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Genie Behind ‘Bottle’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Two months ago, singer Christina Aguilera was unknown to all but a handful of Americans--people who had seen her in the last two seasons of the Disney Channel’s “New Mickey Mouse Club,” or who’d heard the theme to Disney’s animated film “Mulan” and were stunned to discover the powerful voice came not from Celine Dion or Mariah Carey but from a skinny kid from the outskirts of Pittsburgh.

Now, with the release of the first single from her debut album for RCA, Aguilera, 18, is becoming a household name. The single, “Genie in a Bottle,” is No. 1 in the nation and has sold almost half a million copies since its June 22 release. The video is the fourth-most-requested on MTV’s “Total Request Live” show, and Aguilera is the subject of more than 30 Internet sites.

She has already been booked for several TV concerts featuring other popular teen acts, such as UPN’s late-August “Summer Music Madness,” which will also feature Tyrese and fellow Mouseketeer Britney Spears.

A singer of substantial skill, Aguilera has been compared by many in the industry to her two most apparent influences, Carey and Whitney Houston, and likened to a new Monica. She will be featured on several Lilith Fair dates accompanied only by piano, and will appear in concert at the Greek Theatre with Joey McIntyre on Aug. 24.

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Songwriter Steve Kipner, who co-wrote “Genie in a Bottle,” says he was impressed by Aguilera during recording because she did not need coaching to improvise complex R&B; lines, a skill he says he generally sees only in older artists.

“She’s internalized all the riffs from Chaka Khan to Etta James to Mariah and made them her own,” Kipner says.

While this skill may not be immediately apparent on the high-gloss “Genie,” a song even Aguilera admits is more commercial than challenging, it’s apparent on the album’s sweeping ballads and bluesy midtempo cuts, which she says she prefers.

At a recent photo shoot in an austere Hollywood Hills mansion for Mademoiselle magazine--which has already dubbed Aguilera one of its top people to watch in the new millennium--Aguilera appears observant, quiet and more than a little overwhelmed by all of the commotion being made about her, much of it in the third person.

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“Do you like her hair like this?” a hairdresser asks.

“Do you think she looks too yellow?” a makeup artist asks.

“Shouldn’t we change her nail polish?” a manicurist asks.

As these and two dozen other people flutter about, answering cell phones, eating pate and drinking champagne, the diminutive Aguilera curls more and more tightly into herself and looks at times as if she might actually suck her thumb.

When a call comes for Aguilera from her manager, he screams the good news that she has just been booked on “The Tonight Show” for Aug. 27. Aguilera smiles politely then asks, “Which one is that?”

She’s not kidding; she really doesn’t know. It’s not because she never watches TV, but because she’s just young. Really young.

While Aguilera’s self-titled album, which hits shelves Aug. 24, features her as a wholesomely sexy young woman, the real person slouched in the chair is more of a child, watching something unfold before her that might be bigger than she ever imagined in the not-too-distant past when she spent hours in the bathtub, singing to a shampoo bottle.

“Kids used to come over and ask if I could play and my mom would tell them that was my play, singing all by myself,” Aguilera says. “I guess I was weird.”

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One person who did not think she was weird was her mother, who honored Christina’s wishes to perform early on by involving her with block party performances near their home in suburban Pittsburgh. That led to local press coverage and eventual invitations to perform for the mayor and at professional sports games.

At 9, Aguilera performed on TV’s “Star Search"--and lost. She remembers crying backstage, but laughs now, saying, “I think I’m over it.”

But the price of fame was high in Wexford, Pa. Aguilera says that after her “Star Search” debut, her mother’s tires were slashed by jealous parents and many classmates started ignoring her.

A year after that, Aguilera went to an open audition in Pittsburgh for the “New Mickey Mouse Club.” Two years passed before she heard anything. Aguilera was 12 when she began flying to Orlando to film the show during summer breaks. Once again, she says, her success made her a school outcast, driving her to switch schools.

While working as a Mouseketeer, Aguilera caught the attention of Steve Kurtz, who asked to be Augilera’s manager and who sent a tape of the little girl with star power to RCA Records--with a note that RCA A&R; director Ron Fair still has on his wall.

“She was fearless,” Fair says. “She had perfect intonation and command of her instrument that normally you would see in someone a lot older. I was struck by her amazing voice, her budding beauty, and I decided to take a shot and sign her to a demo deal.”

But before that deal progressed, Fair got a call from a friend at Disney asking if he knew of any stellar young singers to record “Reflection,” the lead song on the “Mulan” soundtrack.

Aguilera nailed the job, and “Reflection” was nominated last year for an Alma award and a Golden Globe award. RCA began working on her album, enlisting some of the top names in songwriting, including Diane Warren, Carl Strunken and David Frank; all of the songs on the album were recorded when she was 17.

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Aguilera smiles at the manicurist, and they chat about Disneyland, and about Jennifer Lopez, whose nails the manicurist recently did.

“You did Jennifer Lopez?” Aguilera cries, mouth dropping open. “Oh my God. I love Jennifer Lopez!”

She adds, “I think what draws me to Jennifer Lopez is that I feel proud of my Spanish roots, and the fact that she’s Hispanic and going out there, I can relate to that.”

Aguilera’s father, with whom she has little contact and about whom she is reluctant to speak, is from Ecuador. Her mother is an Irish-American who studied to become a Spanish translator. Aguilera grew up listening to her parents speak Spanish and says she plans to release a Spanish album in the future, hopefully a salsa album.

In the wake of what has perhaps been the nation’s biggest media frenzy around Latino musical acts, Aguilera has escaped being lumped in with Lopez, Ricky Martin, and Enrique Iglesias (her dream man, by the way) not because she has denied her roots, but because her label has tried to avoid pigeonholing her.

And while Martin’s conspicuous emergence onto the mainstream charts was trumpeted in headlines nationwide, Aguilera’s emergence as the nation’s next potentialdiva is perhaps a more important development for Latinos in mainstream music because her talent has been the focus, rather than her ethnicity.

“She’s of Latin descent, yes,” says Fair. “But I think she represents millions of kids across America who are of Hispanic descent but are completely American. She’s got the pipes to be the next Barbra Streisand or Celine Dion, and that, to us, is really all that matters.”

Aguilera says that on her next album she plans to write more; the most inviting hook in her current hit was actually one Aguilera improvised in the studio.

Further down the road, Aguilera says she’d like to produce music for other artists. She’d also like to record a duet one day with Carey. But most of all, Aguilera says she can’t wait for the day she walks down the street and people recognize her.

“I know a lot of people would hate that,” she says. “But not me. I’ve been waiting all my life for this moment.”


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