Ending her first solo tour on a high note

Singer Gwen Stefani looks back on her year and looks forward to motherhood


According to the almanac, Dec. 21 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 Sunrise, Fla., a 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 show like a marathon runner on finish-line fumes. By the time she donned her majorette uniform (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 famous as the lead singer of No Doubt, a pop powerhouse in the late 1990s. But last year she wanted to get in touch with the urban pop hits she grew up singing to her bedroom mirror in Anaheim, Calif., 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 made her debut as an film actress (she was Jean Harlow in The Aviator), fashion show organizer (to promote L.A.M.B., her line of clothing and purses) and, oddly, a gizmo designer (she lent her name to a turquoise digital camera by Hewlett-Packard).

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

The album is one of the 10 best-sellers of the year, with 2.4 million sold in the United States alone. It has also made Stefani a heroine to the Barbie set.

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.

The crowd that sang along with Stefani in Florida was the type she has seen throughout the road: 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.

But fans of No Doubt might be ready for Stefani to quit playing princess. And no matter what she says, there's cause to wonder whether motherhood and hip-hop beats will change the rhythm of her 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.

"Going on tour without [No Doubt bandmates Tony Kanal, Adrian Young and Tom Dumont], 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."

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."

Stefani has enjoyed a relatively low-key life in London - No Doubt made her a star here, but it was not until this album that she reached an intense celebrity level in London. 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."

She does know one thing: After the show, she put her hand on her stomach and smiled. "I don't ever have to wear those clothes again."

Geoff Boucher writes for the Los Angeles Times

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