How Christina Aguilera Got 'Dirty'

How did Christina Aguilera, the sweet-faced teen whose first hit was for a Disney cartoon, turn into the semi-naked temptress bumping and grinding in her new orgy-like video, "Dirty"?

Her answer is simple: "I'm growing up, just like everybody does."

Aguilera rocketed to the top of the pop music world in 1999 with Reflection, the theme tune for Disney's animated film Mulan. (Disney is the parent company of ABCNEWS.com.) Her self-titled first album sold more than 12 million copies and won the Grammy for best new artist.

She was celebrated by fans across the world as the picture-perfect, all-American girl.

But just as she reached the top, she decided to destroy her squeaky-clean image. As well as "Dirty" — which opens with rapper Redman calling her "dirty, filthy, nasty" — her new album, Stripped, features songs like "Get Mine, Get Yours" and "Infatuation."

Critics have condemned Aguilera's sex-and-piercings image — she appears topless on the album cover, and nude except for a guitar on a recent cover of Rolling Stone magazine. They ask why such a good singer would feel the need to spice up her image.

But Aguilera, now 22, says she is no sellout. On the contrary, she says, she is for the first time refusing to fit the mold.

"If they don't like it, they don't have to look at it, you know? It's just as simple as that," she told ABCNEWS' 20/20.

Violence at Home

Aguilera grew up in the Rust Belt, just outside Pittsburgh. Her family life was far from perfect. According to her mother, her father had a violent temper — and her mother often bore the brunt of it.

When her parents were fighting, little Christina would run upstairs, shut the door, and escape — to where the hills were alive with The Sound of Music.

"I used to take that soundtrack to the movie up to my room, put it in my little boom box … line up my stuffed animals and open the window," she said. "I would pretend I was Maria."

When Aguilera was only 5, she and her mother fled the violence and moved in with her grandmother in Rochester, Pa.

She loved to sing and started performing for friends and family, and then in public. "Anything from an old persons' home to a talent competition, block parties. She didn't care," remembers her mother, Shelly Kearns."As long as she was singing for people."

At barely 8, Christina was dominating the local talent shows. She dreamed of performing at the biggest talent show in the world, Star Search.

The family sent in her tape and the next thing they knew she had made it through the initial rounds and was up against the reigning champion.

She lost, and burst into tears, but her mother made her go over to the winner and congratulate him. "I figured if she's going to be in this business, that's part of the business," Kearns says.

Kindred Spirits on Mickey Mouse Club

Back at school, Aguilera found she was sometimes taunted by other students jealous of her success. But when she was 12, she was chosen to join the cast of the revamped Mickey Mouse Club, joining future stars Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake. It felt like she was coming home.

"The Mickey Mouse Club was the first time where I was around other kids that enjoyed doing the same thing as me," she said.

The show was canceled after a short run, and while Spears and Timberlake broke out on their own, Aguilera's career stalled. She tried to get a record deal, but found no takers until she met record executive Ron Fair.

Astonished by the 16-year-old's voice, Fair suggested her for a song in Mulan that required the singer to hit a high E, an octave above middle C — something few singers have the range for.

"It was all about one note. And being able to hit it," she remembers.

Aguilera nailed the note — and landed a recording contract with RCA.

Her first single, "Genie in a Bottle," came out a few months later, then the album Christina Aguilera, which went platinum — selling a million copies — in just four weeks.

The initial rush of stardom was hard. "I was — whoosh! — just everywhere at once," she says: traveling and performing constantly, doing publicity interviews, photo shoots, concerts she didn't even know she had agreed to.

She managed it, but the stress took a toll. "I was being overworked and I definitely needed to take a minute for myself," she says. "I felt on the verge of cracking."

Wanting to Break Out

Despite all her success, Aguilera was unhappy — not just about the workload, but about the direction her music had taken. She had been fashioned into a neatly buffed pop princess — and she hated it.

Now turning 21, she felt she had failed to accomplish what mattered most: to be true to herself. She told her record company she didn't want to make "Genie in a Bottle, Part 2."

"I'm not that girl," she says. "I think music should be honest, and about who you really are. I would be fake if I tried to do that again."

The pop princess was dead, and with Stripped, Aguilera was reborn as a darker, edgier artist, with a new moniker: X-tina.

Photos, videos and tabloid accounts presented someone many saw as an unfit role model, and frankly as a sellout: a talented artist taking the easy way to commercial success. But Aguilera is defiant.

"It's just me being me, that's all it is …. I'm always going to be changing and evolving," she says. Aguilera says she was the also the victim of a double standard: that when male artists make raunchy videos, no one complains.

"I think it scares people when a woman is comfortable with her body, comfortable with herself, her sexuality," she says.

Baring Her Soul

One of her new songs, "I'm OK," suggests that the album's title refers to not just her body, but her soul.

In the song, she describes her father's violent temper, and emotions she had not dealt with since childhood.

"It's so emotionally and psychologically damaging, it sticks with you," she says.

She recorded the song in one take, lying on the floor of the studio.

"I'm crying on the record, half crying, trying to hold back my tears. It was the hardest thing I've ever had to sing."

When her mother heard the song, it reminded her of the screams she would hear from her little girl when her parents were fighting. "Those same sound effects actually happened," Kearns tells 20/20.

Aguilera says she wrote the song not to hurt her father, who lives on the other side of the country, but as her own "healing process."

The song has not fostered a rekindling of their relationship, but it did prompt a letter from her father. "He wrote, a letter to me expressing that I had to do it to heal myself, and he made a mistake. He knows it."

This story was originally broadcast Feb. 14, 2003.

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