The Empress of Pop

17 minute read
Lisa Takeuchi Cullen / Tokyo

“Good. Beautiful.” the photographer throws a thumbs-up from atop a ladder, and Ayumi Hamasaki swings her legs off her perch on a raised horizontal mirror. An assistant hurries over with a pair of furry mules. Hamasaki slides into them and shuffles quickly to the computer monitor. The 20 photo assistants, stylists, makeup artists and record-label entourage at the shoot now gathering behind her look on in silence while Hamasaki leans forward, concentrating on the digital images of herself flickering on the screen. Dressed in a futuristic black kimono over scuffed jeans, her face painted like a cross between a geisha and Gene Simmons, she projects an almost apocalyptic image that is both of this world and completely out of it — half-human, half-manga, totally pop star.

Her energy is certainly otherworldly. This shoot is for the CD sleeves accompanying the techno and acoustic remix versions of her latest album I Am…, which is throbbing in the background. Typically for her, she’s selected an entirely new image — “fake Japanese,” or traditional getups refracted through a foreigner’s stereotyping lens. Hamasaki arrived at the Tokyo studio more than nine hours ago to shoot the two album covers, after staying up all night with her staff awaiting delivery of special makeup equipment she’d ordered online from Los Angeles. Though she spent hours testing the airbrush device on her managers’ faces, then some hours more in extravagant costumes and uncomfortable poses, Hamasaki is wide-eyed and wired while her staff rubs their eyes.

Finally, Hamasaki speaks. “I think … 72, not 73,” she declares in a voice scratchy from the long hours, pointing a spectacularly manicured finger at the numbered frame on the screen. The staff applauds in relief. It’s past midnight on Valentine’s Day when Hamasaki doles out little wrapped gifts before she retreats in a hail of cheerful thank-yous and goodbyes. Everyone slumps over. The boss is gone.

At 23, Ayumi Hamasaki, Ayu to fans, is the most powerful figure in Japanese pop music. She’s sold more records than any other musical act for two years running in the world’s second-largest music market. Her frequent makeovers determine the course of fashion. Her huge black eyes peer out from billboards in every corner of the country. Fans memorize her lyrics, transform into Ayu clones and swear she’s changed their lives. Marketers clamor for her endorsements, borrowing her name and image to peddle everything from cell phones to doughnuts. Her announcement last fall of a courtship with Tomoya Nagase, the actor and lead singer for Tokio, led the news for days.

Like her megastar predecessors Seiko Matsuda, Akina Nakamori and Namie Amuro, Hamasaki’s fame was spun out of the air by clever marketing. But Hamasaki is the rare J-pop queen who has seized her own power, wielding it to control her career right down to the fonts on her tour posters and the makeup on her oft-photographed face. For fans, the story of her by-the-bootstraps climb to pop royalty makes her even more worthy of idolatry. But for her record label, Avex, Hamasaki represents both its most valuable asset and the grave danger of having all its eggs in one star’s basket — a danger so potentially costly that its top executives refused to be interviewed for this article, in part for fear of further stapling the label’s name to hers. As for Japan’s struggling, $3-billion recording industry, Hamasaki embodies both its best hopes and its greatest limitations as she attempts the tricky leap to overseas markets. While some J-pop acts have actively sought fans across Asia, superstars like Hamasaki haven’t had to — until now. With the Japanese market slackening due to the recession, the industry and its stars can no longer afford to stay home.

The formula for Hamasaki’s remarkable success so far seems based less on her talent for music than for marketing. Though she writes her own lyrics and has even begun to compose, Hamasaki lacks the vocal pyrotechnics of Hikaru Utada, the dance moves of Amuro, the supermodel allure of Hitomi. Yet she outsells them all. Her record sales hit $189 million last year, more by half than Utada, her closest competitor. Hamasaki drives her prodigious sales by pumping out singles at a rate of about one every two months, each one accompanied by an attention-grabbing image change. Her album LOVEppears came out with two different covers, for example, one in which she was made up to look Caucasian, the other black — and fans had to have both.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” says Leslie Kee, the Singaporean celebrity and fashion photographer who shot Hamasaki’s past three album covers. “She controls every detail of her image. She knows what she wants, likes, needs, hates, and is very, very particular.” Last year, she sparked mad runs on oversized aviator sunglasses, military-fatigue prints and fox tails dangling from belt loops, and swept a slew of fashion awards for titles like “Best Jeanist” and “Nail Queen” from grateful industry associations. “If we stock what she’s wearing,” says Hiroko Kishi, a Tokyo-based buyer for trendy boutiques, “it’s guaranteed to sell.” There’s even a black market in sneak reports from Hamasaki’s magazine and album-cover shoots, with moles reportedly pocketing up to $10,000 for divulging her latest image change to designers desperate to catch the next Ayu-instigated trend.

Unsurprisingly, Hamasaki’s sway over pop culture attracts marketers who are keen to borrow her magic; and she’s happy to share. All but two of her singles to date have been tied in with either a commercial or a TV program. She currently endorses the products of six companies, from Panasonic digital cameras to Kirin sports drinks. When she began appearing in ads for cosmetics maker Kose, its mascara went from No. 4 to No. 1 within two months and a new lip gloss sold 500,000 units in its first two days on the shelves.

But it takes more than fashion sense to propel a pop star to stardom of this scale. Hamasaki’s own fans can’t quite explain what it is about her that incites such frenzied devotion. “How can I put it?” muses Chika Tamura, 16, gazing at a poster of her idol in a crowded HMV shop in Tokyo’s Shibuya district. “Ayu is the me I wish I was. She just … gets it.” As a singer, her very imperfections endear her to her legions of fans, who range well beyond teenage schoolgirls. “Her voice is screechy, even irritating sometimes,” says Arisa Kaneko, a 28-year-old TV writer. “But that just makes her more human. You know she’s singing her heart out.” For Ken Yoshida, 27, of Ise City in Mie prefecture, the Hamasaki-devoted site he maintains on the Web “makes my life worth living.”

On the afternoon following the late-night photo shoot, Hamasaki is curled up on a butter-colored leather couch in the secluded “artists’ room” in Avex’s Tokyo headquarters. Her wire-haired dachshund pup, Marron, snores at her side; the latest addition to her menagerie of small dogs is tuckered after gnawing her wood-soled mules while Hamasaki napped. She’s too tired to care. In appearance, she’s a startlingly different character today than the exotic creature of last night. Her pale, clear skin is free of makeup, her coppery hair swept off her face except for her trademark fringe. She wears a black net top and a denim micromini-skirt over a tight pair of jeans. Around her neck hang a large turquoise-studded cross and, incongruously, the tab off a soda can (a typically unique fashion touch). She talks like she’s got a clothespin clamped over her nose, though it sounds less cartoonish than in her TV appearances. She refers to herself girlishly in the third person. Her casual, halting speech never stiffens into formal keigo.

Despite her childlike persona, you can’t help but sense Hamasaki was never truly a child. Born in Fukuoka on the southern island of Kyushu, she was just a toddler when her father walked out. “I don’t even know if he’s dead or alive,” she says. Raised by a single mother and a grandmother, she began modeling locally at seven, in part to earn money for the family. It was an unusual and lonely childhood in this country of steadfastly nuclear families, but Hamasaki says she wasn’t aware of what she was missing. “I thought Mommy’s life was strange, not mine,” she says. “I didn’t understand my loneliness until I moved to Tokyo.”

Hamasaki made that move at 14 to pursue an acting and modeling career. Old magazine spreads feature the sweetly smiling young starlet clad in bathing suits or prim outfits that would never make it to her own wardrobe. After bit parts in five low-budget movies and a handful of TV dramas, she tired of acting and, with her tiny frame, did not have a future in modeling. Canned by her talent agency and dropping out of school in the 10th grade, Hamasaki frittered away her days shopping at trendy Shibuya boutiques and her nights dancing at the massive Velfarre nightclub in Roppongi.

Then a friend who worked at the club, owned by the record label Avex, invited her out for a night of karaoke that forever changed her life. The friend had also invited Masato (“Max”) Matsuura, who introduced himself to Hamasaki as a producer. “I’d never heard of Avex,” Hamasaki recalls, laughing. “When he asked if I wanted to pursue a singing career, I said, ‘No way.’ He was this older guy, and I thought the whole thing sounded fishy.” Over the following year, though, Matsuura persisted. Finally she relented to his request that she at least attend vocal training, only because “I had nothing better to do.” But the classes were dull and the teachers harsh. “I felt like I’d gone back to school,” she says. “If there are rules and regulations, I can’t help it, I want to break them.”

Finally she confessed to Matsuura that she’d skipped most of the classes. But instead of writing her off, he proposed sending her to New York for some real training. “I thought he was kidding,” she says. “I mean, I was 17.” Reluctantly she went, staying in a midtown hotel for three months, taking singing classes a few blocks away. “New York was a relief — not all hierarchical and rule-bound,” she says. When Hamasaki returned to Japan, Matsuura proposed another challenge. Because she has trouble voicing her thoughts, Hamasaki had over that year corresponded with Matsuura through letters, which must have echoed of simple yet poignant lyrics. “He read them and said, ‘Why don’t you try writing songs?'”

The idea that she could express herself in song imbued her with a new sense of direction. “No one had ever asked anything of me before, or expected anything of me,” she says of Matsuura, whom Hamasaki and everyone else at Avex calls by his title, senmu, or managing director. “Part of me was flattered; part of me was terrified but didn’t want to admit I couldn’t do it. Plenty of people had patted my head and said, ‘Aren’t you cute.’ Senmu gets mad, but when he praises me, I know I’ve won it. He’s the one who found me and drew me out.” He stuck by her, too, when superstardom didn’t occur overnight. Her first two singles in 1998 stopped at No. 20 on the charts; her next four barely broke the Top 10. Then Love Destiny busted into the No. 1 slot in April 1999, and every one of her singles have hit the top three since.

The responsibilities that came with her ascension as a recording star were a fair trade-off for the joyous release of writing. “The ‘Hi, this is Ayu’ person on TV,” she says, slipping for a moment into her alter ego’s nasal, anime-character voice, “is the person I know they want to see. I understand it’s my role to realize people’s dreams. I’m O.K. with that so long as my songs are my own. No one can take my songs away from me.”

She is complicit in the brutal arithmetic of fame: trading the freedom she cherished for the right to tell her story through songs. Indeed, she has transcended mere songstress status and become something even more venerated in our consumer driven society. “It is necessary that I am viewed as a product,” she says. “I am a product.”

Avex, her record label, is all too aware of Hamasaki’s extraordinary power over the company’s fortunes. Her record sales account for a stunning 42.6% of Avex’s overall revenues, according to Oricon Global Entertainment, Japan’s version of Billboard. That makes her largely responsible for its Japan-leading 14.8% market share. Its reliance on one monster star leaves the company vulnerable: last summer, Avex stock tumbled on the news that the release of Hamasaki’s latest album would be delayed until this January. “Right now, Ayu equals Avex,” says Katsuya Taruishi, chief analyst for Oricon. “If Ayu goes, so does Avex.”

And if she goes on, so too might the Japanese music industry as a whole. Hamasaki’s next career move — her attempt to conquer foreign shores — will also have enormous implications for the industry, which faces a slowing market at home. Still, Japan’s music business is considered lucrative by global standards; after all, consumers pay $23 for an album, compared to $13 in the U.S. Record labels also see quicker, fatter returns on their investments in artists: the homogeneity of tastes and blanket marketing here can make for huge hits and instant stars. But a rapidly aging population means the proportion of record-buying youth is dwindling dramatically from year to year. There’s also the problem of CD piracy. Though Japan never caught the Napster craze for downloading music free from the Internet, the hot trend now is to burn copies of CDs, which in Japan can be rented cheaply. It doesn’t help that young people’s allowances are also being drained by cell-phone bills — an average $63 a month. Record sales sagged to $2.9 billion last year, from $3 billion in 2000 — and the industry expects another dip this year.

Avex’s fortunes mirror that of the industry: analysts expect the company’s earnings to fall 6% for the fiscal year ending March 31. With the outlook in Japan unlikely to improve anytime soon, Avex has set its sights abroad. Avex Asia, a subsidiary based in Hong Kong, is set to go public this summer. Though current laws forbid Japanese records being sold in Korea, Avex is establishing ties in Asia’s second largest music market by linking up with S.M. Entertainment, a Korean label, and launching BoA, a Korean teen, in Japan.

But Avex’s best bet abroad, as at home, is Ayumi Hamasaki. Her image appears prominently in record stores from Singapore to Taiwan, and her videos run repeatedly on MTV Asia. When the music network presented its first Asian awards show in February, fans begged for Ayu, even though MTV Japan is a separate network with its own awards. To everyone’s surprise, she accepted. For all her popularity abroad, Hamasaki had never once set foot in any Asian country outside of Japan. Avex had long exhorted her to look abroad, says Yugo Tsuzuki of the international marketing division. “But she makes her own choices. Many Japanese artists include English lyrics in songs, for instance, but she says she can best express herself in Japanese.”

Last year, however, she had a change of heart. On the days following Sept. 11, the images of commercial airplanes slamming into the World Trade Center played over and over again on Japanese TV. “I couldn’t believe it was real,” Hamasaki recalls. The calamitous events halfway across the world affected her deeply, overhauling her vision for the album she was then working on. While earlier songs focused on her own loneliness and confusion, I Am… takes on issues like faith and world peace. “In the beginning, I was searching for myself in my music,” she explains. “My music was for me. I didn’t have the mental room to be conscious of the listener; I wrote to save myself.” However, in A Song Is Born, inspired by 9/11, she writes:

Remember once again

How our earth should appear

And then try somehow not to forget.

I know, I know no one wanted all of this.

The planned album cover, an element Hamasaki considers crucial to conveying her message, was also tossed. “I knew it wasn’t the time for gaudiness, for elaborate sets and costumes,” she says. “It sounds odd coming from me, but I realize what I say and how I look has a great impact.” She decided instead on portraying herself as a sort of peace muse, standing in a desert clad only in vines, a white dove perched on her shoulder.

I Am… differs in another important respect from her earlier albums: it is her debut as a composer, under the pseudonym Crea — the name of her pet Chihuahua. “Typically, I do everything at the very last minute,” she says. “It’s always difficult for me to explain to the composer what I’m looking for. I’m not a professional; I lack even basic knowledge about writing music. But I discovered that if I do it myself, it’s quicker and closer to what I have in mind.” The results are surprisingly good. While Maria sounds slightly unfinished, the songs Evolution and Endless Sorrow are among her best.

A concert crowd of 7,000 — and 150 million more in households across Asia — watched Hamasaki perform Maria at the MTV awards show in Singapore, dressed in a kimono she designed bearing the Japanese characters for “love,” “peace” and “future.” According to MTV, Hamasaki was a top draw on a show that featured international stars like Mandy Moore and Enrique Iglesias. “She has a huge fan base in this part of the world,” says Mishal Varma, who produced the show. “The kids love everything about her. She’s got her finger on the pulse, quite like Madonna does.”

When she arrived in Singapore, Hamasaki was unprepared for the response. Thousands of fans mobbed her at the airport and in her hotel. She and her entourage somehow managed to duck the crowds to sneak in a meal at Singapore’s outdoor dining stalls. But cell-phone-networked fans got wind of her movements and by the time her white Mercedes pulled up at the airport, screaming boys and girls threatened to crush Hamasaki as she edged, encircled by bodyguards, to the VIP lounge. She was exhilarated by the trip nonetheless. “The fans were … impassioned,” she says, chuckling incredulously. “I couldn’t even have anticipated that kind of welcome. It made me realize how much the people of Asia support me and that I had to go back.” With that in mind, she relocated a planned photo shoot for a coffee-table book in late February from L.A. to Hong Kong. It was, typically, a last-minute change. “That’s just how she is,” sighs Yuka Kikuchi, Hamasaki’s manager. “In her broad strategy, Asia is the next step. That’s her: she just makes up her mind and moves.”

Hamasaki’s timing seems, as usual, spot on. “Her level of enormous popularity does not last,” says industry analyst Taruishi. “Even Madonna hit a peak, and though she remains one of the top artists in the world, her records don’t sell out.” Given Hamasaki’s admiration for Madonna, such a career arc sounds acceptable to her. So, too, do sudden swerves into clothing design, say, or dance or even again into movies. She insists those are mere options, though — not hopes or goals. “I don’t have dreams,” she says, slowly, shaking her head. “How can I say it? I myself am a dream.”

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