reception (plus a temporary split from Bloom) left her suicidal as she realised how much she depended on external validation.
She had been the world’s biggest pop star: a poorly educated Pentecostal kid turned weapons-grade saucepot who equalled Michael Jackson’s record for scoring five No 1 singles from one album; who gave the most-watched Super Bowl half-time show of all time.
Witness, from 2017, represented her disillusionment with saccharine imagery and ceaseless aspiration. Her third eye was suddenly wide open, her mission to make “purposeful pop”. She was mocked for it, particularly after she spent three days in a Big Brother-style livestream, convening with activists about the state of the world and addressing her own blind spots.
But, looking back, it’s hard not to feel concern for someone who had evidently questioned so much (including her identity, her Bettie Page curls cropped blond and spiky) that she was left raw, even manic. “I was breaking the foundation that I started creating when I was nine,” Perry says. “It started to not shelter me in the way it did in the past.” After she and Bloom briefly split, Perry turned to work, as she had often done when her personal life foundered: “And that just didn’t work any more.”
Witness’s singles were her lowest-charting ever – not full-blown flops but out of step with the public mood, as Perry discovered from trawling negative comments on Twitter despite lacking the “armour” to withstand them. “No one can make you feel or believe something about yourself that you don’t already,” she says. “If you feel that way and they add a little sauce, it’s going to go up in flames.”
Nothing – no opportunity, no person – could inspire me to get out of bed. My depression showed up in lethargy, in lack of interest. Like, now I just don't care about anything. A-ny-thing. And don't look forward to anything
On tour, she went through the motions. Not for the first time: her 2012 documentary Part of Me traces the dissolution of her year-long marriage to Russell Brand. (In the most memorable scene, she's crying beneath the stage – head down so her tears don't loosen her fake eyelashes – then shoots up on a hydraulic platform, beaming.) "I have learned how to compartmentalise and how to be a performer," she says with pointed brightness. "You put your personal life away for two hours and realise that people are paying with their time and money to come and see the jester, to escape their own stuff. Part of me does provide a Disneyland service. But that's only a part."
Post-Witness, that compartmentalising instinct failed. Perry flatlined. “Nothing – no opportunity, no person – could inspire me to get out of bed,” she said. “My depression showed up in lethargy” – she asks if she’s saying it right, a nervous habit – “in lack of interest.” A feeling that would usually pass lingered. “Like, now I just don’t care about anything. A-ny-thing. And don’t look forward to anything.”
She had felt suicidal after Brand ended their marriage by text. When clinical depression re-emerged, she sought help instead of running from what she calls "the Red Rum sisters that show up at your doorstep". She spent a week at the Hoffman Institute, where specialists identify negative behaviours stemming from childhood. She had ideas of what she wanted to address, "and then it's like Mary Poppins's bag – you just keep pulling shit out".
When Perry was in her 20s her anxieties about inadequacy, about “never really truly being invited or cool or accepted”, fuelled her ambition. So she made an art of excess – maximalist pop, bras squirting whipped cream, carnivalesque live shows – and titillated the United States right in its pleasure centres.
Her efforts eventually exhausted her. "Like, what else do you have to prove after the Super Bowl?" She goes into a bug-eyed, Seinfeld-worthy rush of hysteria. "You did it! You did it, hello? Pivot! Why do you have to keep climbing Everest? What are you proving? Are you just climbing Everest until you die? Until there was that one chance where you're, like, I'm not going to make it?"
It always comes back to your parents, she says; hers are born-again Christians who ran a ministry from their Santa Barbara home. Perry – a middle child, born Katheryn Hudson – once said she didn't have a childhood. Everyone has a childhood, she clarifies with a sad laugh. "But my childhood was just the Jesus train. It wasn't expansive and it wasn't curious, it was just Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday evening; Jesusjesusjesusjesusjesusjesusjesus," she slurs. "From birth, it was pure Bible thumping."
Perry’s “transactional” relationship with validation started when she started singing, at the age of nine. “Everyone went from ignoring me to, whoosh, like now I had this magic trick of being able to hold attention.”
The atmosphere at home was heavy: at Sunday school, the kids played with felt depictions of hell. Men dominated. Perry developed cleanliness-related OCD to exert some control. Education was limited and heavily religious. (She left school at 15 to pursue her career, first as a gospel singer.) Expressing feelings was off the cards and therapy was considered taboo.
Perry became an icon because of her ironclad hits, but also because she was goofy and unfiltered back when her women pop peers held steelier poses
She mimics a voice of zealous disbelief: “‘But Jesus cures all! By his stripes, you are healed! I’m sorry if your fingers are falling off, but God will heal it.’ It’s, like, if you don’t have real intense true faith, then you’re not the best Christian. But there’s lots of tools that God gives us to be able to help ourselves, and science and doctors and therapists are some of them.” She adds, tartly: “That’s probably why I’m in the business of feelings.”
There’s footage of Perry at 18 in Part of Me: she is funny, charismatic and optimistic. It seems miraculous that she held on to that lightness. “I guess I adopted humour and sarcasm and steel early on,” she says. After spending a while in the industry churn (including a stint in England writing with Dave Stewart, of Eurythmics) her pop career ignited six years later. Her cheesecakey aesthetic prompted derision yet made perfect sense: a kid from an oppressive religious background literally dressed as forbidden fruit (though it wasn’t that deep, she says), revelling in innuendo.
Travelling the world introduced her to cultures and concepts far beyond anything she could have imagined in the Jesus bubble, although this enthusiasm would get the better of her. Cultural appropriation was a big feature of Perry’s first three albums (cornrows, geisha dresses, Egyptian imagery) and continued long after the criticism mounted. “A lot of mistakes I’ve made in the past have been juvenile lack of education,” she says.
She acknowledged this during the Witness promotional cycle. Yet this also drew criticism from critics who said it was a sign of privilege for a white star to centre a marketing campaign around their ignorance. “If you really break it down, it takes a certain amount of privilege to think that way about me, because that means you probably had access to more education, more information,” Perry counters. She acknowledges her innate advantages as a white woman. “But there is definitely not a whole lot of empathy or compassion towards people sometimes growing – or trying to f***ing grow – in the spotlight. Because growth also means failing. And I’ve done a lot of falling flat on my face.”
Perry became an icon because of her ironclad hits, but also because she was goofy and unfiltered back when her women pop peers held steelier poses. She was often interviewed while getting her makeup done for a show, which I assumed was a conscious reveal of the facade. But no, she says: “It was probably the only time I was sitting still.”
She acknowledged the precariousness of pop stardom in other, less intentional ways. Throughout her career, she has often joked about not resorting to shaving her head in the face of professional pressure, alluding to Britney Spears's 2007 breakdown. The frequency of these thoughtless remarks suggested a deep-set fear. "Anyone in this intense a spotlight, they understand that the tightrope just gets tighter and smaller, and that with one word, one costume malfunction, it can all blow up," she says. Humour had always been a way to deflect. "I have used that as a mechanism for coping and for my own fear, and have said things that have been sloppy or insensitive."
Perry has been getting called out since her earliest singles, Ur So Gay and I Kissed a Girl, stoked controversy for perpetuating stereotypes that were outdated even in 2008. Her enduring career is proof, were it needed, that so-called cancel culture isn’t real. “No one’s above reproach,” she says. “If you’re going to get into this business, and if you’re going to have anything to say, not everyone is going to agree.” Equally, she says, forgiveness is important: “It’s okay to say you weren’t as evolved as a human five years ago than you are now.”
Perry is clear on what she feels she should be accountable for. Since 2018, three people have accused her of sexual misconduct in the form of unwanted touching and kissing. She becomes slightly clipped for the first time when I ask how she reflects on those allegations. “I think we live in a world where anyone can say anything,” she says. “I don’t want to say ‘guilty until proven innocent’ but there’s no checks and balances: a headline just flies, right? And there’s no investigation of what it is.”
She hasn’t previously commented out of respect for the #MeToo movement. “I don’t want to add to the noise. I want to add to the truth, basically.” So the allegations weren’t true? She inhales. “I don’t comment on all the things that are said about me, because if I chase that dragon it would be about true and false-ing my whole life. It’s distracting from the real movement.”
I'm not stupid enough to think I won't ever have challenges again. Now I'm grateful that I have some tools to navigate through it
The latest argument to trail Perry is that it’s insensitive to release an album (and single) called Smile during a pandemic, which seems pretty miserly given that it’s about finding the will to live again. She’s unbothered. “If we don’t have hope it can get really, really dark, and this song is not just ignorant escapism happiness. Even though some people are going through that darkness, hopefully they can hear that one person made it through.”
My trepidation about Perry’s new record is that various tracks about tempering pain with hedonism undersell her hard-won growth, although the record does find relief in the catharsis of euphoria. She sometimes still parties through the low moments, she says, then refers to the album cover, on which she’s styled as a sad clown. “It’s not, like, ‘Be f***ing happy! Let’s see your smile!’ I’m not stupid enough to think I won’t ever have challenges again. Now I’m grateful that I have some tools to navigate through it.”
Perry hasn’t made any firm plans about how visible she’ll be once she gives birth: she’ll go with whatever feels right. She put as much work into preparing to become a parent as she has the album, addressing her worries that she lacked natural maternal instincts; that motherhood was incompatible with her independence. She also didn’t want to raise her children the way she was raised. “But I think everybody wants to evolve from that,” she says. “I think that’s some of the reason why we do have children, to show that we have evolved. Or that we can.” – Guardian
Smile is released on Friday, August 28th
Samaritans' free helpline is at 116123, or you can email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com; Pieta House's free helpline is at 1800-247247, or text help to 51444