Between Pop-Stardom and Parenthood, Katy Perry Still Finds Time to Empower Others

Photographs by Lauren Dukoff for Variety

For the 2021 Power of Women issue, Variety spoke with several women in the entertainment industry who are using their voices to benefit worthy causes. For more, click here.

In the Katy Perry canon, which, over 13 years, goes 34 singles deep — nine of them No. 1s — the theme of empowerment dates back to her earliest hit, 2008’s “I Kissed a Girl,” where she proclaims unapologetically that she “liked it.” Her most inspiring song? “It’s a combination of ‘Roar’ and ‘Firework,’” Perry muses. “Neither will ever be left off the set. It’s going to start with one and end with the other.”

Lazy loaded image
Lauren Dukoff for Variety

Indeed, anyone looking to tap into such senses as pride and belonging, confidence and determination, celebration and love, would be immediately satiated at a Perry concert, or her upcoming Las Vegas residency, scheduled to open Dec. 29 at Resorts World. But the 36-year-old global name is equally determined to impact locally, even one-on-one. It’s among the reasons Perry joined “American Idol” as a judge in 2018, the same year she, along with her older sister Angela, launched the Firework Foundation to reach underserved communities through the arts.

“The arts opened my eyes, heart and mind,” says Perry. “Whether it’s choreography, design, songwriting, [it’s about being] able to lift up these kids and help them find their value, self-worth and self-respect.”

The foundation, which counts among its partner organizations the Boys & Girls Clubs of Los Angeles, hosts a summer Camp Firework program for kids in sixth to eighth grades that Perry herself attends. Keeping it going during “all of this COVID craziness” hasn’t been easy, but the efforts are needed. Says Perry: “It’s such an important, intense emotional time where you’re discovering your identity. Who do I want to be? What do I want to do in this world?…I went to camp, which I loved. Away from my family, I could find my individuality — taking little risks, trying new things, broadening my perspective and, therefore, growing.”

Perry is no stranger to philanthropy, having given her time to such causes as the Make-A-Wish Foundation and UNICEF, where she’s a Goodwill Ambassador. She’s advocated for LGBTQ equality and battled bullying and animal cruelty. For the past four election cycles, Perry has also campaigned for Democratic candidates. This year, she traveled to Washington, D.C., to sing at Joe Biden’s inauguration celebration, bringing the proverbial house down with an impassioned rendition of, you guessed it, “Firework.”

Now parent (with fiancé Orlando Bloom) to 1-year-old daughter Daisy, Perry finds her interest in the future of this country taking on increased urgency. As the California native recounts of her Jan. 20 bow in front of the Lincoln Memorial: “I thought of [Daisy] and when she’s 36, what’s this world going to look like? And could I have helped in any capacity with the gifts I’ve been given?”

Perry says climate change is her “No. 1 issue,” with fighting antiabortion legislation not far behind. The latter speaks to the importance of women supporting other women. “If we don’t, who will? Not Texas,” she chides.

Such topics are not easy to broach with her parents, who are Pentecostal pastors and raised Perry in a strict religious home. “My family is a continual opportunity to practice patience, to learn and to listen,” she says diplomatically. “We have extremely different points of views when it comes to politics, but change starts within. It’s really about who you can touch in your immediate circle, and that has a ripple effect.”

Still, one might be surprised to learn that Perry’s grandmother worked as a seamstress for showgirls in the golden age of Vegas (“She used to sew pockets into their G-strings to hold their wedding rings,” Perry details), and that her aunt was a dancer at the Folies Bergère topless revue, held in the Stardust Hotel, which was demolished to make way for today’s Resorts World. All of which suggests a pre-ordained destiny. “I’ve got some blood there,” Perry says.

Asked to describe the production of her residency, called “Play,” Perry offers three words: “Pop on ’roids.” Those who’ve attended her four previous tours, or watched Perry’s Super Bowl halftime show performance in 2015 (the most-viewed in NFL history), would know to expect colorful outfits and outrageous motifs. But Vegas, she promises, is on another level. To wit: When asked how many costume changes she’ll have, she responds: “Does that include coats and capes?”

“It is literally larger than life,” Perry continues. “Think: Super Bowl, but supersized. … This isn’t the next tour, next record, next era. This is an accumulation of everything. It’s probably the weirdest [show] I’ve ever done. Its humor is dark. It’s a little wrong — but a good wrong.”

More of Variety‘s interview with Power of Women honoree Katy Perry below:

Who is the woman that’s had the most influence on you?

My sister Angela, who is a couple of years older than I am. She always had the best ethics and character — and values are so important to me. She has a family of her own, and she always puts her family first, no matter what. And she encouraged me to follow through with starting the Firework Foundation, and helped me organize it and all the logistics as my co-creator on something that I’m really passionate about.

Did you have exposure to arts education yourself growing up?

I had some exposure through school but not a lot. I had singing lessons. I went down the street to my neighbor and learned how to play guitar with him. What was really influential for me at that time is: I went to camp, which I loved. Even though it was like Christian camp, it was still a real way to find my voice and grow up and think about what I wanted to do with my future.

In your work with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, you’ve said that the kids you meet “just want somebody to see them.” What did you mean by that?

I think that, in general, we all just strive to be seen — to be loved and accepted — not because of the obstacles these kids are facing day in, day out, but as the wonderful child that they are who’s excited about music or whatever subject. They want to be accepted and not looked at any other way. That has been one of the biggest lessons of my life: learning that I am enough. So I hope that I bring that whenever I get to meet a child or fulfill a wish or in any situation in which I’m helping support those charities and those kids — helping them know that they are enough.

Do you think that having these experiences helped prepare you for motherhood, seeing that unconditional love between a parent and child in such difficult situations?

I never really truly knew about unconditional love. Obviously my mother has that for me, but I didn’t really experience it in the first-person until I had my child. And that was just a whole ‘nother level. I think I see through the eyes of a child — like my life and my art always feels playful — so it’s amazing to be able to relate to kids even in your deep 30s. And they still want to hang and find you the most fun adult in the room. That is just the biggest gift in the world. So I think, yes, some of my previous work with kids and being an entertainer to kids as well has prepared me for motherhood, but nothing can prepare you for that wave of unconditional love.

How did you celebrate Daisy’s first birthday on Aug. 26?

Orlando’s been gone so we are actually waiting to celebrate until he’s home. But just [having] quality time is the celebration for me. She’s going to have a birthday-like little thing outside with her girls, she has a couple of playmates, and an extra Mommy and Me class. We’re going to properly celebrate, but when your phone reminds you of one year ago today, you’re like, “Oh my god, having a child a legit, constant timestamp.” In the past, it’s all a blur, but then you have a child that’s growing before your very eyes and it’s just so profound.

Have you been playing music for her?

Yeah, she loves music, but I’m pretty specific with it. We are on a Stevie Wonder and Bill Withers kick right now. I play lots of old soul, lots of Supremes, lots of “shake shake shake Senora.” We go into different moods. We went to my gym the other day, and they were playing current pop music, and I was like, “Oh my god, this is the first time you’ve heard current music!”

What’s it been like seeing your mom as a grandmother?

Well, she calls herself “G.G.” We would never say grandmother. She loves Daisy. She’s such a great G.G. And now she’s got four grandkids, three girls and one boy. Each of my siblings has at least one. So she’s loving it, and she’s very present. It’s amazing. Children are such a gift. I get why people have been doing this for eons and keep doing it. I get why it’s so popular.

Do you think that the image that is projected of motherhood jibes at all with reality?

I think all of social media is skewed. It’s a big, ole, fat echo chamber and the real determinator is the algorithm. I really enjoyed my experience. I’m still 10 pounds bigger than when I started, but I’m not in a rush. It’s been a year. I’m more interested in her happiness and my happiness and mental health. Hormones are … pretty interesting.

As a new mom, those first six weeks are like, “What?” It’s just the biggest life change ever. You’re responsible for someone’s well-being that can’t even hold their head up. It’s a real shift, and you become not No. 1 on the call sheet. And it’s the best. Everything that’s supposed to fade away, fades away, and a balance comes in. I like to live more in the real world for now.

And you can always escape to Vegas! You describe the “Play” residency as “the Super Bowl but super-sized.” Tell us more. 

We had a lot of discussions about Vegas and the audience — what their vibe is, why they’re in Vegas. You are not on a religious retreat when you’re going to Vegas. Knowing your audience is something I really came to terms with. This isn’t the next tour, next record, next era. This is an accumulation of everything I’ve been able to offer and the hits and what the people like. People are there for their bachelorette. People are there for their birthday. People are there to party. People are there to be entertained and, I think, escape, which in some ways is so necessary for our stress. So, it’s going to be big, colorful and it will have a level of humor to it that is probably the weirdest I’ve ever done. … I feel like we have the most unique show that a musician has ever brought to Vegas.

It’s such a great gig. I’m doing 40 shows a year. I’m able to see my baby. I get to take her to school. I’m also going to be able to do a lot of other things. It’s not the world tour, which I will go on eventually again, but it’s great. I’ve actually never played on a stage that is the same stage, so I think that there’s going to be a lot of technical advantages.

This year in the 20th anniversary of “American Idol,” a show that used to be criticized for being a shortcut to fame that skips over the dues-paying development  that the music industry employed forever. In a TikTok world, that road to fame has gotten even shorter. How do you navigate that? 

It remains to be seen if those artists coming from that type of platform are going to be able to have long, worldwide careers. It’s not hating on TikTok. I think, to combine both of those worlds, you’re going to have the most opportunity to stand out because you have to really light yourself on fire these days. There’s just so much noise.

Now that you’ve served as a judge for four years, how have you seen the contestants change in that time? 

There is so much more confidence or like “fake it until you make it” now. There’s a lot more boldness. There’s a lot of passion and emotion. There’s a lot of artists They’re playing instruments. They’re writing their own songs. I don’t know if we’re seeing that more on “Idol” because we’re more drawn to it. But people watch and go, “Oh, this isn’t a karaoke show.”

Is being bold important?

Being bold is vital because there is a lot of noise out there, and you have to stick out in order to be heard. As my fiancé says, I am the squeaky wheel and therefore I get the grease.

In your career, you’ve sold over 48 million adjusted albums and your songs have accumulated 50 billion streams, yet you’ve never won a Grammy?

No, I’ve been nominated 13 times before. … To be honest, I always go by numbers, and they don’t lie. And I’m good with that. Everyone has an opinion and that’s wonderful, but numbers are numbers. Math is sacred.

What makes you feel powerful?

It’s not necessarily any of my achievements on paper. It’s just my day-to-day mental health and making sure that I’m happy.

Do you have plans for new music?

I’m always writing, so slowly but surely, I’m carving away at my next sculpture. It has so much love behind it. That’s the driving force, which is great because I feel like I’ve written a lot from the perspective of yearning and desire and sometimes not feeling like I’m enough. Or I write these empowering songs to help remind myself that I am. Now it’s like a blanket of love. I’m excited.

Katherine Song contributed to this story 

Styling: Tatiana Waterford/The Wall Group; Makeup: Michael Anthony/Forward Artists; Hair: Jesus Guerrero/The Wall Group; Manicure: Kim Truong/Star Touch Agency/The GelBottle; Cover: Suit: Altuzarra; Earrings: Schiaparelli; Ring: David Webb; Look 2 (black + white): Coat and belt: Schiaparelli