She’s the rock and pop princess who went against the grain in the early 1990s grunge era with her post-punk band 'No Doubt' and became a global megastar. With three solo albums, a wealth of awards, her own fashion label, a Hollywood career and millions in the bank, the blonde bombshell has spent thirty years at the top. As Gwen Stefani heads towards her fifties, she shows no signs of slowing down.
Gwen Renee Stefani was born in the city of Fullerton in Orange County, California. Considering what she would grow up to become, it was rather apt for her to be born there, as Fullerton is considered to be the birthplace of the electric guitar.
Gwen was named after an air stewardess character in the novel Airport. Her middle name was taken from the Four Tops smash hit, ‘Walk Away Renee’. One of four children, Stefani was encouraged from a very early age to take an interest in music, music composition and musical instruments. Her father Dennis was a salesman for keyboard maker Yamaha and had a keen interest in music, and he wanted his children to grow up to share his interest.
Dennis and his wife Patti were big fans of folk music, and Gwen and her siblings grew up listening to the music of Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Emmylou Harris and Joan Baez. With plenty of encouragement from their loving parents, both Stefani and her brother Eric took a keen interest in music from a very early age, with her brother eager to learn how to play the keyboards his father sold.
Gwen attended Loara High School in Anaheim, California. Gwen struggled with dyslexia, but found strength through music. It was while attending high school that she made her first public performance at a school talent show, taking to the stage – and wowing the audience – with a rendition of ‘I Have Confidence’ from the musical, The Sound of Music.
After graduating from high school, Stefani enrolled at the nearby Fullerton College. After graduating from there, she attended California State University. Her older brother was already a student at the university and in 1986 he invited his feisty young sister to join the band for which he was the keyboard player. That band was No Doubt.
By this time, Eric had developed an interest in 2-Tone music by bands such as The Selecter, Madness and The Specials. This music would have a heavy influence on the young band, and their growing fan-base in California lapped it up. Playing gigs at local colleges, as well as music venues such as The Whisky, The Roxy and Fender’s Grand Ballroom, No Doubt were soon holding their own against local bands such as Fishbone, The Untouchables and Red Hot Chili Peppers.
In 1990, music impresario Tony Ferguson – of the newly-formed Interscope Records – attended one of No Doubt’s gigs and was mightily impressed with the way the crowd went wild for the stage-diving antics and electrifying presence of the band’s attractive lead singer, Gwen.
Ferguson signed the band in 1991. However, their debut album, the self-titled No Doubt, failed to sell many copies thanks to worldwide attention turning to the city of Seattle and a fresh new sound called ‘grunge’ that was being spearheaded by bands such as Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden.
With a sound more influenced by ska, reggae and punk than grunge’s 1970s heavy rock roots, it seemed No Doubt was out of step with the times. Could the young band make it in an era where grunge was bulldozing all before it?
Despite the failure of their first album and a financially ruinous supporting tour, No Doubt plowed on with their second album, The Beacon Street Collection. Relations between the band and Interscope were already on shaky ground thanks to the failure of No Doubt’s debut album, and things soon deteriorated to the point that Stefani’s brother Eric left the bad to concentrate on his interests in animation. He would go on to work on the highly successful US animated series, The Simpsons.
Despite these early teething troubles, No Doubt soldiered on and their perseverance finally paid off with the release of their third album, 1995’s Tragic Kingdom. Stefani offered a refreshing new alternative to the female grunge artists of the time such as Courtney Love and Kat Bjelland, with a beguiling post-punk mixture of Marylin Monroe and Debbie Harry from the ’80s band Blondie. Stefani gave off an air of raw attitude, confidence, sass and sex appeal which quickly attracted a growing fan-base who helped to make No Doubt’s third album a huge success.
Tragic Kingdom spawned some of the band’s biggest hit singles. The first, ‘Just A Girl’, reached number 23 on the Billboard Hot 100. The second, ‘Spiderwebs’, reached number 11. The third, the rock ballad ‘Don’t Speak’, reached number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 Airplay and stayed at that position for 16 weeks. No Doubt had well and truly arrived and, as of 2014, Tragic Kingdom has sold more than 16 million copies around the world.
No Doubt continued to enjoy commercial success into the 2000s. For instance, two of the singles from their 2001 reggae-inspired album Rock Steady – ‘Hey Baby’ and ‘Underneath It All’ – both received Grammy awards.
In 2004, the band went on hiatus so its members could concentrate on solo projects. This would hail the start of Stefani’s solo career.
In 2004 Stefani released her first solo album Love. Angel. Music. Baby. The album was relatively well received by the public, but failed to impress the critics who thought the singer was playing it safe. The album contained many collaborations with the likes of Linda Perry, Andre 3000, The Neptunes and New Order, with the single ‘Hollaback Girl’ reaching number one in the US and Australia. ‘Hollaback Girl’ was also the first ever US download to sell over a million copies.
Stefani also wanted to prove there were more strings to her bow than just singing and songwriting, and in 2004 she began auditioning for movie roles. She auditioned for the lead role in the movie Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but failed to land the part that would eventually go to Angelina Jolie. Luckily, Hollywood maverick Martin Scorsese had spotted her potential and cast her as blonde bombshell Jean Harlow in the Leonardo DiCaprio-starring Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator. Her performance received generally positive reviews.
2006 saw the release of Stefani’s second solo album. The Sweet Escape was another collaborative effort, with help from the likes of Keane, Tim Rice-Oxley and The Neptunes. The album was much more pop and dance oriented than her first solo album, which disappointed fans and critics alike. The single ‘Sweet Escape’ was the most successful of the five singles released from the album, reaching number 2 in both the US and the UK.
Following her second solo albums’ modest success, Stefani returned to familiar territory and rejoined No Doubt. Speaking of her solo career in 2011, she said, “That was a moment in time. It went on a little longer than we all thought it would, because it was inspired and you have to go with wherever you’re at in that time in your life. But everything works out how it should.”
Stefani toured and performed with No Doubt from 2008-2013. They released their new album Push and Shove in 2012 to middling reviews. They also appeared as guest mentors on the UK version of The X Factor.
Since 2014, Stefani has again branched out from her No Doubt home base. In April of that year she replaced Christina Aguilera as the new judge on the seventh season of The Voice. She also collaborated with Calvin Harris for his 2015 album Motion.
In the three years since debuting on The Voice, Stefani has released a third solo album with the help of hot property Pharrell Williams, as well as branching out into fashion design. Still recording, touring, acting and designing, as the decade draws to a close, it looks like there’s no stopping this 47-year-old pop and rock powerhouse.
Stefani emerged on the music scene just as grunge began its juggernaut rise to the top of the early ‘90s music scene. Never a grunge band, No Doubt were influenced by the music of ska, punk and reggae bands than they were by 1970s, guitar-heavy rock. Stefani modelled herself on her musical heroine, Debbie Harry. This singled her out from other female artists of the time such as the grungy Courtney Love. Fans were bowled over by her blonde bombshell looks and fizzing, frenetic onstage persona.
At a time when other female singers were covering themselves up in unflattering long-sleeved T-shirts and baggy pants, with heroin chic make-up and messy hair, Stefani’s platinum blonde hair, corsets, thigh high boots oozed sex appeal that harked back to a very different era and fans, in particular male ones, couldn’t get enough of her.
Stefani’s eclectic stage outfits led her to develop a keen interest in fashion. The owner of her own label, L.A.M.B., she has been heavily influenced by the fashions of Jamaica, Guatemala and Japan. Her clothing range has fed the public perception of her as a woman with an eye for business, as well as a woman with a broad range of tastes and interests.
As well as being known as a renowned singer-songwriter, actress and fashion designer, Stefani is also known for her charity work, particularly in the area of disaster relief. She has been involved with a series of charity events and fundraisers, in particular hosting one in her Beverley Hills Home alongside then First Lady Michelle Obama in 2012.
After nearly thirty years in the business, her carefully-cultivated image has never really been tarnished. As a solo performer, she has won countless awards including a Grammy, an American Music Award, four MTV Video Music Awards, a Brit award and two Billboard Music Awards. In 2012, she was named as the thirteenth greatest women in music out of a list of 100.
As far as her public image is concerned, Stefani is living proof that it’s possible to play the fame game without it consuming her, staying on the right side of fans and critics while keeping both feet firmly planted on the ground.
Unlike so many other celebrities, Stefani’s personal life has not followed the familiar pattern of drug abuse, alcoholism, public scandal, break-ups, endless marriages and bitter divorces.
Shortly after joining No Doubt, the singer began dating Tony Kanal, the band’s bassist. Their relationship began to blossom halfway through 1987 when Stefani tried kissing Kanal while they were out walking one day. At first Kanal tried to resist the attractive young eighteen-year-old, but he eventually gave in.
At first Kanal had to deny he was in a relationship with Stefani to the rest of their bandmates. “It was pretty much an unspoken rule that nobody dates Gwen,” he later said. “Almost like a bunch of brothers and our sister.”
The pair were together for nearly eight years. Kanal eventually ended the relationship, leaving Stefani devastated. Some her most deeply personal songs were inspired by her break up from Kanal, and they appeared on the group’s third album, Tragic Kingdom, most notably ‘Don’t Speak’, but also ‘Hey You!’ and ‘Sunday Morning’.
Following her break up with Kanal, No Doubt went on a nationwide tour with the Goo Goo Dolls, supporting the rock band Bush. Stefani fell for the band’s lead vocalist and guitarist, Gavin Rossdale, and the two began dating.
Rossdale and Stefani tied the knot on 14th September 2002 at a lavish ceremony in St. Paul’s, Covent Garden in London. A further ceremony followed a week later in Los Angeles.
Stefani and Rossdale went on to have three children together, Kingston James McGregor, Zuma Nesta Rock and Apollo Bowie Flynn. The family seemed a happy one, and kept mostly out of the limelight and the gossip columns.
Alas, it was not to last, and in 2015 Rossdale and Stefani announced they had split. In April the following year they formally divorced, with Stefani citing ‘irreconcilable differences’. Since then, Stefani has been dating country music singer and her The Voice co-star, Blake Shelton.
- Gwen Stefani & No Doubt: A Simple Kind Of Life by Jeff Apter
Written by: Ben Perry