As Taylor Swift embraces a glamorous new look, the country-pop sensation talks about fame, ambition, and the joys of being on her own.
Taylor Swift is sitting in the front row of the Rodarte spring 2012 ready-to-wear show during New York Fashion Week looking prim, if not chaste, in an ivory-colored confection with long, lacy sleeves, a high neck, and a full-length skirt—a look from Rodarte’s fall collection that was inspired in part by the spirit of the Kansas homestead. It is the sort of getup that treads a fine line between sincerity and irony, between too-literal costume and clever fashion reference. In other words, it takes a girl with a special sort of moxie to wear it without looking like Melissa Sue Anderson from Little House on the Prairie. The fact that Swift is supermodel thin, towers over everyone (at five feet ten she clocks in at well over six feet in platform Miu Mius), and has skin as pale as a gold-rush bride’s—well, let’s just say she falls somewhere on the continuum from fetching to dazzling.
That irony is not Swift’s strong suit makes her triumph all the more satisfying: She is wearing the dress; the dress is not wearing her. Perched here among the professionally blasé, she is all smiley gee-whiz confidence, full of hugs and exclamation points. Strangely enough, her opposite is sitting just two seats down: Rooney Mara, still in Lisbeth Salander mode, wearing all black and looking pale-to-green spooky. An editor sitting nearby jokes that the two could be the good witch and the wicked witch from The Wizard of Oz.
As the models begin their procession, it quickly becomes clear that Rodarte, whose bad-witch aesthetic has made the Mulleavy sisters fashion darlings, has moved into Glinda territory. It looks as though they asked their casting director for an army of Taylor Swifts—lithe, pretty blondes with long, wavy hair, but wearing zombie makeup. Indeed, the entire collection—a parade of girly-pretty dresses, skirts, and hand-knit sweaters in a swirl of cornflower blue and sunflower yellow, with a few van Gogh Starry Night prints thrown in for good measure—looks as if it were designed for Swift. “I have never been to a show where I wanted to wear everything,” she says breathlessly.
Afterward, as we plunge into the crush on the street to find Swift’s car and driver, I overhear someone describe the collection as “prom on acid.” It strikes me that Swift herself might be described as all prom and no acid—for a certain audience, her music and her look are stuck in teenage gear. Which is why it comes as a nice surprise to discover just how sharp she is. She is clever and funny and occasionally downright bawdy as we ride around town with a small entourage on this hot fall day, visiting designer showrooms.
Indeed, one of the first things she mentions is the infamous honey-badger clip on YouTube that features a deadpan obscenity-laced narration. Swift knows every line—though she asks if her cursing can be off the record. She may be edgier than her image suggests, but she is not Courtney Love. She has a deeply ingrained sense of appropriateness. She also knows her audience—and knows that they aren’t ready for her to grow up quite yet.
As we crawl through lower Manhattan gridlock toward Alexander Wang’s showroom, we wind up in a conversation about how one never really gets over high school. If Swift has been criticized for being somewhat arrested in her creative development—stuck in prom, as it were—that tendency has lent her an uncanny ability to capture in her songs the vulnerable mind-set of teen girls everywhere. “Why you gotta be so mean?” she sings in the straight-up country song that defined her amazing year in many ways and has been nominated for two Grammys. Clearly, her school days remain all-too-vivid. Swift, who grew up on a Christmas-tree farm in rural Pennsylvania, tells me that when she was in fourth grade her family moved to Wyomissing, an affluent suburb of Reading. “So … middle school? Awkward,” she says, launching into the first of many comic riffs. “Having a hobby that’s different from everyone else’s? Awkward. Singing the national anthem on weekends instead of going to sleepovers? More awkward. Braces? Awkward. Gain a lot of weight before you hit the growth spurt? Awkward. Frizzy hair, don’t embrace the curls yet? Awkward. Try to straighten it? Awkward!” She starts to laugh. “So many phases!”
As hard as it is to imagine now, Swift always felt like an outsider. “I think who you are in school really sticks with you,” she says. “I don’t ever feel like the cool kid at the party, ever. It’s like, Smile and be nice to everybody, because you were not invited to be here.”
When I confess I played the cymbals in marching band during my freshman year, she high-fives me. “All of my favorite people—people I really trust—none of them were cool in their younger years,” she says. “Because if you know how to be cool in middle school, maybe you have skills you shouldn’t. Maybe you know how to be conniving, like, naturally.” She laughs. “There’s always that seventh-grade girl who looks like she’s 25. And you’re like, How do you do it? How do you do it, Sarah Jaxheimer?” She lets out a comically ear-piercing shriek: “Why is your hair always so shiny?!” (Later, I Google Sarah Jaxheimer, and sure enough, she has perfect, lustrous Jennifer Aniston hair.)
Swift finally stopped caring about being cool. “I think that happened as soon as I left school, when I was sixteen, because then all that mattered was music and this dream that I’d had my whole life. It never mattered to me that people in school didn’t think that country music was cool, and they made fun of me for it—though it did matter to me that I was not wearing the clothes that everybody was wearing at that moment. But at some point, I was just like, I like wearing sundresses and cowboy boots.”
Apparently, so do a lot of other people. A couple of weeks earlier I watched Swift perform for a stadium of 50,000 people in Philadelphia, for all intents and purposes her hometown crowd. I had never seen so many teens and tweens and little girls with their mothers in sundresses and cowboy boots. “I look out at the stadiums full of people and see them all knowing the words to songs I wrote,” says Swift. “And curling their hair! I remember straightening my hair because I wanted to be like everybody else, and now the fact that anybody would emulate what I do? It’s just funny. And wonderful.” The fact that Swift, at 22, already appreciates the delicious irony in that speaks volumes about her grown-up sense of perspective. That she’s also the only kid at the table when it comes to filling huge stadiums also suggests she has a heft beyond her years. How many artists can even fill a stadium these days?
“Um … Kenny Chesney, U2, and Paul McCartney. There aren’t many stadium shows anymore,” she says. “It’s no small feat, and I know that. When you walk out onstage in front of 65,000 people, it can bring you to tears. If you really take it in at the end of a song and you hear that many people screaming, it will make you cry.”
Do you ever get freaked out?
“This is what I’ve wanted to do my whole life,” she says. “It never freaks me out. Never. Ever.” She pauses for a moment. “But you know what does freak me out? When is the other shoe going to drop? I am so happy right now. So I am always living in fear. This can’t be real, right? This can’t really be my life.”
“You are so tall!” shouts Alexander Wang when he first lays eyes on Taylor Swift.
“I think I am still growing,” she says. “I haven’t topped off yet.”
Wang discreetly checks out her look. “Is this Rodarte?”
“Yes,” says Swift. “It’s from their fall collection.”
“Well, it fits you perfectly.” And then, handing out fashion’s highest compliment, “You are sample-size!”
“It’s really nice when I get on shoots and everything fits,” says Swift.
“But I bet it also makes it difficult for you,” says Wang, “because they’re probably like, ‘Oh, she’s sample-size, and that means she can wear anything from the runway collection.’ And you’re like, ‘I am not wearing that.’ ” They laugh. The two head over to the clothes hanging nearby, Wang’s futuristic-BMX-sporty collection that he showed a few days earlier. He pulls something from the rack that he calls a “knit racing sweater,” and Swift says, “How Tron of you.”
“She gets it! I love it!” says Wang, clearly charmed. They walk over to the accessories. “Need a motocross helmet?” asks Wang, who has designed one with flowers on it.
“That’s amazing,” says Swift. “You should send one to Pink. She would love that.” There is something reflexively generous about Swift, who says to Wang as they hug goodbye, “I love how happy you are.”
As we ride the elevator down, Swift offers her take. “Some people just attract attention and excitement,” she says. “It’s kind of unexplainable. People study it. There’s a science to the It factor. There are certain people who elicit a really passionate response. It’s crazy. That’s my Alexander Wang theory.”
I interviewed Taylor Swift over the phone a couple of years ago, and here are the things that I remember from that conversation that still ring true: She was (1) smarter than the average bear; (2) excessively gracious; (3) happy to talk a blue streak about music; (4) preternaturally ambitious; (5) delighted to discover that the town her family summered in—Stone Harbor, New Jersey—is the town where I grew up.
Now, in the car on our way to Prabal Gurung’s studio in midtown, I tell her that I was just in Stone Harbor with my family, having lunch, and mentioned that Taylor Swift is sort of from there. “I am totally from there,” she says. “That’s where most of my childhood memories were formed.”
She goes on, “When you say, ‘I spent my summers at the Jersey Shore,’ people always say, ‘Oh, really?’ They think of the TV show. So I just say, ‘A cute little harbor town in New Jersey.’ As with her music, there is a sprinkling of fairy dust on Swift’s childhood memories of Stone Harbor. “We lived on this basin where all this magical stuff would happen. One time a dolphin swam into our basin. We had this family of otters that would live on our dock at night. We’d turn the light on and you’d see them, you know, hanging out, just being otters. And then one summer, there was a shark that washed up on our dock. I ended up writing a novel that summer because I wouldn’t go in the water. I locked myself in the den and wrote a book.” She stares at me, wide-eyed. “When I was fourteen.” She laughs. “Because of a shark!”
Prabal Gurung’s studio is tiny. Five people, plus the designer—with his muscular arms and a pompadour—and the place is standing room only. Swift spots a photo tacked on the wall of a model in one of Gurung’s dresses. “I love Karlie Kloss,” she says and touches the picture. “I want to bake cookies with her!” And then she turns and looks at the racks of clothes, the collection Gurung showed on Saturday. “So, what’s going on here?” she says, taking control. Inspired by the Japanese artist Nobuyoshi Araki’s Sensual Flowers photography series, Gurung’s collection looks like a floral-print Rorschach test in violet and magenta and turquoise and black. “Very Katy Perry,” says Swift. She picks up a white blouse that is long in the back and short in the front and says, “A shirt mullet!” Finally she spots a skirt that makes her happy and sucks in her breath. “Oh, my gosh. This is beautiful. What made you think of this?”
“I was thinking, What is a strong female? Doesn’t necessarily have to be tough. Could be pretty.”
Suddenly, Gurung plants himself directly in front of the pop star, who is easily a foot taller, and says, “Well, I am sure you get this all the time, and I’m sure it’s redundant, but I am such a huge fan. I love your music. It’s really beautiful—but you know that. But more than anything, it’s the way that you have conducted yourself. Really. The way you handle yourself is incredible.”
Swift lets out a heartfelt “Thaaaaaaank yoooooooou.”
“No, no, seriously,” Gurung goes on. “Because it’s very easy to get carried away into the wrong things and be like the rest of them, but you have held your ground, and it’s really impressive.”
Swift throws her arms straight out—“Give me a hug”—and envelops him.
As we leave, she says, “That kind of made my day. People don’t usually compliment your character.” She shakes her head in disbelief, and then a big smile spreads across her face. “And he had good hair. Good throwback hair.
One day not long ago, Swift was interviewed onstage by Katie Couric atBillboard’s Women in Music luncheon. At one point Couric asked Swift a question she has heard many, many times before, which is, essentially, When are you going to have some sort of scandal or meltdown, or, at the very least, an embarrassing photograph? When I bring this up, Swift says, “Ever since I was sixteen, the question that I get in every single interview is ‘So, all the pop stars right now who are stumbling out of clubs and going crazy—are you going to do that?’ When I was younger, I had to be more insistent with people because they would say, ‘Yeah, they all say that when they’re sixteen, honey. Just wait till you’re nineteen or 20. That’s when it all goes off the tracks!’
“But you know, as time has gone by, I’ve gotten that question less and less. I think, for me, the bigger pitfall is losing your self-awareness. Even though I am at a place where my dresses are really pretty and the red carpets have a lot of bright lights and I get to play to thousands of people … you have to take that with a grain of salt. The stakes are really high if you mess up, if you slack off and don’t make a good record, if you make mistakes based on the idea that you are larger than life and you can just coast.” She pauses. “If you start thinking you’ve got it down, that’s when you run into trouble—either by getting complacent or becoming mouthy.” She laughs. “And nobody likes that.”
Do you ever lose it and act bratty?
“Yeah, but if I do I usually spend the next four days apologizing,” she says. “I get post-conversation anxiety. ‘I am so sorry if I said something weird. Did I make that weird? I am sorry if I made that weird!’ ”
I ask Swift what she frets about, and her answer reveals a potential downside to being born with so much drive. “I fret about the future,” she says. “What my next move should be. What the move after that should be. How I am going to sustain this. How do I evolve.” She lets out a big sigh. “I get so ahead of myself. I’m like, ‘What am I going to be doing at 30?’ But there’s no way to know that! So it’s this endless mind-boggling equation that you’ll never figure out. I overanalyze myself into being a big bag of worries.”
But Taylor Swift is a girl who likes to be one step ahead of everyone, even herself. “Lately I’ve been focusing on trying to be here,” she says. “Trying to be who I am, where I am, at the moment.” She laughs. “But, you know, I am having a big meeting with my team next week, planning 2013. Which makes it hard!”
Swift splits her rare days off between her condo in Nashville (“very Alice in Wonderland imaginarium”) and a little cottage she recently bought in Beverly Hills (“cozy, Anthropologie, grandma chic”). She’s been spending time in L.A. because she’s quietly looking for the right role in the right movie. Does she feel pressure to work out? “I don’t ever want to be that person whose self-image overtakes who they are. I am not a fan of working out that much. There’s no regimen. There’s no personal trainer. I love to go hiking because it’s an experience. If I need to gain stamina for a tour, I will run every single night on the treadmill, but I don’t necessarily like being at the gym.”
Swift is very close to her parents, Andrea and Scott Swift, bothof whom are very involved in her career. I ask her to describe them: “Mom is calculated, logical, business-minded; kind but very, very direct. Makes you better by giving you these little pointers but doesn’t baby you. My dad is a Chatty Cathy, the social butterfly; friendly; knows everybody in the whole world by six degrees; tells me that every performance is the greatest he’s ever seen, every new outfit is the coolest. Constant cheerleader. It’s cool to have pie-in-the-sky Dad, down-to-earth Mom.”
She seems to bring both worldviews to her romantic life. As she puts it, “I think I am smart unless I am really, really in love, and then I am ridiculously stupid.” Swift has famously dated some famous boys—Joe Jonas, Taylor Lautner, John Mayer, Jake Gyllenhaal. When she was eighteen, Jonas notoriously broke up with her over the phone—in a call that lasted 27 seconds—an experience that fueled her songwriting. She wrote a damning song about Mayer called “Dear John.” She dated Gyllenhaal through the fall of 2010 (he broke up with her around the Christmas holidays). When I ask her if she is seeing anyone, she says, “I got nothing going on! I just don’t really feel like dating. I really have this great life right now, and I’m not sad and I’m not crying this Christmas, so I am really stoked about that.” Were you crying last Christmas? “I am not gonna go into it! It’s a sad story!”
Swift is working on her fourth album: “There’s just been this earth-shattering, not recent, but absolute crash-and-burn heartbreak,” she says, “and that will turn out to be what the next album is about. The only way that I can feel better about myself—pull myself out of that awful pain of losing someone—is writing songs about it to get some sort of clarity.” Swift’s music is not exactly straight diary entry—it’s cleverer than that—but somehow the specifics of her past relationships continue to have a universal appeal. When I ask her if she can detail a few things she’s learned along the way, she seems delighted to play along. “I have red flags now,” she says.
1. “If someone doesn’t seem to want to get to know me as a person but instead seems to have kind of bought into the whole idea of me and he approves of my Wikipedia page? And falls in love based on zero hours spent with me? That’s maybe something to be aware of. That will fade fast. You can’t be in love with a Google search.”
2. “If a dude is threatened by the fact that I need security, if they make me feel like I am some sort of princessy diva—that’s a bad sign. I don’t have security to make myself look cool, or like I have an entourage. I have security because there’s a file of stalkers who want to take me home and chain me to a pipe in their basement.”
3. “If you need to put me down a lot in order to level the playing field or something? If you are threatened by some part of what I do and want to cut me down to size in order to make it even? That won’t work either.”
4. “Also, I can’t deal with someone who’s obsessed with privacy. People kind of care if there are two famous people dating. But no one cares that much. If you care about privacy to the point where we need to dig a tunnel under this restaurant so that we can leave? I can’t do that.”
Our next stop is Joseph Altuzarra’s studio in the Garment District. “How did Alex’s stuff look?” says Altuzarra, referring to his good friend Wang. “His collection was supersporty like mine, right?”
“It was great,” says Swift. “It was very race car–driver slash Tron slash ski slope slash parka-without-being-a-parka.” They walk over to a rack, and Altuzarra picks out a very sexy black dress. “That is soooo Jada Pinkett Smith,” says Swift. “She would look great in that.” Swift heads toward another black dress. “Ooooh. I like that. That’s what you wear if you are a spy.” Pause. “Or if you’re playing a spy on TV.” She holds the dress under her chin. “This is me if I was onCovert Affairs.” She pulls a sweater dress from the rack, and Altuzarra says, “You could wear that on Covert Affairs as well.”
“No,” says Swift. “I would wear this on Without a Trace, if I was playing Samantha Spade.” She laughs at herself. “I watch so much TV.”
If at times she seems far younger than her age, Swift can also seem far older. At Madison Square Garden in November, near the end of her yearlong, 80-city, sold-out Speak Now tour, she invited Selena Gomez and James Taylor, two performers who couldn’t fall at more opposite ends of the spectrum. Even though Swift is “best friends” with the nineteen-year-old Gomez, one got the sense that she was much more excited about—and has more in common with—James Taylor, the 63-year-old songwriting legend.
It turns out that Swift has a laundry list of iconic American figures to whom she feels some sort of connection. “The only time in my life I have ever been starstruck was meeting Caroline and Ethel Kennedy,” she says. “I got to spend the afternoon with Ethel a couple of weeks ago. She is one of my favorites because you look back at the pictures of her and Bobby and they always look like they are having the most fun out of everybody. You know, eleven kids, all these exotic animals on their property. I’ve read a lot about them.”
When I ask whose career she would most like to emulate, she places herself squarely in baby-boomer territory, identifying in some ways more with her parents than with her peers: “I look back and I think about Kris Kristofferson,” she says without missing a beat. “He is so versatile and so appreciated for all of the things that he has done. The fact that he shines in songwriting, shines in his solo career, shines in movies and does it all so tastefully. I got to meet him last year, and he’s just one of those people who has been in this business for years but you can tell it hasn’t chewed him up and spit him out. He just seemed like the human embodiment of gratitude.” She ponders for a moment. “Sometimes you see these people who are just so—God—so affected by all of it, where ambition has taken precedence over happiness. But when I meet people who really embody this serenity of knowing that they have had an amazing life—James Taylor, Kris Kristofferson, and Ethel Kennedy… .” She smiles her twinkly-eyed smile. “They just seem to be effervescent.”