KATY PERRY is squatting over a big duffel bag, rifling through printed dresses, retro rompers, hats, turquoise suede heels and other anti-wallflower accessories, deciding what to wear for the second take of her photo shoot. She holds up a red straw hat with a brim the size of a truck tire, then fishes out a beaded red purse shaped like an apple. "See," Perry says, her huge blue eyes widening. "I love anything fruit."
The pop singer's quirky style and Varga Girl-meets-Joan Jett looks are why she's been on the fashion world's radar for months, though her debut album, "One of the Boys" -- featuring the cheeky, already ubiquitous pop single "I Kissed a Girl" -- is just being released this Tuesday.
This past year, she's been busy vamping it up in fashion spreads for magazines like Nylon and Zink -- not to mention the cover of Women's Wear Daily -- and recently had her wardrobe dissected on "The Fit," a video series on MySpace Fashion.
Designers were calling before her first single even hit the Web, eager to get in early with a potential "it" girl. Perry caught the eye of Betsey Johnson after being snapped in one of the designer's dresses for WWD; soon after, Johnson was dressing the singer for various fall fashion shows in New York in February. "Betsey really likes Katy's appearance," says a spokesperson for the company. "She's very curvy and pinup looking -- a typical Betsey girl."
She's pals with zany T-shirt designer Johnny Cupcakes and dark-and-moody seamster Neil Barrett. Shoe designer Steve Madden has tapped the 23-year-old for an ad campaign in conjunction with her album release. Even Karl Lagerfeld's a fan. Perry attended Chanel's party for its new boutique in L.A. last month wearing a black cocktail dress given to her by the house (a true fashion fanatic, she breathlessly blogged about the gift on www.katyperry.com).
Though Perry's playfully sexy style is the stuff of pop culture gold, the Santa Barbara native wasn't allowed to listen to pop music throughout her childhood. Her parents -- both traveling ministers -- kept their kids on a strict diet of gospel music ("New Kids on the Block? They're still new to me," she jokes).
And she may be singing about kissing girls, but God is first in the album's liner notes, where she writes, "I recognize that my talents are God-given gifts." Perry has "Jesus" tattooed on her wrist in '50s script, but gets shy for the first and only time when it's pointed out, covering it with her hand before reluctantly flashing it again.
Plenty of pop stars have tried to straddle the line between sexy and innocent (Mariah Carey's struggled for years), but with Perry, you get the sense that it's no act.
And it's no mystery why style-watchers have been chasing her down. It's a rare pop tart who comes out of the gate boasting such a bold, distinctive look; even Christina Aguilera flirted with seat-less chaps on her journey to her screen-siren style.
"I really like to look like a history book," says Perry, who talks with her hands -- tipped with short nails painted neon rainbow with leopard spots. "I can look 1940s, I can look 1970s hippie-chic, or sometimes I'll pull that '80s Brooklyn hip-hop kid with the door-knocker earrings."
Retro a go-go
Tucked into a chaise lounge at Bar Chloe in Santa Monica and clad in a vintage cardigan emblazoned with a bejeweled pineapple, a sunny yellow vintage onesie with a sweetheart neckline -- hair curled in fat ringlets, lips painted stop-sign red -- she resembles one of Slim Aarons' St. Tropez socialites.
"There are definitely flavors of that 1940s pinup in how I dress," Perry says. But like most fashion-forward girls in their early 20s right now, she's also nutso for anything '80s -- big bows, strapless dresses and neon, neon, neon.
Perry's biggest influences, a list of trend-setting female pop-rockers including Cyndi Lauper, Garbage's Shirley Manson, Pat Benatar and Joan Jett, also play into her style. Those women still don't care, she says: "They came out with a vengeance."
Perry gets a regular assist in the wardrobe department from celebrity stylist Johnny Wujek, who's been working with her since 2005. Wujek, who also works with Lake Bell and Kate Mara, says the relationship is pure collaboration -- the pair were good friends even before they started working together. "It just worked out perfectly that I'm a stylist and she's a rock star," Wujek says. "Katy loves to push the boundaries and be her own colorful self. She once told me she wanted to look like an ice cream cone, so I got her a Jeremy Scott dress that's actually an ice cream cone."
Perry credits Wujek with "regularly blowing my mind." For the Nylon shoot, "He made me a headband with my name spelled out in Legos," she says. Though Perry is generally up for anything, she recalls an instance when Wujek took the zaniness too far. "He showed up with a Chiquita banana headdress once, and I was like, 'That's a bit much.' "
Wujek helped pack the bag of sartorial surprises the singer lugged in for this photo shoot, but Perry put herself together that day: test-driving earrings, debating whether to wear a flower in her hair, pulling out reams of belts to pick from.
"I Kissed a Girl" was the No. 2 single on iTunes as of Tuesday, and Perry will be belting it out to thousands this summer as part of the hot-and-sweaty Vans Warped Tour, kicking off at the Fairplex Park in Pomona on Friday. While in hair and makeup for the photo shoot for this article, her publicist showed her a Fox News segment on how local mothers are scandalized by the lyrics ("I kissed a girl and I liked it / the taste of her cherry ChapStick"), prompting Perry to cry, "Yes! My dream is to take on Bill O'Reilly!"
Of course, she's already been anointed by high priestess of pop (and original right-wing instigator) Madonna, who called Perry's sendup of metrosexual men, "Ur So Gay," her favorite song in a recent interview. "I'm still floored by that," Perry says. "It's like, you're Madonna -- you don't have time to be listening to my songs!"