Most folk would be floored by such a devastating blow as divorce, but not Aguilera. She’s made of sterner stuff, and as she’s proved throughout a turbulent life, she may occasionally hit the ropes, but she rarely falls on to the canvas. “I do think I’m a strong woman,” begins Aguilera, who erupted on the scene in 1999 with a self-titled debut album that brought hits in the form of Genie In A Bottle, What A Girl Wants and Come On Over Baby (All I Want Is You).
“I grew up in a household where I wasn’t allowed to watch Madonna videos,” she continues. “There was a lot of label calling for women and I grew up in a household where someone – not my mother, but someone else – always put women down.” The singer is referring to her father, Fausto Aguilera, with whom she, her mother and younger sister Rachel endured a troubled relationship, the family breaking up when Aguilera was just seven years old. “That is why I am so driven within my self-expression as a woman, to be able to feel so confident in my own body, and it’s why I’ve developed this kind of ‘you can’t hold me down’ attitude.”
Indeed, just a few weeks after announcing her intended divorce from Bratman, Aguilera felt confident enough to break her silence on her separation, telling US gossip sheet People magazine earlier this month that, “Things were so unhealthy and unhappy for both Jordan and me. I knew I had to end it. I didn’t want to hurt Jordan, and I felt torn about splitting our family.” She and Bratman hope to share custody of their son.
Since their separation, Aguilera has started seeing Matt Rutler, a set assistant from her debut Hollywood film, Burlesque, although she insists their relationship was platonic until she had filed for divorce from Bratman. “Then we started dating,” she says, pointing to the fact she and her husband had grown apart. “We were great the year after our son was born. Jordan was amazing. Then things turned, and when I finished filming [Burlesque], I didn’t feel right in my own shoes.”
It seems that Burlesque might just prove the perfect antidote for a painful 12 months. “It’s not easy, and there have been a lot of tears and sadness,” continues Aguilera, “but, thankfully, I have my mom and a small group of close friends who are there for me 24/7 and who I can trust and depend on. On days when it feels impossible to even get out of bed, much less function as a mother, their support and encouragement has kept me moving forward. Also I have Max to keep me on a sane path. His needs and happiness are my top priorities, and my biggest concern is to protect him and make him feel safe. But, of course, it is impossible to redefine yourself, and your life, overnight.”
However the musical Burlesque, which also stars Scotland’s Alan Cumming, offers Aguilera that very opportunity. She has been involved in screen entertainment since the age of 10, when she appeared in Disney’s The Mickey Mouse Club, while just last month she unveiled her very own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Burlesque, however, opens up a whole new world. Her portrayal of a small-town girl, Ali Rose, who finds love and success in a Los Angeles neo-burlesque club, is her first major movie role.
The film’s writer and director, Steve Antin, wrote the role specifically for Aguilera, who also contributed by co-writing and performing eight of the 10 tracks on the soundtrack. A slightly camp and very glitzy affair, Burlesque has already opened in the United States to mixed reviews, although most critics are united in their praise for Aguilera.
We’re meeting in the somewhat peculiar environment of an echoing conference room deep in the bowels of a Mexican resort hotel, although Aguilera still looks immaculate; with her scraped-back blonde hair, soft, pale skin and full, reddened lips, and champagne-coloured silk dress, she looks like she’s walked straight out of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
“The idea of burlesque itself really intrigues me,” she says, her skirt rustling in the cheap plastic conference room chair.
“I happen to love the twenties, thirties and forties. I have all the books on burlesque and the art of the tease, and the hair and make-up involved. I adore the coy, playful, sensual approach to the dance itself.” She recalls her fifth studio album, 2006’s Back To Basics, in which she explored those very decades, with tracks like Hurt and Slow Down Baby. “That record was me exploring the roots of what inspired me musically: soul, jazz and blues music,” she says.
“So in this particular movie, I not only get to venture into the world of glam and theatrics and beauty and my love of female empowerment, but also I get to sing covers from my all-time favourite singers, like Etta James.” During the movie she wraps her vocal cords around lung-busters including Something’s Got A Hold On Me, and more demure, playfully textured numbers such as Good Girl.
“I first heard Good Girl when I went to Paris, and I saw the Crazy Horse Show, which is in a small theatre,” Aguilera recalls. “I was so taken with the fact I would get to cover that song I was like, ‘I don’t care what the rest of the movie is about, I just have to do that song in the movie.’”
While Aguilera takes centre stage in the film she is ably supported by another famous diva: Cher takes on the role of Tess, the owner of the burlesque club and a guiding light for Aguilera’s character.
“Cher’s very interesting when she walks into a room,” notes Aguilera with a hint of awe (it’s not often you see a superstar who’s starstruck). “You would expect her to be guarded, and she does have her guards, but she’s very warm about it. She knows how to talk to people, to get her point across, but she’s also noble. She puts her opinion on the table and speaks her mind and she gets your attention. She’s a very charismatic woman.”
As we speak, we’re joined by one of Aguilera’s Burlesque co-stars — not Cher, sadly, but the handsome Cam Gigandet (who played James in Twilight), who takes the role of Aguilera’s love interest on screen. He sits down at our oversized table and joins the interview. Surprisingly, though, he takes my side of the table, and turns interviewer, rather than interviewee. “As a mother, how old will your son have to be to see the movie?” he asks Aguilera, impishly referencing the film’s frilly, sexually inviting veneer. “Good question,” I note. Aguilera smiles: as ever, she’s got a ready answer. “Actually,” she beams with a proud smirk, “my child is growing up in an environment where there have been lots of nude paintings around the house. I find the naked body to be a beautiful thing. I think that when you shame it, that is when you raise the perverts.
“It is something Max is going to grow up knowing, that Mummy is many different things. I have a vulnerable side. I have a soft side. I have the hat that goes on that puts him to bed at night, rubs his back, sings him to sleep and turns down the light. But then I go off to record my music and say in one of my songs: ‘I am not myself tonight and if you don’t like it, well, f*** you.’ They are two completely separate hats, but he will grow up knowing that Mummy expresses herself and when you become a mother, you still have to feel fulfilled, and sexuality is a part of that.”
Gigandet nods, before firing off another salvo. “What about when Max sees you on screen, sleeping with other guys? How would you explain that?” continues Aguilera’s probing co-star, who I concede is pretty good at my job (“I wanted to be a journalist once,” he smiles). “Well,” Aguilera says, laughing, “I’d say, ‘Mummy had a job to do.’”
Satisfied with the singer’s responses, Gigandet wanders out of the room, and our conversation takes a slightly more serious turn. Surely Aguilera must feel pressure? Her first leading role, at the centre of a burlesque musical, is hardly a low-key endeavour. Or maybe she feels woman enough to shirk the weight of expectation?
“All eyes are on me, yeah; there is definitely a pressure,” she says, “but I don’t allow myself to take it on. I let my work live. I do the best I possibly can, and I open myself up as vulnerably as I can into the experience, to the advice, to the opinions, especially on this project, and sometimes that made me too vulnerable.
“I’m an artist, so I get sensitive sometimes, and there was not a lot of time for me, the person, but I don’t allow myself to feel that kind of pressure, at least not to the degree of feeling afraid.”
If Aguilera displays an unswerving fighting spirit, it’s the product of an uncomfortable upbringing. Her journey to fame is tinged with sadness, though the star herself insists she is happy. As far back as 2000, the singer admitted that she suffered abuse at the hands of her soldier father while he was stationed on US military bases in Newfoundland and Labrador. “We lived on Army bases when I was little, and it [domestic violence] was happening a lot,” she said in 2006. “The MPs [military police] would come, but a lot of them were doing the same things [to their wives and children]. I was surrounded by domestic violence, not only in my home but my friends’.”
Aguilera confronted the abuse in tracks such as I’m OK and Oh Mother. “It’s made me stronger. It is a lot to take on,” she tells me. “It is exhausting but I always find the things that are the most challenging, they inspire you to get back up. You have to. You have no choice. I have experienced things that ultimately help me thrive. I would say that time is the biggest healer, and being able to take a hard look at yourself no matter how painful it is, coming to terms with your past and trying to make peace with it, that’s what important. I had a very abusive past.”
The singer cum actress mined that pain for her performance in Burlesque. “I wanted to separate myself completely from the part, but when it came to her emotional moments where my character had to cry and dig deep into her past, when someone passes away in her life, I wanted the tears to be real,” Aguilera says. “I wanted to make them feel organic so I had to dig deep into things in my own life that didn’t feel so good. Every line was challenging, but I think it was worth it.”
She’s a tough cookie, Aguilera, but she’s still there scrapping. Annus horribilis or not, we can be sure the one-time Queen of Pop will fight to reclaim her crown.
Burlesque (12A) is out on Friday.