In an understatedly tony building on Fifth Avenue, next to Louis Vuitton's showcase Manhattan store, music mogul Thomas D. Mottola's label, Casablanca, swaggeringly features in its reception area 32 framed gold, platinum and multi-platinum records, with names like "Born in the U.S.A.," "Thriller" and "Love Deluxe," from labels such as Epic, Columbia, and Def Jam. On a clear and cold early December day, safe behind all this gold and platinum, actress-turned-singer Lindsay Lohan was nestled like an even greater treasure in Mottola's wood-paneled private offices.
Called "Speak," Lohan's new pop CD is a wildly high-pressure launch for her and Mottola. It's his first major volley since his split with Sony nearly two years ago. Can the headstrong executive still bat a young diva straight out of the park and into everyone's iPods? Can he and Lohan, the 18-year-old star of "Mean Girls" and "Freaky Friday" and a money-minting queen bee of the teen-actress set, leverage her juvenile talents onto the Billboard charts?
Mottola -- relaxing in black Prada sweatpants -- on Lohan: "The best record I've been involved with in five years." And: "She has as much if not more potential than any star or superstar that I've worked with in all my careers." On his history with singer-actress productions: "I've worked with a few of them in the past, from Barbra Streisand to Jennifer Lopez to ... whoever," a wry reference to his former wife and personal Eliza Doolittle, Mariah Carey. And, perhaps most to the point: "Lindsay's got such a huge fan base. Thirteen million people went through the turnstiles to see 'Freaky Friday.' If you get 10% of them...." Well, obviously, in that case he'd have a 33rd platinum record hanging above his receptionist's tight coiffure -- and a meaningful notch in his history as a diva-anointer.
Lohan's CD, in fact, calls to mind early Mariah Carey: It's a less "urban," more rock version of Carey's un-lush, tight electronic early songs, though Lohan's smoky and snarly voice has a far more limited range.
Wearing a scoop-neck top and jeans, Lohan settled into a black leather club chair looking like one of those actresses in their late 20s who know how to play teen. Nothing about her belied her age: She even spoke without teen "ums" and "you-knows." She was gung-ho, even chipper, as she talked music.
She doesn't have an iPod -- she gave hers to her brother, not having time to download music herself. "I've been listening to everything just for my album. I listened to Gwen Stefani, the Smiths, Coldplay, U2, Eminem, Jay-Z, old-school Madonna ... the Killers I love right now." She thought. "My brother has all these cool eclectic bands. And Duncan Sheik, I used to love them! I always listen to Journey and Kenny Loggins from my dad ... and Pat Benatar!"
Lohan wrote some of "Speak's" lyrics. She had a surprising amount of control over the album, and often the songs appear to be making vague but discernible references to events or people in he life. "I have a journal," she said, of the sources of her lyrics. "I write in my journal all the time. My next single, 'Over,' came from my journal entries, from -- I don't want to talk about this but -- from when I had a boyfriend. We decided to sit down, and we wrote lyrics in my trailer, two songs in my house, one in Wilmer's house." The reference to ex-boyfriend Wilmer Valderrama, an actor on "That '70s Show," seemed to have bolted out of her corral of privacy with little resistance.
"My next album will be a little edgier; there are things I want to try. Lyrically, I can speak more about other things -- I'll be 19 by then! I mean, I'm obviously not going to talk about graphic details because I'm aware I have a younger audience and a younger sister....
"If you listen to the lyrics, there's ways that I say things.... I could have said them differently in a way that would have been really controversial."
Outside the interview room, a little cluster of female publicists (Lohan's main publicist is Leslie Sloan, who currently seems to spend most of her days denying that her slightly-more-famous client Britney Spears is pregnant) gathered with Dina Lohan, mother of the star, who was clad Long Island-chic in a pinstriped suit and pointy heels. Their pointed performance: kvetching about male journalists who ask rude questions about Lohan's breasts.
Mottola and Lohan had gone off to get some chocolate: Certainly there was no other day during which Lohan could use a surrogate father more. It was widely reported that morning that Lohan's father, Michael, was being charged on Long Island for violating a restraining order that had been obtained by Lohan's mother.
Mottola actually makes a sweet, grizzled father figure, and they're a perfect match: Lohan and Mottola view themselves as characters in the public imagination. Unprompted, they make knowing allusions to their tabloidization.
As if the incident with her dad weren't enough, that morning pictures of Lohan taken over Thanksgiving had flooded the Internet: The ones in which Lohan appeared were grouped with pictures of her Long Island friends smoking what appeared to be blunts, and hoisting beers in the classic manner of hard-core suburban party chicks.
Lohan groaned. "I was with them over the weekend, my best friends since second grade, and she had pictures on her camera of them smoking pot, and there's pictures of me with those. And we're at this 16-year-old kid's house and my brother was there, and I went to get him. And then she put them on Picturetrail online. Now they're going to People magazine ...."
Spin or not, it's true that readers of celebrity-obsessed magazines get mixed messages about Lohan. So we're confused: Is she a wholesome Disney teen with a fierce work ethic? Or a bad girl in training?
"It's not possible," she said of the implications of the Thanksgiving pictures. "Do you think Tommy's the kind of person who would let me do that? Or my mom? And I physically can't do that." Lohan was referring to her recent gossip-fueling hospitalization, which she attributed to exhaustion.
"I actually think I should do a reality show and have it with me 24/7 so everyone can see I'm not this crazy person I'm supposed to be," she said. And: "I'm not out to be liked by everyone. I'm here to get my job done and do what I love to do."
But it's got to be hard to love these cycles of product promotion that most celebrities choose to endure. Her face is notably thinner than her publicity pictures for the CD: The luminosity and health that made her so appealing in "Mean Girls" is dampened. "The other day I woke up at 5 -- this was when I was really sick too. I'm just getting better, but I still have a stuffy nose -- went and did radio, went everywhere, came back in, did phoners, then I had band rehearsal till 9 at night, had to meet with my agent, then I finally went to bed." No dancing on the tables at Bungalow 8? "You just ignore it," she said of those Page Six reports. "When you address it, it opens it up, it gives it an opening. Then they say, 'Lindsay Lohan Denies Dancing on Tables.' If you ignore it, it'll eventually subside."
As far as her career, she admires the way the Olsen twins have seized the means, as it were, of their own production. She has an idea that she can bifurcate her brand, to be her own twins, in a way: "I want it to be like Lindsay the singer, and Lindsay Lohan the actress. I'm not going to go changing my name to like, ha ha, Lidz, something random, LL Rocks. But I want to find a way just to separate it from my acting."
And, like the Olsen twins, she soon must find a way to gently but absolutely distinguish herself as an adult performer; many of her peers -- Britney Spears is a good example -- have mangled the task.
Shortly thereafter, a publicist came in and exasperatedly said it was time to go, stopping Lohan in mid-sentence. What she had been saying was: "I've never been in this for the money, especially for someone my age who likes to shop." (A joke.) "I'm meeting with my managers; I want to be in this for the longevity, and I want to have a great name. People have seen me go through my family issues, a breakup, and going to the hospital. So we -- "
When she stood to leave, taller than expected in her knee-high burgundy lace-up Marc Jacobs boots ("75% off!"), the adultness slipped off and she looked free and sweet. On her itinerary for the evening: to get "that airbrushed tan thing," followed by band rehearsal and then a late dinner with Mottola.
But. Neither Lohan nor her mother had ever given the slightest hint of reaction to the events of the day. Try it on: You're 18. Your father has just been arrested (again) for visiting the home in which you all once lived. One of the most famous music producers in the world will ship 800,000 of your CDs for Christmas. You'll be doing your first live music performances -- ever -- next week on "Good Morning America." And you're trapped in a wood-paneled room, high above Bergdorf Goodman, watching the Christmas lights silently pop on around Central Park. You've given endless interviews to Japanese camera crews and prying male journalists, the latter of whom are apparently concerned largely with the God-givenness of your breasts. And while your father gets bail, you must be all smiles, all teen charm.
As she adds "singer" to her resume, what Lohan has to do to maintain teen stardom looks like full-time war. It's certainly enough to break a young girl's heart -- or, more likely, to harden it.