Among today's young female stars, Alicia Keys -- 11-time Grammy-winning singer/songwriter, budding actress, anti-AIDS activist and all-around pop-culture role model -- would seem one of the least likely to have a nervous breakdown.
But there was a time, about a year and a half ago, when Keys could have easily imagined becoming a tabloid statistic. Frayed by the whirlwind pace of her multifaceted career and the illness of a close family member she won't identify (the relative died in 2007), she was feeling "a little confused and out of it," Keys says.
"I would be someplace, in some situation, and I would say to myself: 'This is how it happens. This is how people crack.' I would actually see why some of the greatest artists have gone through crazy things, because of who's around them or what influences are pushed on them. Or because you're so overtired that you do that one last thing and end up passing out.
"I could see that happening. It was that close to me."
Keys, 28, is sitting in a trailer parked in Manhattan's East Village, where she's shooting an episode of Fresh Takes, a "microseries" airing through April 21 during MTV's "The Hills." Created by Dove to promote its Go Fresh products, the three-minute segments trace the pressures faced by a group of women in their 20s -- something that Keys, who kicks off a national tour Saturday night in Hampton, Va., can relate to.
"People of my generation are such overachievers. There's a stress level, and I've dealt with that, being a hard worker and someone who wants to accomplish a lot of things," says Keys, whose character in Fresh Takes works for a music public-relations firm.
In reality, Keys -- whose third studio album, "As I Am," was last year's fourth-best-selling album and has sold more than 3 million copies since its release in November -- has a coterie of industry insiders working for her and no doubt prodding her to plug her many projects, which also include films, other TV appearances and charity efforts.
Projects include downtime
She'll kick off "Today's" outdoor concert series April 21 and appear on "Late Night With David Letterman" April 29. A portion of "Alicia in Africa: Journey to the Motherland"-- a downloadable documentary tracing Keys' month-long trip to Africa as co-founder of Keep a Child Alive, a foundation focused on combating the global AIDS pandemic -- premiered last week during "Idol Gives Back."
But Keys is also making room for a little more downtime these days. "I had to redefine my boundaries," she says. "It's easy to say, 'The label says I've got to do that' or 'management says I've got to do that.' It's easy to blame others.
"It's not easy to say, 'This is what I need, and I can take responsibility for what happens.' I had to ask myself, 'All right, Alicia -- what do you want for yourself?' "
The answer to that question, by late 2006, was a vacation in Egypt, where Keys "did everything. I saw the tombs, the temples, the Nile. I went to the pyramids. I swam in the Red Sea.
"I just wanted to go somewhere tremendous and unbelievable. It was inspiring to see all that history, and envision people building these things that are still there thousands of years later. It reignited me, and gave me a certain confidence that I could be timeless."