Immaterial Girl

With a diverse following and a stand-alone attitude, Nelly Furtado hit it big by being herself. But how long can it last?

Every rising pop star who manages to forge a distinctive personality on the radio and MTV inherits them seemingly overnight. Hundreds of thousands of like-minded -- and sometimes like-dressed -- individuals are suddenly drawn out of their shells through their instant identification with this larger-than-life representation of their secret, inner selves.

We call them fans, but mirrors is more like it. Little reflections of the bright star they try their best to emulate. Some, like Kid Rock's trailer-park convoy of rowdy, mullet-headed Joe Dirts, you sometimes wish had remained unearthed. Others, like Eminem's worldwide network of disgruntled, potentially suicidal Stans, you can only hope never sit next to you on an airplane with oddly laced shoes.

It's a good thing, then, that Nelly Furtado, the eclectic 23-year-old Canadian chanteuse whose debut album, Whoa, Nelly!, has earned four Grammy nominations and high-fives courtesy of everyone from Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott to Elton John to the Lilith Fair set, has also unearthed her own following of like-minded fans. Fiercely individualistic, culturally diverse and bubbling with energy, Furtado's fans are, well, a lot like Nelly herself.

Accept no imitations: Nelly Furtado prides herself on having been her own woman in an industry that's driven by image. Now her young fans are imitating her.
Accept no imitations: Nelly Furtado prides herself on having been her own woman in an industry that's driven by image. Now her young fans are imitating her.


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"They're pretty awesome," Furtado says of the expanded audience she's discovering on this, her second tour in less than a year's time. "You've gotta see 'em to believe 'em."

Chatting from her Portland hotel room after only the third of 41 stops on her aptly named "Burn in the Spotlight" tour (which kicked off in her native Victoria, British Columbia, on January 28), Furtado is clearly enjoying watching her audience as much as its members are enjoying watching her.

"It's like, last night we played Seattle, and up front there was a man in his mid-30s with his 3-year-old daughter -- wearing earplugs," she adds, laughing. "Then to the right, there were some funky teenagers. Next to them, there's these young twin boys singing all the words to every song. I mean, they're just so diverse, you really have to see it."

On the go almost nonstop since her album went gold last March with concert appearances, high-profile collaborations and TV guest shots on everything from all-star John Lennon and Aretha Franklin tributes to Rosie and Saturday Night Live, Furtado speaks fast -- and loud -- with the high-voltage enthusiasm of a young entrepreneur taking the reins of her own suddenly successful franchise. And she's clearly happy with the crews she's assembling in each location.

"There's every nationality, every color, every ethnicity. Every type of person is at my show. It's really, really cool," she says, then adds, as clarification, "It's really cool."

Furtado herself is a really cool multicultural mix of influences and styles. Born in Victoria to working-class Portuguese parents in 1978, Furtado attended an all-Portuguese school where she learned the language, folk-dancing and religious practices of her parents, "but at home, they chose to speak English with us. So how I grew up, I never saw the world in black and white. It was always a million shades of gray."

Young Nelly saw the daily challenges her immigrant parents -- Antonio, a stonemason, and Maria, a hotel chambermaid -- faced just keeping the family afloat. "I grew up watching my mom in the laundry rooms, doing other people's linen and washing things," she recalls. "But, you know, she was the most beautiful, stylish lady I knew. So I knew that the world was beyond what you saw from the outside."

Her older brother and sister, fans of American pop and hip-hop, helped Nelly discover worlds of music she hadn't known before. "We had some American hip-hop stations in my city, and we had a little scene. Suburban hip-hop kids, maybe 20 different hip-hop groups, and we'd battle, we'd have jams. We'd freestyle in the park." Furtado immediately stood out from her MC pack by her penchant for freestyling in Portuguese.

Relocated at 17 to the big city of Toronto, by then a melting pot of nightlife activity, Furtado quickly immersed herself in the city's music scene -- an odd mix of Caribbean-style melodic hip-hop, electronic trip-hop, Brazilian guitar music and straightahead pop. "All my friends were really diverse as well," she says. "So they opened me up to a whole lot of cultural backgrounds."

That potent stew of influences served Furtado well in the making of her debut album, which she calls a "world-music album, only it's sung in English." Critics heralded the release as the refreshingly schizophrenic work of a truly beyond-category young star.

Having a foot in so many cultural camps has also helped Furtado amass that friendly following all around the world. "It really opens doors for me," she admits. "Like, being Canadian opened doors for me in Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Being Portuguese opened doors for me in places like Italy and France and Portugal, Brazil and Latin America. And then having hip-hop influences opened doors for me in America."

Unlike some artists, who coax their producers to deliberately add world-music touches to their tracks to attract a wider audience, Furtado asserts her genre blending just comes naturally.

"The reason it sounds natural on my record is that the interests are tangible and real," she says. "I've spent time doing those styles, I've grown up with them. That's why it doesn't sound kinda tacked on."

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