Taylor Swift never set out to be extraordinary.
Like most of us, all she wanted was to be heard. Little did she know as she sat in her childhood bedroom in Wyomissing, Pa., giving voice to feelings about crushes, heartache, and troubled friendships, that one day millions of people would respond. That she would be a superstar before she was even old enough to vote.
Swift's self-titled album was released in 2006 and went multiplatinum, setting the tone for what would become the then-16-year-old's trademark: Disarmingly autobiographical songs that resonate across age and gender. Her follow-up, Fearless, released two years later, also sold millions and won four Grammy awards. Last year, Swift was the best-selling musician in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan, and Forbes ranked her the 12th most powerful celebrity this year, with annual earnings of $45 million.
Most people would take this opportunity to do a victory lap. But Swift, who turns 21 in December, is far too busy performing at the 44th annual Country Music Association Awards on Nov. 10 and canvassing the country on a tour supporting her latest album, Speak Now, which was released in late October to acclaim from critics and audiences alike.
Plus, it's not her style. Instead, she shows up for those in need, as she did this past summer when she appeared as part of Nashville Rising: A Benefit Concert for Flood Recovery, a cause to which she donated $500,000. Swift was also one of the first celebrities to call attention to the disaster, appealing to the public and media immediately after the devastation, which happened in May and caused an estimated $2 billion in damages to the Nashville and middle Tennessee area.
It's not a surprising reaction for someone so attuned to other people that, even though her new album would seem a guaranteed success, she says she is "excited and nervous" to hear reactions to her latest work. "These songs are basically my journal entries from the last two years," she says, "And that, of course, makes me much more vested in how people hear them."
Swift's Early Songwriting
So how does a young woman -- who relies on her normalcy to connect with her audience -- keep her feet on the ground, especially when they are so often walking the red carpet in Manolo Blahniks? By being grateful. "I remember dreaming about the possibility that if I worked really hard and things went miraculously well, some day people would care about what I had to say," says Swift. "And I've never let go of that feeling. The fact that people care about my lyrics is so incredible to me."
Swift grew up with her stockbroker father, stay-at-home mother, and younger brother, Austin. She began writing poetry in second grade and turned to songwriting at 12 to help her deal with feeling like an outcast at school. After performing at every county fair, sporting event, and karaoke contest that would have her, she convinced her family to move to Nashville, Tenn., when she was 14. It didn't take long to reassure the Swifts they had made the right choice: Within months, the prodigy had been signed as the youngest staff songwriter ever at Sony/ATV Publishing, a position she credits with her work ethic.
"It was my job after school every day for two years," she remembers. "I had this little office in the hall, and I was writing songs based on what other people might cut. It really immersed me in the gorgeous songwriting community, and I've never forgotten what it's like to write for a job."
These days, Swift has the luxury of writing only for herself, a process she says keeps her honest. "From a young age, any time I would feel pain I would think, 'It's OK, I can write about this after school,'" she says. "And still, anytime something hurts, like rejection or sadness or loneliness, or I feel joy or I fall in love, I ask myself, 'Can I write a song about this so I know how I feel?'" Making such private thoughts public doesn't faze her. "I'm only thinking about the person I'm writing it for, so it stays personal," she says, "and the fact that people actually care about what I have to say makes any fear pale in comparison."
No one will ever hear the naturally cheerful Swift whimper about any element of her fame, even if it has resulted in days spent touring and nights in hotel rooms while her peers are off at college and socializing. "I've been doing this so long that I don't get road-weary," she says. "I accept that I'm never going to be in the same place for too long and that's just my life. What I feel is pure excitement."
How Taylor Swift Stays Healthy
Still, Swift acknowledges that riding hours on a bus, strutting the stage, and not sleeping in her own bed can take its toll, both physically and mentally. Crucial to staying balanced is sticking to a comforting routine, no matter where she is. When she gets to her hotel room, the first thing she does is unpack -- even if she's there for only one night. "I do it everywhere I go," she says with a laugh. "I really like the way it feels to have my clothes put away in drawers and my shoes in the closet." Swift also always travels with candles, and she's never without her iPod, onto which she is constantly downloading new music.
Listening to fellow artists' latest releases is what inspires Swift to exercise, and regardless of her tour schedule, she makes sure to squeeze in an hour-long run on a treadmill every day.
"For me, running is about blasting a whole bunch of new songs and running to the beat. It's also good because it makes me find a gym wherever I am," she says. Unlike other famous colleagues, "I'm very much out in the world, and I love exploring the places we go when we tour. It's important for me to live a full life."
Because her life is so peripatetic, Swift knows that staying disciplined about how she eats is crucial to her well-being. While this lanky, 5-feet-11-inch star doesn't need to watch her weight, she says she still pays attention to what she puts in her body -- on weekdays. On weekends, all bets are off.
"During the week, I try to eat healthily, so that means salads, yogurt, and sandwiches," she says. "No sugary drinks. I try to keep it lighter, but it's nothing too regimented or crazy. I don't like to create too many rules where I don't need them. We know what's good for us, thanks to common sense." On the weekends, "I allow myself to eat what I know from common sense is bad for me," she says with a giggle. "I like comfort foods. I love a burger and fries, I love ice cream so much, and I love baking cookies. Actually, I love baking anything."
One daily treat is a Starbucks run, where she opts for skinny vanilla lattes on weekdays and spiced pumpkin lattes on weekends. "The point," she says, "is I'm never cutting out what I love, which is Starbucks."
Healthy Approaches to Food and Fitness
Elisabetta Politi, RD, MPH, CDE, lauds Swift's simultaneously practical and celebratory approach to food, praising her for being a role model in an insanely dieting world. Swift also earns high marks for not depriving herself, although as Politi points out, "Taylor doesn't have to lose any weight, so maybe someone who does would have a treat once a week, and after exercise."
Swift's philosophy is perfect, says Politi, who is the nutrition director of Duke University's Diet and Fitness Center. "Evidence shows that binge eating is connected to frequent dieting. Depriving ourselves leads to eating out of control. What's crucial is having a healthy relationship with food," Politi explains. "Food is not the enemy, and Taylor is really to be commended for enjoying what she eats. We should all be eating in a mindful way and enjoying every moment that we do."
As for following common sense rather than calorie charts, Politi is all for it: "Our grandparents had so much less information than we have; they only listened to their common sense, and we were a leaner country then." For people who would rather rely on facts than intuition about what makes a healthy diet, Politi suggests going to the American Dietetic Association web site.
The Importance of Giving Back
To keep a balanced lifestyle, Swift is a homebody when she's not touring. She recently moved out of her parents' house and into her own apartment in Nashville, where she hangs out with friends and writes. "I'm not a party girl, because that's not where my interests are," she says. But she's also aware that in making the choice to stay away from the nightlife she's sending an important message to her fans.
"I really do factor that into the decisions I make," she says, "And it's always a huge part of my thought process. In the last two years while I've been on my first headlining tours, I look into the crowd and I see all of these faces, and some of them are little. I remember when I was that age, and the choices that my favorite singers were making really mattered to me. I can't block that out, and I don't want to."
Swift is also cognizant of helping those in need and is a generous donor to groups like the American Red Cross. "My contributions hit me like my song ideas," she says. "It's just a gut feeling about who needs help, whether it's a flood in Nashville or a town that I'm in that has had some horrible tragedy or a letter I get from a family. Giving back like that makes you feel so incredible." She believes the amount of time or money given is unimportant: "If you have the opportunity to put something good into the world, that only does good for your own life."
Swift's Secrets to Happiness
As far as she's concerned, Swift is already living her ideal life. She's made forays into acting, appearing on a CSI: Crime Scene Investigation episode on CBS and in the movie Valentine's Day. She is celebrated for her style and beauty in fashion magazines. But she insists that her driving passion is and always will be songwriting.
"If I go more than nine days without writing a song, I get really antsy," she says. "But I think the stress causes me to search my mind and helps me write. It starts with an idea that hits me at the most inconvenient time, like in the middle of a conversation or in the middle of the night, and my friends have gotten used to a glazed look coming into my eyes. Then I need to grab my phone and record a voice memo or a melody and lyrics. You never know what it will be!"
(As it turns out, writing is actually good for your mental health. Want to learn more? Read our sidebar on The Benefits of Journal Writing below.)
The element of surprise is something Swift embraces, as long as the result is songs that move her and her fans and she can continue to retreat to the security of close friends and family to reconnect with herself.
"I always try to see what makes me most comfortable and happy," she says. "Because right now, to have happiness, that's the main priority."
Taylor's Tips for Healthy Living On the Road
"Health is a big part of being happy," says Swift, who is committed to keeping herself in great shape physically and mentally even when she's touring. Here are her rules of the road:
Reward yourself. Work for your indulgences, and then enjoy. "I have a need to feel like I've earned things, so when I have a week of working really hard, I get to have a day or two off -- whether it's from exercise or watching what I eat," says Swift.
Skip the judgment. When it comes to dieting and working out, Swift is watchful rather than self-chastising. "I keep an internal gauge of whether it's been a healthy week or not," says Swift. Then she makes adjustments instead of beating herself up.
Water it down. "I drink so much water my friends call me an alien," jokes Swift, who says she always carries a bottle with her. Just to make sure she's never short, the singer keeps a case in her car.
Find your rhythm. To power up your workout routine, download songs or albums that you don't let yourself listen to until you're in motion. "I don't like any kind of exercise other than running," Swift says. "And I love that because it's about the music."
Sit with your feelings. Recognize that anxiety is not inherently bad. The experience is uncomfortable while it's happening but can also propel you out of a rut. "It's awful to sit there feeling that way," says Swift. "But if you let it, it can lead to something that takes you out of that feeling and into something creative."
The Benefits of Journal Writing
One other way that Swift sustains herself is by journal writing. "As a young kid, I learned to process my emotions by writing," she says. Turns out, Swift intuitively hit upon a habit that studies suggest can be hugely beneficial to health in times of trouble.
James Pennebaker, PhD, has spent years studying the power of journal-writing and was the first person to publish on the subject.
"Writing about upheavals in your life can be very helpful, with overwhelming evidence that when individuals write about those experiences there are improvements in both physical and mental health," says Pennebaker, who is professor and chair of the psychology department at the University of Texas.
He adds that it isn't necessary to keep a journal long-term, or when things are going smoothly. But he suggests that when worry or sleep problems kick in, it's time to pick up a pen and write about what's happening for a minimum of 15 minutes for three consecutive days.
"Traumatic experiences touch every part of people's lives," Pennebaker explains, "from financial to social to romantic, so it's helpful to organize your thoughts about the event by writing."
There's no right or wrong when it comes to expressing yourself, as long as you are honest. "Explore your deepest emotions and thoughts," Pennebaker suggests, "and how it ties in to your childhood, your family, your future and past."
When you're feeling better, you can put the journal back in your drawer until it's needed again.
"There's no reason to write when you're not troubled if you don't want to," says Pennebaker. "Enjoy the good times."