The New Gwen Stefani Is A Lot Like The Old One
Stefani has always been a study in contrasts: a sexy tomboy; a rock star who loves her man and her manicures. So why are we still surprised every time she tells us who she is?
In 1995, No Doubt were asked to perform alongside Primus and Fishbone at a Roe v. Wade anniversary show. It was the latest benefit concert put on by Rock for Choice, a reproductive rights advocacy group founded by the all-women rock band L7. When No Doubt’s frontwoman, Gwen Stefani, got onstage, she told the audience, “If I got pregnant right now, I wouldn’t get an abortion. But isn’t it cool that nobody can tell me what I can and can’t do?”
The organizers, Stefani later recalled, were not pleased. “They were like, ‘We would’ve never asked Gwen Stefani to be involved if we knew she was going to say that.” It was a stance that Stefani found hypocritical: “They were pro-abortion,” she said. “Not pro-choice.”
That memory was included in one of the first major magazine profiles of No Doubt, published in Details in April 1997. On the cover, Stefani posed in a bra and panties, her hands in the shape of a heart just below her chin. GWEN STEFANI, the headline said. THE GIRL U WANT. The reason you wanted her? She was hot but approachable, a frontwoman for a rock band who wasn’t mad, or aggressive, or ugly; she wasn’t like Courtney Love or Kathleen Hanna or any of the other women who performed at those Rock for Choice concerts. She liked embracing her feminine side — something that, when she was coming of age, she simply didn’t see modeled in music. “I didn't know where I fit in,” she recalled. “All the women around me that I could look at were in bands like L7 or Hole. They were angry, and I didn't really feel like that.”
Stefani also prided herself on not being political. “I'm really not the type of person that's a big feminist,” she told Billboard in 1995. “I'm a more old-fashioned kind of girl, a real girly girl.” As the cover of Spin declared, she was a “Riot Girlie”: the diminutive version of the “riot grrrls” whose aggressive, alienating style had become the rock scene’s primary female energy.
In hindsight, Stefani’s rise functioned as a pivot in the history of feminist rock: the first of many moments in a backlash that would transform a movement fueled by anthems like Hole’s “Doll Parts” and Bikini Kill’s “I Like Fucking” into a sparkly mimeograph of itself, a retort to the stereotypical notion of humorless feminists who hated lipstick. However false that dichotomy, it remained the guiding logic of the mid-’90s, when the label of “feminist” was subsumed by a different way of being a girl in the world. This new mode was just as public, yet far more palatable to mainstream audiences, in part because it traded transgression, rage, and the rejection of feminine norms for the consumption and cultivation of “innocent” sex appeal. “I love makeup,” Stefani told Spin in 1996. “I love getting my hair done. I love getting pedicures. I’m the furthest thing from a rock chick.”
In the years to come, Stefani would often be likened to Madonna — a comparison she hated. “When she thinks of Madonna, she thinks of sex,” Rolling Stone explained. “And — this is the point — when she thinks of herself, she does not.” In 2011, she rejected the claim that Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Katy Perry were her “heirs”: “I don’t see myself in those girls,” she replied. “I see these girls as more going for the sex-symbol thing. I was more, in the band, like a tomboy.” But Stefani was always the sexy tomboy, blending seemingly irreconcilable styles into an aesthetic that became the blueprint for what would become “girl power.” It was a look that her own father, when asked in 1997 about her “sex appeal,” described as “the healthy, athletic, happy, honest approach.”
Sexy but pure. Strong but accessible. “The perfect Trojan horse,” as Garbage lead singer Shirley Manson put it. “She seems very benign and wholesome, but underneath lurks an incredible toughness and powerful directness. Nobody can copy her, because she’s this uniquely extraordinary contradiction.” The ability to reconcile those contradictions has always been at the very heart of her appeal. And while the specifics of the contradictions have changed as she’s evolved as a pop star, the core of it has not. As Stefani herself said back in 1997, “I think earlier there were ideas that since I’m a rock chick that I would be some slutty wild woman. But I’m totally the opposite.”
These days, Stefani’s band aren’t selling 14 million albums a year, as they did in 1996. But her relationship with country star Blake Shelton, coupled with reembracing spirituality, has made her “the happiest [she’s] ever been.” Her style is “more feminine than ever before,” she recently told InStyle, “probably because I’m super in love and have a really manly man.” Her clothing brand — recently expanded to include an eyeglass line and Target collection — brings in upwards of $90 million a year. She’s arguably never been more successful — a point celebrated in her newly launched Vegas residency, which doubles as a sort of triumphant culmination of two decades spent proving she’s the opposite of what audiences might assume.
Back in the '90s, Stefani was the antidote to the caricature of the angry feminist.
Somehow, though, we’re still surprised every time Stefani tells us who she is. When Shelton was named People’s Sexiest Man Alive last year, it was treated as a moment to reflect: How did someone like Stefani end up with someone like him? Some might see the shift in Stefani’s public image as an inevitable ideological trajectory: the social liberal who, with age and distance from school, mellows into a more conservative version of their once radical self. But Stefani was never radical. She remains a white girl who grew up in the hotbed of the conservative movement in Orange County; she has always seemed annoyed by accusations of appropriation, reticent to claim feminism or the advocacy that stems from it, and has always spoken openly about her wish for a traditional family life.
Back in the ’90s, Stefani was the antidote to the caricature of the angry feminist. And if then she insisted on having it both ways — being just like the other girls, but not like the other rock girls — it follows that over the last two decades, she’s become an original brand ambassador for “having it all.” She’s evolved into an avatar of the cool, hot, successful working mom, even as she rejects the sorts of feminist conversations that have drawn that ideal into question. And she’s still less interested in being the kind of woman or the star you want her to be than the one she's always been.
It’s hard to adequately reconstruct the gravity that accumulated around No Doubt over the course of 1995 and 1996. They had been around for years — first as a high school band and then, as the members transitioned to college, as a ska band trying to make a dent in a music scene dominated by grunge. Even getting signed by famed producer Jimmy Iovine, then at Interscope, couldn’t shoot them to immediate stardom. When the band started work on Tragic Kingdom, they were barely holding on to their dream — so much so that Stefani’s brother, Eric, who had first brought the band members together, quit to take an animating job with The Simpsons.
But Tragic Kingdom’s release scratched an itch. After all the gray dismalness of Seattle-based grunge, No Doubt felt like a sunny California reprieve. The album was boppy yet emotional in a way that felt less toxic, less wounding than other music from the era that gave us damaged icons like Kurt Cobain and Chris Cornell. The album was denigrated by critics as “unfashionably pop,” as Spin put it. But reviews didn’t matter when you had someone like Stefani front and center. For residents of Orange County, Stefani’s platinum-blonde retro hair, red lips, pencil-thin eyebrows, and mix of crop tops and punk pants might have been familiar, a reflection of the skater, rockabilly, and chola aesthetics that infused the area. But for millions of viewers who saw her on MTV, she felt like something entirely new. In his 2004 profile of Stefani for Vogue, Jonathan Van Meter encapsulated the feeling of seeing her for the first time onscreen: She “had rock-hard abs, was dressed half like a boy and half like a cheerleader, and stomped around like a bad-ass rocker chick. I thought: I have to talk to her.”
When Iovine first met Stefani in 1991, he told her: “Gwen, you’re going to be a huge star in six years.” Later, Stefani recalled thinking, “I’m not going to be in this band six years from now. I’m going to be having fourteen children and be married.” Stefani would repeat this story numerous times over the course of her career — as a means of illustrating Iovine’s sense of her star potential, but also to highlight just how distant her ambitions were from the life of a full-time rock star. It was one of the many ways that early profiles set the foundation for Stefani’s image: a sex symbol with eyes still trained on a future domestic life.
That image was reinforced by Stefani’s dating choices. “When it comes to the men in her life, there haven’t been many,” Details pointed out. There was her longtime bandmate turned boyfriend turned best friend, Tony Kanal, and then there was Gavin Rossdale, who she met when No Doubt opened for Rossdale’s band, Bush, in 1995. At the time, I remember feeling that Stefani was the luckiest woman in the world — Rossdale was hot in a way that was incredibly accessible to a teenage girl. But I had little sense of what a perfect pairing it actually was: Like No Doubt, Bush were viewed as unwelcome posers at the grunge party. Bush’s hit song “Glycerine” might have evoked the grunge sound, but it had none of the edge and little of the artistry. Yet teens adored it — much as they adored Stefani. For teens who loved grunge’s sound and aesthetic, but had nothing in particular to be mad about, they were a perfect fit.
When Rolling Stone compiled a list of “The Ten Worst Bands of the Nineties,” it explained Bush’s placement at No. 7 this way: “Imagine how frustrating the grunge revolution must have been for the major labels. They suddenly had this new generation of rock bands selling millions of records, but none of them were easy to manage. They were too busy doing heroin, refusing to make videos or launch proper tours and generally bemoaning the fact that they were popular. ... By 1994 the labels were sick of putting up with the nonsense. Enter a band like Bush. Gavin Rossdale was happy to tour all year round, pose for the cover of Rolling Stone with his shirt off and generally do whatever it took to sell records. He was friendly, docile and looked like a model. This was the kind of rock star they dreamed about.”
The same could be said for Stefani. Sure, there was turmoil over the way the media flocked to her, often at the expense of the rest of the members of No Doubt, but the band was good-spirited about it — and even poked fun at it in the video for “Don’t Speak.” When No Doubt first went on a world tour, Stefani, then well into her twenties, admitted her favorite drink was a Shirley Temple. “I’m totally a goody-good, I have to admit,” she said. “I’m learning how to drink beer. I think I like Corona a little bit.” Years later, Vogue underlined just how “innately poised and well-mannered” she was from the start: “As rough-and-tumble as she gets onstage, Stefani leaves that attitude behind when the concert’s over. There are no Courtney Love histrionics, no Janet Jackson–style wardrobe malfunctions, no J.Lo diva routines. She’s a rare rock star who has it both ways.”
Both marketable ways, that is. And Stefani and Rossdale’s burgeoning relationship only made them more so — more interesting, yes, but it also ensured there was, at least for the time being, less drama and less gossip about her love life. Before their eventual marriage, the two never even lived on the same continent, let alone in the same house. They gradually became more and more private about their relationship, yet in the beginning, Stefani was open about her devotion to Rossdale. When a Rolling Stone writer followed No Doubt on tour, he described Stefani buying glycerine soap for him. Around her neck, she wore a silver “Gwen” necklace paired with another marked simply “G,” for Gavin. Later, she called Rossdale on tour to tell him, “You are so fucking cute.”
If Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love had been the forcefully ambivalent king and queen of grunge, then Stefani and Rossdale were their Disneyfied heirs.
If Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love had been the forcefully ambivalent king and queen of grunge, then Stefani and Rossdale were their Disneyfied heirs, the ones who would eventually pass the throne to Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. Stefani never pledged to stay a virgin until marriage, but a certain sense of purity was a fixture of early profiles. She had grown up in a devoutly Catholic home, which, over the years to come, she would describe as “the Brady Bunch family, church every Sunday.” Her mom got mad when she used the f-word onstage, but took solace in the fact that she didn’t have any tattoos or piercings. Her dad was thankful that Stefani spent her teen years playing piccolo in the school marching band. Her family had once taken a trip to the Vatican on which Stefani, then age 21, was forbidden to talk to boys. She told Details, “I believe that sex is a sacred, private thing.”
None of this was framed as ridiculous — it was just another aspect of what made Stefani cute, a means of quietly positioning her, again and again, as a safe-sex alternative to her man-repeller antecedents. Same for the way she became a part of No Doubt. She didn’t recruit fellow feminists to create countercultural, patriarchy-smashing music. Instead, she emphasized that she’d been “completely passive, no goals,” when she was first convinced to join the band by her brother. It was Iovine who encouraged her to take a much more central role in songwriting, including for No Doubt’s breakout single, “Just a Girl.” She found the phrase “just a girl” hilarious and surveyed her girlfriends for “everyday examples” of when girls were patronized. The resulting lyrics were intended to be read as sarcasm: “I’m just a girl, all pretty and petite / So don’t let me have any rights.”
Her Betty Boop–voiced delivery of the song encapsulated the early Stefani appeal — it became “the year’s most ringing declaration of not-quite independence, moderate self-esteem and quasi conviction,” according to Newsweek. One Spin profile chided reviews “that have taken her fondness for cosmetics and navel-displaying stage wear as compelling evidence to impeach her as the sort of pliant, submissive fuck toy of which we should have long been rid,” underlining that it was just who Stefani was: “Maybe I should be more of a tough chick,” she said. “But I’m not. That’s not me.”
But there was a second aspect to Stefani’s image — one that wasn’t necessarily hidden, but that made her “innate” femininity all the more beguiling. On magazine covers, Stefani was glossed up and put together; while performing, however, she became a frenetic, electric, sweat-glistening version of herself. She might not have thought of herself as a “rock chick,” but onstage, she was Anthony Kiedis in a crop top. When No Doubt performed “Just a Girl” live, Stefani would transform the song: When she reached the chorus, she’d ask the crowd, “Are there any boys here?” When they roared, she’d ask them to repeat after her: “I’m just a girl / I’m just a girl in the world.” Afterward, she’d giggle. “That’s funny!” she’d say, before asking if there were any “cute, innocent girls” in the audience. She’d restart the chorus, but this time, her voice transformed into something more animal, more aggressive. “FUCK YOU, I’M A GIRL!” she yelled, prompting a stadium full of women to yell it back at her.
The bifurcation between “girly girl” interview Gwen and aggro concert Gwen is replicated in the video for “Don’t Speak,” which intersperses shots of Stefani, barefoot in a ’40s polka-dot house dress, wandering around as the band plays in a garage, with footage of her contorting her body onstage to the point of exhaustion. No other video so effectively captures the contradictory heart of her appeal, the embrace and disavowal of conventional femininity, and no other video remains as indelible to No Doubt’s rise. Other videos from the ’90s fade, but the memory of Stefani — in that dress, in that yellow crop top — remains as clear today as the first day I saw it, available for me and so many others to pick whichever part of Stefani felt desirable on a given day. Even if, especially if, it was both roles at once.
From the beginning, Stefani’s beauty and style were framed as emblematic of her independent spirit — like the zine-making feminists who she separated herself from, she was a DIY girl, pulling together looks from thrift stores, ripping apart and reshaping clothes with her basic sewing skills. In later years, Stefani’s magpie-like tendency to absorb the fashions around her would be called a form of cultural appropriation. But in the ’90s, that phrase had yet to become part of the mainstream cultural conversation. Stefani herself explained the bindi nonchalantly: When she first started dating Tony Kanal — whose parents had emigrated from India to London and eventually the US when he was a child — she fell in love with his mother’s style, from her sari to her henna tattoos. Stefani bought stick-on earrings from the jewelry store and started wearing them in the center of her forehead; she wore saris in various configurations in videos and on the red carpet.
No matter how much Stefani borrowed from other people and cultures to create her look, it was framed as uniquely hers. When Madonna showed up with her hands hennaed at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1998, Entertainment Weekly suggested she was “cribbing” Stefani’s look. (Stefani’s response: “I was a little shocked by that. But whatever; I’m sure there are things I nicked off her from the ’80s.”) The celebration of Stefani’s fashion — and its rapid commodification — would eventually lead to the creation of her own clothing line, L.A.M.B., in 2003, and the second phase of Stefani’s star image.
She might not have thought of herself as a “rock chick,” but onstage, she was Anthony Kiedis in a crop top.
Nine years passed between the release of Tragic Kingdom and Stefani’s first solo album, L.A.M.B. (short for Love. Angel. Music. Baby.), in 2004 — years that included the release of two more No Doubt albums. The songs from this era, mostly written by Stefani, make the undertones of the first album even more explicit: the emotional roller coaster of her still long-distance relationship with Rossdale and her conflicting desires to both continue her career and settle down with a family. Stefani was annoyed that many interpreted her song “Simple Kind of Life,” with the lyric “I always thought I’d be a mom / Sometimes I wish for a mistake / … / You seem like you’d be a good dad,” as straight-up yearning for motherhood.
“I don’t want people to think, ‘Oh, she’s turning 30 and getting moody and wants to settle down!’” she said. “It’s more about how I used to think that’s all ever wanted, and the confusion of realizing that I am more faithful to my freedom than I ever thought I could be. And that’s scary.” But the simple bifurcation remained. As Entertainment Weekly explained, “There’s a war being waged for Gwen Stefani’s soul. On one shoulder sits Suzy Homemaker. On the other, Suzi Quatro," a reference to the groundbreaking bassist who became one of the first female rock stars.
In 2002, after seven years together, Stefani married Rossdale. Instead of easing the contradictory interests at the center of her image, marriage fortified them. When a Rolling Stone writer told her that everyone in the band was not what they appeared to be — that, for instance, Stefani was “a blonde sex symbol who is actually a totally traditional love-smitten woman,” Stefani was thrilled. “Most people don’t get it,” she replied. “I love that you are getting it.” When Stefani released L.A.M.B., she was careful to downplay the idea of herself as a solo artist. Instead, she framed the new record as an experiment and a brief respite from No Doubt, filled with collaborations with other producers and artists — including Pharrell Williams, who coauthored “Hollaback Girl,” rumored to be a response to Courtney Love’s jab, years before, that Stefani was a “cheerleader.”
Stefani’s conceit for the entire album derived from the trendsetting Japanese girls she’d seen in the Harajuku section of Tokyo. When No Doubt toured Japan in 1996, Stefani explained, that was “when the dream started.” The “dream” manifested in various ways on the album, including a song, “Harajuku Girls,” dedicated to the Tokyo residents who’d inspired her (featuring “Japanese-sounding” backup vocals), and the presence of four silent Japanese women, costumed in Harajuku style, who trailed her during promotional tours, shifting expressions in unison, seemingly on cue. (Unconfirmed rumors persist that the four women signed contracts forbidding them from speaking in public.) If the bindi had been Stefani’s way of reframing a cultural practice as fashion, her Harajuku Girls made actual people into accessories.
At the time, Stefani — whose bindi-wearing had never been publicly questioned — found the entire enterprise funny. “I was thinking of calling the album Stolen Goods,” she joked to Rolling Stone. “Or It Was Yours and Now It’s Mine.” The release of the album coincided with the early days of blogging — and one blog, titled “Free the Gwenihana Four,” sold mugs and T-shirts in order to release the women “from serving an unspecified term in the custody of pop singer Gwen Stefani.” Comedian Margaret Cho voiced what would probably be the overriding reaction today, calling the Harajuku Girls part of a “minstrel show.” “She didn’t do her research!” Stefani told Entertainment Weekly in 2007. “The truth is that I basically was saying how great that culture is. It pisses me off that [Cho] would not do the research and then talk out like that. It’s just so embarrassing for her. The Harajuku Girls is an art project. It’s fun!”
There’s a long history of clothing white bodies in “exotic” fashions to create a titillating contrast, and the argument that it’s “fun” or “an art project” doesn’t change the fundamental dynamic: that other cultures seem to have little value to white culture in the US other than as an aesthetic. Yet misgivings about the Harajuku window dressing of the album were largely subsumed by discussion of the “true” question it raised, a favorite of the celebrity press: whether or not Stefani was going to have a baby. The lead single, “What You Waiting For?,” featuring a literal ticking clock, doubled as a message about her desire for children and hesitancy to embark on a solo career.
Again, Stefani’s feuding desires came to the forefront — can you be a successful woman on the “mommy track”? “At a certain point I’m going to want to have a family, and I’m not going to have time to be running around the world doing this shit and being greedy the way I have been,” she told Rolling Stone in 2005. “I can always write songs. But can I always wear an Alice in Wonderland costume? I probably shouldn’t. I can at home.” Iovine thought she could reconcile career and family: “I hope she chooses to do both things,” he said. “She can handle both. I think she would really miss not fulfilling her potential as an artist, and she’d regret that. But her potential as a mom is equally as powerful.”
Iovine turned out to be right. As Stefani’s L.A.M.B. fashion and accessories lines continued to expand, she embarked on a world tour — and almost immediately discovered she was pregnant. She continued to tour through the first trimester, eventually giving birth in May 2006. She released a second solo album, The Sweet Escape, just seven months later, then launched two additional brands — a fragrance and a shoe line — before reembarking on yet another tour. The Sweet Escape yielded a handful of hits but never dominated the zeitgeist in the manner of Tragic Kingdom or L.A.M.B. Which isn’t to suggest that Stefani herself was becoming less popular; if anything, she was more visible than ever before.
From 2005 to 2015, Stefani gradually transitioned from the role of rock star who just happened to be a celebrity to celebrity who just happened to be a rock star. The clearest evidence is in her magazine cover presence: Stefani had been appearing in teen magazines since 1996: YM, Teen, Seventeen, CosmoGirl, Teen Vogue. But after the launch of her L.A.M.B. brand, she became a regular fixture in women’s fashion magazines. Her first Vogue cover came in 2004, followed by multiple covers for Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, Allure, Glamour, InStyle, and Lucky. At the same time, her children — first Kingston, and then Zuma, born two years later — began popping up on gossip blogs and in celebrity tabloids, which had become increasingly fixated on tracking celebrity kids. Their outfits, their haircuts, and Kingston’s willingness to mug for the camera earned them regular coverage. Soon, Stefani was known as the “Coolest Mom in Hollywood.”
This celebrity trajectory is not unique to Stefani: Dozens of women have become famous for a skill and then watched as conversations about other aspects of their lives — their romances, their children, their side projects — superseded the original reason for their fame. Sometimes, as in the case of Kim Kardashian, the initial fame-inducing moment is a flare, intended to be forgotten. For others, it’s a strategy to avoid irrelevance once you’re past the age of being a bankable commodity in the industry where you made a name for yourself. As Stefani later told Vogue, she started L.A.M.B. “because I was preparing myself, knowing that the music thing was going to end.”
By 2011, when Stefani stepped away from a hands-on role in designing for L.A.M.B., the company reported earnings of $150 million; two years later, the line expanded to include clothes for teens and another line for kids, sold exclusively at Target. She became a new face of L’Oréal, developed an OPI nail polish, launched a makeup line with Urban Decay, and, with L.A.M.B., created a line of panties for Hanky Panky, whose founder emphasized that “both companies were founded on vintage references and embody empowerment and femininity.” In 2014, she became the spokesperson for a Mastercard ad campaign. “Gwen appeals not just to youngsters but to an older generation,” the company’s chief marketing officer told Billboard. Another executive explained that “there’s a high degree of notoriety and equity in her brand.”
“Equity” is business-speak for precisely what Stefani had been accumulating for the last decade, and what she'd continue to add to in the years to come, whether through stints judging on The Voice, which she joined in 2014, or through her multiple magazine fashion spreads, many of which promoted little in particular save her continued relevance as a celebrity. She was building up the sort of celebrity equity that nothing — not a disappointing reunion album with No Doubt, not a video whose tone-deaf “cowboys and Indians” theme resulted in an internet backlash — could diminish. In a way, it was the kind of perfect, nonthreatening career trajectory that could eventually lead her to a lucrative Vegas residency.
To do so, however, Stefani had to do what all celebrities must do in order to turn themselves into a brand: flatten whatever edges might prove alienating to mass marketing. Young rock stars can be opinionated, but the face of a major makeup brand or a credit card company signs away that ability — or, at the very least, works to deemphasize anything that might seem controversial about them. For Stefani, that meant bending the mom/rock star dichotomy to focus directly on the “mom”; the tomboy glamour, the “girlish grunge,” turned, at least in most public appearances, mostly girlish and glamorous.
Stefani's vision of feminism, like those of others who reject the term, has always hinged on its personal ramifications: If you're happy and successful, who needs it?
The Stefani brand’s edginess might have been blunted, but its meaning was still strong — and, as evidenced by Stefani’s continued popularity as a brand ambassador, lucrative. She might not have been threatening or controversial, but that didn’t mean she, or what she had come to represent, was boring. For the millions of Americans who watched The Voice every week or bought Stefani’s clothing for their kids at Target, Stefani was an example of a woman who’d maintained her individuality, even through marriage and the birth of her children. She’d taken the “mommy track” and the “music track” and the “businesswoman track.” For many people who’d grown up alongside or just behind her, she was a testament — equal parts heartening and aspirational — that women could have it all. And she not only had it all, she had it all while being cool.
Like all celebrity images, the lingering idea of Stefani as a scrappy, DIY kind of girl worked to elide the things that made having it all possible: the money — and the child care and trainers and private chefs it funds — that makes a body like hers possible; the whiteness and domesticity that rendered her a “safe” choice for brands; the extent to which her success was built on appropriating fashion from other cultures and, as the years went by, continuing to ignore calls to reckon with that practice. In 2014, when asked if she regretted her employment of the Harajuku Girls, her answer was unequivocal. “No,” she said. “For me, everything that I did with the Harajuku Girls was just a pure compliment and being a fan. You can’t be a fan of somebody else? Of another culture? Of course you can. Of course you can celebrate other cultures.”
Stefani had it all, but also, like many white women, she refused to apologize for the privileges that accompanied it — or to interrogate past decisions, like her rejection of the word “feminist,” even after it had ceased to hold the “f-word” connotation it had back in 1995. When Pharrell described her 2014 song “Spark the Fire” as feminist, Stefani balked. “He calls it a feminist anthem,” Stefani told Time. “I would never call it that! Because it’s just not. That’s what he sees in me — I don’t see that. I see it as a personal song that is really a positive message about don’t mess with my vibe.”
Stefani’s vision of feminism, like those of others who reject the term, has always hinged on its personal ramifications: If you’re happy and successful, who needs it? Stefani’s appeal hinged on this sort of confidence — the type, not coincidentally, enjoyed by many rich white women from suburban Orange County. And like so many women in that position, it took a personal calamity, not a larger, societal one, for her vision of herself to be threatened. In this case: divorce.
In interviews since her August 2015 separation from Rossdale, Stefani has remained opaque but pointed about the details. “I performed at the Grammys,” she told Cosmopolitan in 2016. “I came home, and the next day, I found out what everybody knows. … Nobody would believe it if I could really say what happened. I went through months and months of torture.” “What everybody knows,” presumably, is what was published on the cover of People magazine: that Rossdale had been sleeping with the family’s nanny. Stefani later described the following period in her life as marked by an overarching loss of confidence — in her musical ability, in herself. She receded briefly from public view but was expected back on The Voice within weeks, to do a job that, as she told Entertainment Weekly, helped restore some of what had been lost: “Being on The Voice made me go through my Rolodex of life and go, ‘Oh, I did that! I wrote that song!’ It restarted me, in a way.”
It restarted her, too, in a different, unanticipated direction: toward country star Blake Shelton. Shelton had served as Stefani’s fellow judge on The Voice, but the two had little in the way of interaction. But just as Stefani and Rossdale were separating, so were Shelton and his wife, Miranda Lambert, whose marriage had rendered them country royalty for a decade. The respective divorces were equally visible and equally devastating to fans whose understanding of each of their celebrity images hinged, in some part, on their seemingly happy marriages.
When Shelton told the crew of The Voice that his divorce was forthcoming, Stefani sought him out to commiserate. The romance proceeded, cautiously, from there. For weeks, the two hinted at a relationship on social media, making it official as Season 9 of the show drew to a close in the fall of 2015. The seemingly mismatched coupling was framed by tabloids as a sort of giddy, glorious second chance at love. At the Vanity Fair Oscar party, one source told People, they were just like “teenagers at a high school dance.”
The differences between Stefani and Shelton’s genres, personalities, and images were treated as part of the fun: “If you’re concerned about Stefani’s ability to fit in with Shelton’s small-town life, fear not. Spotted around town with Shelton shopping at local store Sooner Foods and indulging in sweet treats at Dairy Queen, Stefani is ‘learning to rough it in Oklahoma,’” one source told People. Marie Claire emphasized that any outward differences only masked what they really had in common — traditional values: “Though Stefani has always been an edgy, outspoken performer, she also has a distinctly good-girl, almost Southern side to her. (She still goes to church with her family on Sundays in Los Angeles, then spends the afternoon getting her hair and nails done. Even her accent has a slight country twang to it.)”
Can you be sexy and a mom? Can you be cool and into God? Can you be happy and divorced?
At the same time, Stefani began discussing her rediscovered relationship with religion: “I have to make music out of this,” she told the New York Times, referring to her breakup. “That’s what God wants for me.” In Time, she recounted how executives didn’t want her to channel her personal life into the music — feedback she rejected: “Wow, you don’t understand, I’m channeling God, this is saving my life.” She told Marie Claire that everyone asked her about her physical exercise, but it was her spiritual exercise that brought her out of the darkness: “Some people like to meditate, do yoga, or just take quiet time, but for me — instead of how you talk to yourself, you pray. You surrender and ask for guidance. It’s not all about you.”
It was, as Stefani put it, “an awakening” — and, as she told People, “the happiest I’ve ever been.” She and Shelton released a duet, “Go Ahead and Break My Heart,” which they debuted on The Voice a week before the release of Shelton’s 2016 album. The song hit No.1 on the country charts, a fact that both thrilled and amused Stefani. The divorce, and the romance with Shelton that followed, rekindled the contradictions that had been smoothed out of Stefani’s image over the previous decade: Now, she was the “edgy” cool mom with the nice country guy. But instead of trying to deny the apparent mismatch, both Stefani and Shelton embraced it. As Shelton explained, “I see people all the time going, ‘I just don’t get it, I don’t understand the Gwen and Blake thing, it’s got to be fake.’ That doesn’t upset me, because it’s a hard thing to wrap your head around. She and I, on paper we couldn’t be more different, but in life nothing’s ever worked better for me.”
What goes unsaid is something I’ve heard from many who’ve endured divorce: To “make sense on paper” doesn’t necessarily mean a healthy relationship. Early loves aren’t always attuned to emotional health. It’s the loves that follow — the Charlotte and Harry from Sex and the City, the Gwen and Blake — the sort that surprise even yourself, that often produce deeper forms of safety and happiness. They’re “the equivalent of America’s prom king and queen,” Harper’s Bazaar explained. “You’d have to have a heart made of coal not to root for them.” And tabloids have reported on their every move, reinforcing the idea of their deep, true love: Shelton wrote songs with her. She showed up onstage in a cowgirl skirt at the opening of his Nashville bar, Ole Red. He took her kids Jet Skiing; she wore camo with full makeup on at his Oklahoma ranch.
This time around, Stefani wasn’t necessarily appealing to young girls trying to figure out their own configuration of power and passivity as they grew up, but to the women who, post-children, post-marriage, post-divorce, mid-career, were trying to re-sort-out the same life experiences. Can you be sexy and a mom? Can you be cool and into God? Can you be happy and divorced? Stefani’s answer, broadcast in Instagram Stories and interviews, was clear: Of course you can. It just might look different than what you had planned at age 16.
In April, Stefani announced her forthcoming residency at Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas, at the same theater where Britney Spears had spent the last four years performing her hits. Usually, residencies are reserved for “divas,” larger-than-life performers whose careers span decades: far more Celine Dion and Mariah Carey than Gwen Stefani. But Stefani’s banked the sort of “massive equity” invoked by the Mastercard executive: Through her music, her fashion, and the current, The Voice– and Blake Shelton–assisted version of her celebrity, she’s fixed herself in the national imagination firmly enough to guarantee ticket sales.
In promos for the residency, Stefani wears a white tank top, emblazoned with GWEN, over a black bra, straps showing: the exact look from the video for 1995’s “Spiderwebs.” Her lips are red; her hair is platinum; her ponytail flips coyly. The name of the residency is “Just a Girl.” In line to get into the auditorium for the first night, a mom and her daughter, hair curled and cat-eye perfected, shot a quick selfie. Inside, the primary crowd aesthetic could be described as “fashion jumpsuit.” A man with a rattail and a military band jacket waited for a frozen margarita. A woman in her seventies informed her husband that “J.Low didn’t come on until 9:30, and you know Gwen can’t come on earlier than J.Low.”
For 90 minutes, through five different set changes and twice as many costume iterations, Stefani emanated the explosive energy of those early videos.
The lights went down and the curtains parted at exactly 9:35, revealing an ornate art deco scene straight out of a Busby Berkeley musical from the 1930s. The scene was quickly disrupted by a group of dancers swinging human-sized bananas to the unmistakable opening beat of “Hollaback Girl.” Stefani descended the staircase, resplendent in a white military cape, thigh-high boots, black evening gloves, and a shimmering silver leotard. “I will remember this for the rest of my life,” she told the crowd. “I also understand it’s the first night, and that means you are the first motherfuckers to go out and get a ticket. So this is gonna be an epic night.”
She didn’t lie. For 90 minutes, through five different set changes and twice as many costume iterations, she emanated the explosive energy of those early videos. Stefani, as a rule, doesn’t do choreography — leaving it, in this case, to her dozen backup dancers — which frees her to act as a sort of hype man for her own performance. I’ve seen acts, like Britney in this same theater, who made performing look like an obligation. But when Stefani skanked her way onstage to “Spiderwebs,” wearing a skirt over pants, her ponytail sailing, it didn’t feel forced or obligatory. It felt, and looked, like bliss.
At one point in the set, she pulled a couple wearing shirts that read “I’m His Gwen” and “I’m Her Blake” onstage; at another, she invited a trio of girls from the front row to assist with an onstage costume change. “Wearing Harajuku Girls from Target!” she exclaimed. “Thanks, Mom!” Each set change featured a video of Stefani — in one, she narrated a slideshow of pictures from her childhood in Orange County, describing her “girly girl” past; in another, she spoke directly to the camera about how her dreams of family, and her confidence, were destroyed, but how she’s managed to find them again.
During the last set, Stefani told the audience how thrilled she was to wear a cowgirl outfit in front of Blake Shelton — who she pointed to, right in the front row. When she sang “Used to Love You,” every woman over the age of 35 collectively lost their shit; for “Don’t Speak,” the catwalk rose slowly into the air amid a deluge of red and silver confetti. The entire show was one bombastic contrast building on another. It was deliriously, fantastically, perfectly Gwen Stefani.
All this went down at the end of a roller coaster of a news day: That morning, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced he would step down from the court, making way for a Trump appointee with the potential to dismantle or significantly dilute Roe v. Wade. When Stefani reached “Just a Girl,” I was primed for her to slow down the chorus and lead the women in “Fuck you, I’m a girl!”
But that’s not what happened. She led the guys in the room, as she always has, and giggled when they sang along. Then she asked where her girls were: “We all know what’s going to happen now, right?” she said. “You’re gonna make my ears bleed.” “I’m just a girl,” she sang. “I’m just a girl!” the crowd roared back. “I’m just a girl in Vegas!” she yelled back. “Because that’s ALL. THAT. YOU’LL LET ME BE!” She sang the end like a primal scream, off-pitch and dissonant, like something I’ve never heard come out of Stefani. It wasn’t aggressive or angry, but it wasn’t cute or sarcastic, either. It wasn’t necessarily what I wanted. But it was Stefani, having the last word. ●
Suzi Quatro was a groundbreaking musician who also appeared on Happy Days. An earlier version of this post understated the breadth of her career as a musician and implied she was a character on the show.