NEW YORK -- Utada Hikaru doesn't do cleavage. She doesn't tend to flash acres of golden abs, as do divettes Britney and Jessica and Christina when the cameras are ogling them. And only rarely does Utada, Japan's reigning pop princess since she was a wee 15, take her bare legs for a stroll.
"When I dress girlie in New York, I always feel like I look like a hooker just because I'm Asian," says the tiny 21-year-old, sitting in the posh lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel and clad in jeans, ratty sneakers and a tan corduroy jacket pulled snug over a pink Minnie Mouse sweatshirt. "I look in the Village Voice, and there's three pages devoted to 'Asian Girls' ads."
The singer-songwriter-producer has sold more than 17 million albums in Japan in just five years without tarting herself up a la MTV's wailers gone wild. (Her 1999 debut, "First Love," is the best-selling album in Japanese history.) She's affectionately known as "Hikki" on the oodles of Internet fan sites that thrill over her good-girl likes (literature, "The Three Amigos") and tsk-tsk dislikes (partying, a dirty house). She also has a clothing line, a calendar and a self-drawn cartoon pet named Chuichi that catfights with merchandising juggernaut Hello Kitty.
Utada's English-language debut, "Exodus," was released this month on the Island/Def Jam label. But that doesn't mean Japan's version of Hilary Duff is all happiness and light these days.
Unlike the go-girl "J-pop" music that helped make Utada the No. 1 target of the feverish Japanese paparazzi, her new sound can be chilly, lonely, sad -- an utterly inventive melange of techno bleeps and blips, intricate rhythms and a voice that sounds a little like Madonna back when the Material Girl was trying to bring the ballads. The only times Utada sounds like she's having fun is on the silly first single, "Easy Breezy," and on three collaborations with hip-hop superproducer Timbaland, the one-man hit machine who's sent Missy Elliott and Justin Timberlake to the top of the charts.
The truth is, Utada -- who was born in New York City and, as the only child of musician parents, has spent most of her life whiplashing between Manhattan and Tokyo -- isn't sure who she wants to be these days. It isn't an anonymous college student: She dropped out of Columbia University after half a semester a couple of years ago because "it wasn't as difficult as I was hoping it would be." That said, she's also questioning whether she wants to remain a gossip-fodder pop star -- in Japan or America. The fame game, Utada has found out at a rather inopportune time, can be a big metaphysical bummer.
"I've been forced to think about what I'm trying to be or what I'm supposed to be or what I am," sighs the bilingual Utada. "People in the record company have a hard time categorizing me and pitching me to the radio, because they look at me, and obviously I'm this young girl. No matter what my music is like, I'm still competing with all the other young girls in the market . . . Ashlee Simpson, Jessica Simpson, Britney Spears, Avril Lavigne, blah blah blah." Utada, who brags about sharing a birthday with Edgar Allan Poe and who seeks comfort in Leo Tolstoy (" 'cause he actually deals with a lot of family drama" -- remember that clue, folks), admits that it's all starting to make her a little sick.
"I just went to the doctor's this morning to get a general checkup. After checking me out, the doctor asked, 'Are you under a lot of stress?' She didn't even know what job I do," says Utada, parting the long black hair that routinely threatens to swallow her face. "I have had health problems with stress. I guess I keep it all inside."
That visit to the doctor, however, also inspired this revelation: "I like getting blood drawn. I like getting shots. It's stimulating. I don't see why pain is that bad. I'm not like a crazy S&M person, don't get me wrong. I'm just really good with pain. I just enter a zone, and tell my brain, 'Okay, I'm going to feel pain, but it's not bad. Let's see how it feels.' "
Nope: Utada, who lists Radiohead, Bjork and Nine Inch Nails as faves, isn't like American pop stars at all.
(Okay, okay, maybe just a little. Utada did do the questionable early-marriage thing, at age 19, to music-video director Kaz Kiriya. But much to the dismay of the tabloids, the two have stayed happily hitched. "When I first got married, everyone said, 'You're too young' and 'Why don't you wait?' I figured a lot of marriages fail, right? . . . If I waited until I was 35, I wouldn't be better equipped or more prepared to be married than I am now."
(Oh, and despite how much she says she enjoys being a nobody in New York, she does kinda dig the sobbing-fans phenomenon. "I always tell them, 'Oh, don't cry! It's just me!' I don't know what they see in me that is that special and idolizable. But when someone's moved that much, it moves you.")
"I don't think 12-year-old girls are going to hitch to my new music," says Utada. "I think my audience is much older than that."
Eric Wong, Island/Def Jam's senior director of marketing, boasts of Utada's "enigmatic pop skills" and "unique blend of alternative, pop, dance and funk grooves," but "enigmatic" and "unique" aren't exactly the best buzzwords when you're selling to today's teen-pop market. Utada says there are possible plans for a small U.S. tour next year, but the rest of 2004 is relatively empty.
Utada creates much of her genre-hopping music on a computer, "sitting in my tiny room alone with a microphone and a mouse in my hand." Although she has a close network of friends here and abroad -- and she has hubby Kiriya, who's been spending a lot of time in Los Angeles lately -- she prefers to be by herself.
"I love walking around alone," says Utada, who's currently living in Manhattan. "Last night there was a terrible rain. It was one of the hardest rains I'd seen in New York. I was walking home with an umbrella, but it was windy, too. So I closed my umbrella and got wet. It was kind of fun, walking in the rain alone."
She credits her solitary nature -- and her rather grown-up way of processing life's twisteroos -- to being an only child with very busy parents.
"It's like when a cat grows up with a bunch of people, the cat starts to think it's human," she says. "So as only child in a family of adults, you think you're an equal. I don't feel that different from when I was 5 years old -- the way I see the world and react to it."
Utada's mother is Keiko Fuji, a traditional-style enka singer who sold millions of albums back in the '70s. Her father is Teruzane Skingg Utada, a famed music producer who oversaw his wife's career and now acts as his daughter's manager.
"I grew up watching my mom performing," Utada says. "And I was always fascinated how, before a show, up to the last minute, she'd be arguing with my father or crying about something or sick, but once she hit the stage, she'd be perfect."
When Teruzane, waiting for his charge in the Four Seasons lobby, is asked how he feels about his daughter following in her parents' musical footsteps, he looks at Utada and smiles. "It's the family business," the tall, handsome man says. "If she wants to do it . . ."
"But you guys made me!" his daughter snaps back.
"But you're so good at it!" Teruzane says, laughing (a nervous laugh, to be sure).
Utada winces at memories of the paparazzi chasing her through the streets of Tokyo. "It was bad when I was really young," she says. "Like shock treatment. They'd be hiding in my bushes at my house. The tabloids are much sleazier in Japan. I was in the tabloids every week, for, like, a record number of weeks."
About the possibility of losing her privacy in the States, Teruzane says, "She can always go to other countries. Like South America!"
(Teruzane will send an unprompted note the next day, writing about his relationship with his wife and daughter: "I didn't force either artist to do anything, but I always make sure that everything they wish to do is done the way they wish them to be. . . . I am happy that [Utada] has been successful, but I also know how difficult for her to maintain the good spirit.")
Utada lightens up when asked about making "Exodus." She has real affection for Timbaland, even though she says the two artists were a little stubborn at first.
"I told him, 'I have to write my own stuff,' Utada says. "And he was like, 'What do you mean? I have my own way of doing stuff.' And I was like, 'I have my own way of doing stuff, too.' It was just a matter of getting to know each other."
Timbaland provided Utada an assortment of loops and beats to choose from. ("I was like a kid in a candy store," she says.) And back in her hotel room -- alone again, naturally -- she added lyrics and melodies.
Their best collaboration is the club thumper "Let Me Give You My Love," on which Utada sings of "mixing gene pools" and turning "this room into a melting pot." When "Exodus" was released in Japan on Sept. 8, some of her longtime admirers weren't sure what to make of the new Hikki. "A lot of my Japanese fans, when they read the Japanese translation of these lyrics -- they were like 'Whoa!' "
Utada feared that an English-language album would be perceived by Japanese worshipers as a sellout. "I was worried about that, but I really haven't gotten that sort of reaction yet," she says, adding that "Exodus" has already sold half a million copies in Japan.
For now, Utada will wait. And think. And think some more. "I think I'm going to go back to the university when I get sick of music," she says. But almost in the same breath, she lets out a giggle and says, "I would really like to produce for Britney Spears."
And for the first time today, Utada finally sounds like a 21-year-old pop star.