On May 22, halfway through the Wcover shoot with Katy Perry, the BBC reported that 22 people had been killed and 59 seriously injured when a bomb went off at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England. Perry got this devastating news as she was changing clothes between setups. She showed her phone to her publicist, her pink Gucci coat unbuttoned and hanging from her frame.
“Have you seen this?” Perry asked. She was stunned. “Ari’s fans are my fans. This is horrible. And really scary.”
Perry is a pro. She finished the shoot, but the news continued to haunt her. On September 7, she starts touring for her new album, Witness, which she wrote and recorded in the spirit of personal revelation and authenticity. Born 32 years ago as Katheryn Hudson, Perry reinvented herself in 2008 as a sexy, slightly goofy pop star with hits about teenage lust and summer fun. In performance, she was known to wear a cone bra that shot whipped cream from its nipples; in real life she dated a succession of high-profile men including Russell Brand (whom she married in 2010 and divorced less than two years later), John Mayer, and, most recently, Orlando Bloom.
If the pop world is like high school, then Perry was the naughty cheerleader who became prom queen and then...went punk.
True to form, Perry has bleached and chopped her raven locks—and seems much happier for having done so. “I must have loosened up some new chakras,” she told me when she arrived at the photo studio with Nugget, her teeny-tiny cocoa-colored poodle, in her arms. Perry was dressed in pink sweatpants and a matching warm-up jacket; her pixie cut emphasized her huge, round blue eyes and de-emphasized her curvy girliness.
Her new, slightly androgynous look seemed to match her current mood: “I feel very free,” she said. (Of all the quotations W offered Perry for her augmented-reality cover speech, she immediately gravitated toward an Albert Camus–esque declaration of freedom.) This shedding of skins may also be a reaction to Hillary Clinton’s loss in the presidential election. Perry campaigned hard for Clinton, and was frustrated by her defeat and what it meant for powerful women in general. Perry wears gold safety-pin earrings as a symbol of her continued support for Clinton, and named a suede pump with a Lucite heel in her Katy Perry shoe line after the Democratic nominee. (When an image of H.R.C. modeling the shoes appeared on Instagram, they sold out immediately.)
“I’m not still upset about the election,” Perry told me. “I think it’s more important to continue the fight.”
Perry views her newest role—as a judge on the reboot of American Idol this fall—as a kind of feminist statement. ABC is paying her a reported $25 million for the season, and she bragged during a radio interview, “I got paid pretty much more than any guy that’s been on that show.” She was interested in Idol, she said, because of its capacity to reach teenagers, a group she finds very inspiring. “Teenage girls can save the world!” she told me. “I saw that during the campaign. And that idea continues to give me faith.”
Lynn Hirschberg: How do you write songs? And was it different writing the songs on Witness? Katy Perry: In the past I used a tape recorder, and now I just use my phone. My Notes section is a hodgepodge of all kinds of crazy ideas. And I have an old-fashioned memo notebook—not one of those leather-bound things with a Montblanc pen! Just an old-fashioned black and white composition book, filled with scraps of songs.
Where do you get your best ideas?
I get them in three different ways. From Transcendental Meditation, where I rest and kind of restart my mind. Or during a massage. Or showering. I always have my phone on standby when I hop out of the shower.
Do you sing your own songs in the shower?
No. I make up songs. Or I go, “I like to move it, move it.” I’ve had several sing-offs with boyfriends. That’s very fun—singing in the shower and scrubbing!
Is life more enjoyable with short hair?
Everything is more fun with short hair! I can just get up and go. I feel so liberated with this hair now. In general, I feel 360-degrees liberated—all around. Whether it’s politically, mentally, spiritually, sexually. I feel liberated from all the things that don’t serve me. I’m surrendering and embracing my 30s. You couldn’t give me anything to go back to my 20s. To get to this place, I had to do some much-needed work on my heart, soul, mind, and body. Since doing that, a lot of beautiful things started to bloom again.
Now that you mention your 30s, what was your favorite birthday?
I am such a birthday-party girl! I take that one day as a big fat excuse to throw a massive party. For my 32nd birthday, we had a 1950s sock hop–themed party in a veterans’ hall in Hollywood. It was on the night before Halloween, which is close to my real birthday, and everyone is still sad that party is over. I’ve heard people say that it was one of the greatest nights of their life.
Is there a song that makes you cry?
Many. I always want to be moved to tears. I recently saw Dear Evan Hansen on Broadway and was a mess afterward. The actor [Ben Platt] went to that spot that is so vulnerable that it was almost scary. We all pose so much. We all display a life that isn’t real. I’m guilty of that as well. But when you break it all down, it’s really powerful. And that show does just that. Go see it!
Do you ever cry during your own songs?
I have. My songs are so personal. Sometimes they are about people who are no longer in my life, or they’re about unrequited love. I started out on tour last time and I couldn’t perform a couple of the songs on the record because I was just too upset.
Are you happy when you are on tour?
I feel both very overwhelmed and loved when I’m on tour. People take the time, energy, and money to come see me. That connection is such a beautiful thing. It’s so amazing to see everyone let their guard down and sing one of my songs from the bottom of their lungs—they’ll let go for a second. That’s a brave thing: We just don’t let go anymore.
I’m surprised no one has ever put you in a film. You must have been approached.
I have been, but it hasn’t been quite right. I really love being the captain of my ship. If I were to do a film, I’d probably have to direct it. I’d love to do a musical! But that will come in time.
Where was your first kiss?
My first French kiss was in sixth grade in Big Bear, California. I was hanging out with this girl from church who had a bit of a reputation. She had a coed party, and I was not allowed to go to a coed party until eighth grade. But I went anyway. At the party, we played spin the bottle. It got to be my turn, and I spun the bottle, and, all of a sudden, I felt like there was a wet fish in my mouth. That was my first kiss. When you’re in sixth grade, there’s no art to French kissing. There’s no cadence, no beautiful up and down, no waves. Instead, it just feels like your mouth is getting invaded by a slug.
Plus: Watch Katy Perry's cover story come to life with W magazine's "Beyond the Page," our new—and free!—augmented reality app. Download it for here, for iPhone and Android.