When Christina Aguilera let the genie out of the bottle, she introduced the world to an extraordinary sound. Now she's the voice of a generation -- and for a good cause. The ambassador for the U.N. World Food Programme and mom of two speaks out about why children should never go hungry. She also opens up about domestic abuse and how she found strength in song.
The 35-year-old singer-songwriter doesn't just use her outsize talent to project lyrics or to coach hopefuls on The Voice, NBC's Emmy-winning singing competition. She also fires up her vocal cords to inspire others to get involved with good causes, like stamping out world hunger.
As spokeswoman for Yum! Brands World Hunger Relief and ambassador against hunger for the World Food Programme (WFP), Aguilera makes public service announcements, urges people to be part of the solution -- donate just $1 to WFP and you'll feed four children -- and visits countries like Haiti, Ecuador, and Rwanda to help deliver food to women and children.
Trekking to remote areas of developing countries can be gut-wrenching, Aguilera says. "In the refugee camps in particular, the stories that you hear -- the escapes and the children that sometimes get left behind. In some of these remote places, women have multiple children and no means to feed them. I've even seen cases where they have to decide which one goes hungry. That's just not a way that anybody should live."
For the mother of two -- her son Max Bratman is 8, daughter Summer Rain Rutler is 1 -- seeing women and children struggle strikes a nerve. "We worry about our children having good opportunities at school, we worry about making sure they're passionate in life, that they have a fire and have goals for themselves. One of the last things we think about is, 'Where is their next meal coming from?'" Aguilera says.
Nearly 800 million people struggle with hunger every day. Many are children. Without proper nutrition, a child is more likely to have poor health and problems with brain development.
"As adults, they're at a higher risk of diabetes and heart disease," says Sarah Jane Schwarzenberg, MD, an executive medical director at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital. The stress of being hungry can lead to anxiety and depression. "There's even some hint that people who have food insecurity have a higher risk of suicide," Schwarzenberg says.
Aguilera believes world hunger is a solvable problem. So does WFP. It's striving for zero global hunger by 2030. "Two-hundred million people across the world have been lifted out of hunger," says Ertharin Cousin, WFP's executive director. Zero hunger is absolutely achievable, she says, but requires more momentum. (You can join the effort by visiting HungertoHope.com or texting "WHR" to 90999.)
Strength in Song
Aguilera is also outspoken in her music, using her lyrics to shed light on social issues and to inspire people to find strength. In "I'm OK" and "Oh Mother," she alludes to domestic violence, an issue she knows personally. Aguilera glows with confidence today, but she wasn't always so self-assured. She has been through her share of dark times.
When she was a child, her father abused her mother. Domestic violence was happening all around her, she says, in friends' families and communities where she lived. Her home environment felt unsafe and chaotic. Music became her haven. "That was my escape, my form of relief," she says.
It was also a path to empowerment. "It became my dream to get myself out of a situation and not repeat the same steps that my mom did -- in marrying a man, relying on that to be a happy ending, and having the fairy tale," she says. "I wanted to be a strong woman and never have to rely on a man for that strength and that confidence."
At 12, Aguilera was on her way. First she nabbed a big win on the TV talent competition Star Search. Then she scored a role on Disney Channel's The All New Mickey Mouse Club. Disney used her song "Reflection" for the movie Mulan. Soon after, she landed a record deal with RCA.
But she found the music industry a challenge. She struggled to feel comfortable in her skin, find her identity, and assert herself. As she rose through the ranks, she grappled with issues of sexism and gender inequality, often finding herself in a sea of older men, some of whom tried to take advantage of her behind closed doors. "There were definitely times where I felt very uncomfortable in certain situations with older men," she says. "You have to learn very quickly to set your boundaries and your standards."
The experience was disheartening for Aguilera, who says she doesn't like to "stand aside and just let a man dictate what we should wear, how we should speak, have an opinion but not too much of an opinion, be sexy but not too sexy." But it was also during these years that she found her voice.
In the beginning, Aguilera went along with what her management and record label wanted. Her first album, Christina Aguilera, released in 1999, was a reflection of their ideas, not hers. But with hit songs like "Genie in a Bottle" and "What a Girl Wants," it quickly climbed to the top of the charts, making Aguilera a breakout star.
She was grateful for the success, but was at a crossroads. The bubblegum pop of her debut album wasn't the music she wanted to make. She longed for songs that resonated with her personally, like the powerful "Beautiful." "I had to make the choice. Do I venture away from straight cookie-cutter pop music and listening to exactly what my label wants to do and emulate what's popular? Or do I go against the grain and make a record that speaks to me?"
She chose the latter. For her album Stripped, she dove headfirst into music that spoke to another side of her -- less pop, more edge. She also revealed a new look, morphing from girl next door to provocative, sultry "Xtina." Whether the album sold 1 or 1 million copies didn't matter, she says, because she was doing it for herself.
To say it worked out well is an understatement. Stripped led to a Grammy award and catapulted her to international stardom. Next came Back to Basics, which debuted at No. 1. She went on to win five Grammys, sell 43 million albums, and help launch The Voice.
Aguilera credits her success to tapping into her inner strength, even in hard times. "It's an innate fight-or-flight mode, really, that I think starts when you're young," she says. "You're either going to thrive from a really hard situation or a tough upbringing, or you're going to crumble from it."
She has consistently chosen fight over flight in her life and career. Facing her turbulent childhood created a platform to speak out about domestic abuse. Confronting the challenges of the music industry empowered her to express herself.
"You have to embrace darkness in order to find your light," she says. "With your darkness come your insecurities and fears and some really sad moments, but it's OK to cry to get through those hard times."
Embracing Her Passion
Aguilera is amped up about releasing a new album this year, and she lives with her kids and her fiancé, Matthew Rutler, in Beverly Hills. She says she and Rutler have a stable, secure relationship, and she's proud she didn't repeat the cycle she grew up with.
They have a lot of fun as a family, she says, like monthly visits to Disneyland. (Yes, monthly.) When there's downtime, she likes to whip out her Wii U or thumb through Pinterest. She also basks in moments when she can "just be a mom in sweatpants, cozy and relaxing together."
Aguilera and Rutler haven't penciled "wedding" onto their calendars just yet. "I'll be honest -- music right now is so important to me. I have incredible things bubbling and boiling in the creative pots. It's an exciting time for me," she says, adding that she's adamant about finishing her album first. So the wedding festivities will wait.
Pursuing her music also helps Aguilera teach Max and Summer to embrace themselves and their passions. "It's important to me to show my kids hard work and that Mommy has a passion. Music is my passion. This is my love, this is my expression," she says. "Hopefully it will inspire them to be expressive -- and to use their own voices."
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