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."
Keys' manager, Jeff Robinson, says his client now "keeps in mind that she can get tired, mentally, physically and spiritually. Now we break down the calendar so that she gets not only record company time and tour time and fan time but also Alicia time, time to get in touch with herself."
That sense of balance informed the structure of Keys' upcoming arena tour, which she describes as "different from anything I've ever done." She'll play 30 dates in the USA with Jordin Sparks and Ne-Yo supporting her, and she'll complete her trek with a homecoming gig at New York's Madison Square Garden June 18.
"I decided to make the show like a journey, from the beginning to where I am now. I love performing in theaters, because it's so close-knit; I can see everybody and get a vibe going. I wanted to be able to translate that feeling to a larger venue -- to bring you into my world, but also provide excitement."
Keys says the shows will combine "things that are big and tremendous, because the arena world tends to feel grand, with things that are really intimate. I spend almost a half-hour just on piano, and I talk."
Granted, fans shouldn't necessarily expect any jaw-dropping personal revelations. Keys isn't the kind of contemporary star likely to spill her guts in a public forum.
"When you let the media into your personal life, it invites them to feel like they deserve to know your business," she says. "Then suddenly they start to own it, and while one minute it might be fantastic, the next they're tearing it down.
"What people like me for is my music, and hopefully what I have to say and what I represent. If you stay focused on that, they can't find out anything about you."
If Keys is purposefully vague in discussing the events that led her to fear for her sanity, she is downright mum on the subject of her romantic life. Just as Beyoncé has remained coy about her relationship with longtime beau (and maybe husband) Jay-Z, Keys will say only this of her creative collaborator, songwriter/producer Kerry "Krucial" Brothers: "He and I are great partners, and we do beautiful music."
She's more expansive in discussing politics.
"It's time for something radically different," Keys says. "And that's represented with the (presidential) candidates, especially with Hillary (Clinton) and (Barack) Obama. I mean, if we had a woman president -- wow. And if we had the first black president, wow."
The singer stops short of endorsing any of the candidates, but she's "leaning in that direction" with Obama. "We need someone to make us feel like we can all do something. That's why he's reaching black and white people, and everyone in between."
Keys, who like Obama has a black father and a white mother, is encouraged by that mass appeal. "It used to be all about the race thing in this country, and it's still about race. But now it's more about people wanting to be positive, and wanting to be back in control of their lives and their country."
She'll be touring in Pennsylvania when that state holds its primary April 22. "I'm just in the process of seeing how I can be around all that," she says, her smile suggesting a possible appearance on behalf of a favorite political hopeful.
Whether Keys pops up at an Obama rally or doesn't, the success and respect she has cultivated could translate to a level of influence beyond everyday celebrity cachet, says Sean Fennessey, associate music editor of Vibe.
"Alicia's at the point where she could think about branding herself, in the Tyra Banks or Oprah Winfrey mold," Fennessey says. "If you find a way to make people care about you that much, you can make them care about what you think about everything."
Then there are her "Diana Ross-like ambitions," says Fennessey, who points to her fledgling film career, which has included roles in 2006's "Smokin' Aces" and last year's" The Nanny Diaries." In 2009, she'll appear with Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Paul Bettany and Dakota Fanning in "The Secret Life of Bees," adapted from Sue Monk Kidd's best-selling, coming-of-age novel set in 1960s South Carolina.
"It's one of the best things I've been involved with yet," says Keys, who in Bees plays June Boatwright. "She's very layered. She comes off as invincible, but underneath it all she's hurt and a bit scared. During the film, she finds a way to be more comfortable in her skin, more open, a little less afraid of life and love."
Keys hopes to act more and eventually craft her own stories, and not just for the screen. "I want to get into musical theater, because there are a lot of new stories to be told, and ways to tell them that will be fresh and fun. I actually have a great idea for (a musical) that I would love to see on Broadway."
After her flirtation with flipping out, though, Keys realizes that it's important not to pile too much on her plate at once. Luckily, "I'm surrounded by some really great people who care about me and who would say, even before I did, 'This is getting too crazy.' "
That core support group could eventually include a husband and kids. "I used to always think of a marriage as a death sentence, but recently I've been able to look at it in a different light. You can focus on the negative and ugly sides of it, but it can also be a beautiful union, a place where you can grow.
"I want to figure myself out a bit more before I make such a commitment, because it's something you really need to be dedicated to -- especially if you have children. But when the time comes, which I think it will, it's going to be really special."
For now, Keys is focused on realizing her own goals -- without being consumed by them.
"It's great to be driven and to have dreams, but it's also very important to relax and enjoy life," she says. "And to be young. You're only young once."