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Immaterial Girl

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.

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.

"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."

Essential to Furtado's success in commanding such a varied musical mix is the unmistakable confidence she shows in her unique, some might say nasal, singing voice (she's affected by a slight Azorean accent), and her casual, almost anti-fashionable look (her severe, pulled-back hairstyle effectively downplays her cover girl looks).

On her guest appearance on Missy Elliott's remix of "Get Ur Freak On," recorded for the Lara Croft: Tomb Raider movie soundtrack and performed live on Jay Leno's Tonight Show last June, Furtado freestyled in her own distinctive new-school, beat-poet style, winning over an even bigger urban audience by blissfully avoiding any temptations to come across as a streetwise, tough-talking Lil' Nel.

"Individuality, to me, isn't about belonging exclusively to any one subculture," she says. "It's more about whether you're proud of your roots and who you are. And I think that's why so many people really connect with my record. It makes being yourself a little bit more simple and organic."

The biggest challenge ahead for Furtado may just be keeping it real in a business that sometimes appears to be entirely built on carefully manipulated image-making. Furtado stirred up a fuss in the European press when the February issue of FHM, a British Maxim-style men's magazine, hit newsstands with a digitally altered cover photo of Furtado sporting a bare midriff that wasn't even close to the real Nelly belly.

"There I am with a shirt that has actually been digitally altered to go to just below my chest, with a stomach that I don't recognize," she told BBC Radio. "I don't like being misrepresented to my fans."

"I make my decisions for myself and my fans," she says now, "so when somebody else makes a decision for you, I think you have a right, as an individual, to let people know the truth about what's really going on."

Maintaining her celebrated individuality, and drawing it out in her fans, is a major concern for Furtado. "Teenagers really connect with what I'm saying on the record," she enthuses. "'Cause my album is like a reflection of my going from a teenager to an adult, and all that sort of confusion you go through, and all the armor you put around yourself."

What separates Furtado's songs from all the other angst-ridden teen anthems out there is the unfailing optimism she seems to inject into every set of lyrics. Her breakout hit, "I'm Like a Bird," surely connected with every confused teen floating aimlessly into young adulthood fearing, as she sings in the chorus, "I don't know where my soul is/I don't know where my home is." But the mood twists on the soaring title refrain to give that uncertainty an exhilarating blast of adventure.

"I think you can even approach negativity in a positive way," explains the relentlessly upbeat, self-described "earth angel." "Like on my next record, if I choose darker themes, I'm sure I can still find a way to make those themes joyous. I mean, sometimes tapping into a really powerful melancholic force can be a positive thing."

Trickier still is the task of encouraging throngs of adoring followers to develop a confidence in their own individuality rather than trying to imitate hers. "A lot of times people mistake individuality with just conforming to another set of rules. It's really about not having those rules around you. Individuality comes from within."

Furtado is amused by the irony of seeing girls at her shows attempting to salute their star's determination to remain happy in her own skin by copying the trademark Nelly hairstyle and Day-Glo granola clothes. "It's kind of cute, really," she chuckles. "But then, that's just a natural thing. I mean, I used to dress up like Janet Jackson when I was in high school. And I wound up being my own person."


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