Love, music and soon an angel baby

Times Staff Writer

According to the almanac, Wednesday was the winter solstice -- the shortest day of the year -- but for Gwen Stefani it was a long, melancholy slog spent in an anonymous arena in this bland suburb of Fort Lauderdale.

On the closing night of her first solo tour, which she describes as an uneven affair, Stefani found herself short of breath by the third song and staring out at a surprisingly listless crowd. She exhorted the fans at the Bank Atlantic Center to make some noise, and the crowd of mostly daughters and mothers stirred a bit. Then she tried it again with a different approach: “I want you to do this so loud the baby hears you!”

The crowd went wild.

Just like that the week’s worst kept celebrity secret was officially surrendered, and Stefani, who has been struggling through fatigue and distraction for weeks, pushed herself through the rest of the show like a marathon runner on finish-line fumes. By the time she donned her famous majorette uniform (which was recently altered for her changing figure) and yelped through the “Hollaback Girl” finale, the show was as much about spirit and sentiment as it was about sound.


Afterward, backstage, her husband, rock singer Gavin Rossdale, videotaped the tearful scene as Stefani said goodbye to the tour’s backup dancers and musicians: “I’m so sad, but I’m so glad it’s over. I’m so glad.”

The tour was never supposed to happen; Stefani was, of course, famous as the lead singer of No Doubt, the Orange County band that began as a scruffy ska-loving outfit but, through music videos and an increasingly burnished sound, became a pop powerhouse in the late 1990s. The Police and Madness were the music models in those early days, but last year Stefani wanted to get in touch with the urban pop hits she grew up singing to her bedroom mirror in Anaheim in the 1980s. She also wanted to play dress up.

The result was a solo project, “Love.Angel.Music.Baby.,” that she describes as a lark, a chance to work with Dr. Dre (as well as Pharrell Williams, Andre 3000, Linda Perry and others) and make videos like Madonna. The album dips into hip-hop, R&B;, disco and pure pop.

That dilettante approach is fitting for Stefani; she recently has made her debut as a film actress (she was Jean Harlow in “The Aviator”), fashion show organizer (to promote L.A.M.B., her successful line of clothing and purses) and, oddly, a gizmo designer (she lent her name to a turquoise digital camera sold by Hewlett-Packard).

Some of that may be dismissed as pop-culture overkill, but that “lark” musical project has led to five Grammy nominations, including one for album of the year.

Before taking the stage at the Sunrise show, Stefani shook her head when asked about competing with U2 and Paul McCartney for the music industry’s top accolade. “I still don’t believe,” she said solemnly. “I really don’t.”

The album is one of the 10 bestsellers of 2005, with 2.4 million sold in the United States alone. It has also made Stefani a heroine to the Barbie set. Once upon a time, Stefani looked out on No Doubt crowds and saw tattoos and Dr. Martens -- now she sees tiaras and braces.

That fact and impending motherhood raise a natural question: Is No Doubt still living up to its name, or is Stefani, like her hero Sting, destined to be a pop blond in a solo spotlight?

“No, I don’t think so. But I have always known what was coming next, until now,” Stefani said backstage before the South Florida show. “I do know that I can’t do anything unless it’s real and I feel it. I have to be inspired. And right now, I feel completely depleted of creative inspiration.”

The plan now is to return to her London home with Rossdale and “eat pizza” and avoid interviews. Then, in February, she plans to attend the Grammys in Los Angeles but will not perform. “I will be, what, 5 1/2 months pregnant by then, and wearing the band uniform? I don’t think so.”

Stefani chomped on an apple while a hairdresser teased her hair.

“I am so emotional right now. I’m going to cry like 100 times, OK? This tour, in a way, was ruined by me being pregnant. It took away from me wanting to get up there. I was getting bigger and I was always tired. Thank God the crowd was there every night to turn me around.”

The crowd that sang along with Stefani on Wednesday night was the type she has seen throughout the road run: young, female and adoring. Stefani said the tour had its share of clunker nights (“Some nights I felt like I should say ‘I’m sorry’ ”) but that the fans didn’t seem to care. Looking out on an audience last week in Verona, N.Y., she was struck by the sight of a cluster of girls, all about 8 or 9, wearing makeup and bedazzled expressions.

“It was a Disney show for me, you know? It’s so different than it used to be. They were desperately singing back every lyric. The look on their faces was like: ‘Look, that’s Cinderella up on stage.’ And they make me feel like it.”

This is all fine and good, but fans of No Doubt might be ready for Stefani to quit playing princess. And no matter what Stefani says now, there’s cause to wonder whether motherhood and hip-hop beats will change the rhythm of Stefani’s career for good. She points out, though, that the absence of No Doubt songs from her solo tour’s set list is a reminder that the band’s hits belong to the group, not to her.

“This tour is cheesy and girly and I love it,” she said. “This is its own thing.”

If there was a defining moment in the public life of No Doubt it may have been the music video for “Don’t Speak,” the plaintive 1996 hit that put the band’s internal pressures on display. The video showed the young band reenacting moments of tension that were pretty close to reality. One of the scenes shows the other members of the band -- bassist Tony Kanal, drummer Adrian Young and guitarist Tom Dumont -- fuming as Stefani becomes the focal point of press attention.

“It haunted us,” Stefani said. “It was a really honest video, but we had to sit on a couch together for a year and half and answer the same questions every night and every interview.”

Kanal was a producer on Stefani’s solo project, and the two (who were romantically involved years ago -- another subplot to the No Doubt saga) keep in touch. Stefani said she did fret that Young and Dumont would watch her current solo success and worry about what it meant for the band.

“Going on tour without them, I felt like I was cheating,” said Stefani, who made it clear that No Doubt is not over. “We’ve been a band for 18 years. None of this was expected. Just like the pregnancy too. I’m sure everybody’s wondering how this is all going to turn out.”

With that in mind, Stefani carefully weighed her options in announcing her big news.

“I’m really horrible with secrets,” Stefani said. “It’s amazing we kept it quiet as long as we did, I suppose. People were really supportive .... The tabloid stuff is so ridiculous.”

In the end, the news that Stefani, 36, was with child was reported by Us Weekly. “They called my father-in-law in England. He’s a retired doctor and just the sweetest man. And they said something like, ‘Congratulations, it’s confirmed, everybody knows.... And he was like, ‘Uh, well, we’re delighted.’ Oops. Then it was like a wildfire.”

Stefani has enjoyed a relatively low-key life in London -- No Doubt made her a star here, but it was not until this pop album that she really reached an intense celebrity level in London. She used to get asked for autographs by people who thought she was Madonna -- now she’s anxious that her new strata of recognition will draw the paparazzi to her doorstep.

“We’ll see how it goes,” she said. “There’s so many things that are going to change, you know? And I don’t know what my passion will be when the baby comes. I don’t know anything.”

She does know one thing: After the show, leaning against a wall and rolling her eyes, she put her hand on her stomach and smiled. “I don’t ever have to wear those clothes again.”