Shakira en la revista "You" (Scanners)

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One minute she's shaking her Latino hips, the next she’s talking education with world leaders in her campaign to change the lives of South American children… Liz Jones discovers what really puts the fire into Shakira's super-taut belly
'I think my image is one of being powerful, in control,' says Shakira
If you are blonde, pretty and a pop star, especially if you are a pop star who also knows how to belly dance, the chances are you’re stupid.  I went on tour with a very successful British girl band to Poland once and suggested, to help give my piece a bit of ‘colour’, that we spend the afternoon in Auschwitz. ‘Are there any shops?’ one of the popstrels asked hopefully. Shakira bucks that stereotype.

On the day we meet, she had given a lecture about her charity work the night before (she spoke eloquently in English, not her first language, with no notes) to the union at Oxford University. I ask whether she was nervous, following in the footsteps of great minds such as Stephen Hawking and Winston Churchill.

‘To be able to occupy the same stage which so many other relevant, historic, really exceptional people had occupied before me was quite a responsibility,’ she says, in
that scattergun way of talking that reminds me of Gisele, the Brazilian supermodel. ‘And Oxford is quite cosy, too. The building I spoke in, it’s amazing, really wonderful.’

As soon as we sit down backstage at a prerecording of the Christmas Day Top of the Pops – she is dressed in black jeans, a black jacket with pointy shoulders by Rick Owens, a gold vest – Shakira gets straight to the point. Unlike other stars – and Shakira is a huge star, the fourth richest woman in pop with an estimated £26 million fortune – she doesn’t want to talk about her new single or her new album, She Wolf, or her new video, in which she cavorts on all fours in a leotard (35 million views on YouTube to date), but about the plight of children in South America.
Shakira was the only Latin American artist to perform at Live 8 in Paris in 2005. Why does she think the West always focuses its efforts on Africa and Asia and ignores her homeland? ‘I think people need to know more about Latin America, to understand that it is the most unequal region in the world, where a few have everything and many people have nothing, that 35 million children in South America don’t have access to education of any kind, don’t receive any kind of stimulation, or nutrition,’ she says. 

I ask how she can square being sexy, wearing skimpy clothes, with championing children and women. ‘Of course I can square it!’ she says, indignant. ‘I think my image is one of being powerful, in control.’
Why, then, appear on the cover of FHM magazine? ‘I am totally pro-women. I know it’s critical to invest in girls’ education, because educating girls means educating future mothers, and the mothers are always the administrator of the household. Women reinvest their education. I know it because I’ve seen it, because I grew up in the developing world, because I see how education has a transformational power, you know: it changes the lives of so many people.

‘I read recently that one of the reasons China has been one of those new emerging economies is because 80 per cent of the people who own the factories are women, and they’re more efficient in their work, more detail-orientated, and more productive.’

Why is Latin America in such dire straits? ‘It has paid the consequences of years of colonialism, of conflict, but it is a continent with so much potential, so much to offer to the world. The children of Latin America are so lively. I mean, when you get to know them you know how joyful they are in spite of the extreme poverty in which many of them live. They still have so many dreams and aspirations. And it’s sad to see how our indifference can crush those dreams and never let these children’s full potential develop. That is such a waste.’

‘At first, my drive came from wanting to bring joy to my parents, then to the children of my country. Now
it is for me’

Shakira has even, remarkably, studied the synapses of the infant brain. ‘The ages of zero to six are the most vulnerable years in the human life, when the cognitive skills and the social and motor skills are developing. Human beings have a very small window to form their foundation for life. After six years old that window closes. The life of that human being will be determined.’
Where on earth does her conviction come from? She could, after all, have chosen to buy a mansion in Beverly Hills, and spend the rest of her life topping up her tan. ‘I suppose what moved me was when I was eight years old my dad, who worked as a jeweller, underwent bankruptcy. I saw him trying to feed a family of 11 people [she has eight siblings], working hard every day trying to figure out how to pay his debts and change his situation, but he never gave up on my education.

'He took me to see the children who lived in the local park, who had no shoes, who sniffed glue, to teach me that there were others who were worse off than I was. At first, my drive, my ambition came from wanting to bring my  parents joy. Then, it was about bringing the children of my country joy. Now, the debt has been paid. Now it is for me.’
Shakira in New York last year with her parents (left) and boyfriend Antonio de la Rua

Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoli grew up in Barranquilla on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Her father, William, is Lebanese, her mother, Nidya, Colombian. She started dancing at the age of four, entranced by a performance of belly dancing. Wanting to sing professionally, aged 13, she stalked a record producer who was staying in town, performed a cappella and secured a deal.

Her first two albums flopped, but by the time she recorded her third, Barefoot, in 1996, she had taken control. Having taught herself English, she then broke into the English-speaking market with her album Laundry Service in 2001 and Oral Fixation Vol 2 in 2005, which spawned the worldwide hit ‘Hips Don’t Lie’. Aged 18, she set up her Barefoot Foundation; so far, it has helped 30,000 children to get an education by building schools, providing teachers, and giving occupational training to parents.

Shakira famously took Gordon Brown to task on the problems of the developing world. Does he really care, or was he just keen to capitalise on a photo opportunity with someone young – she is 32 but at just 4ft 11in looks about 12 – and beautiful?

‘I met him once personally [at 11 Downing Street in March 2006] and we were on the phone once, and both times we discussed universal education. I know for a fact that he is one of those leaders who is committed to promoting universal education. That conversation was quite serious. I didn’t have a problem with him. You know, nine years ago there was a development goal. The leaders of the world committed to get all the children in the world enrolled and in school by the year 2015. Obviously we’re not going to get there, and it’s very sad to know that the promises haven’t been met. But, you know, we can’t wait any longer. The children of the world can’t wait any longer.’

Visiting the children at her Barefoot Foundation in Colombia, 2005
From left: With David Beckham at a children’s hospital fundraiser last year. At the 2006 Latin Grammy Awards – she won four
Performing with Stevie Wonder at President Obama's inauguration concert
Meeting Gordon Brown in 2006
Shakira was the only Latin American artist to sing at President Obama’s inauguration. ‘We had a brief conversation and he manifested how important it will be for him to get closer to Latin America, to understand all of our needs and challenges. We discussed early childhood development, briefly. He seems to understand very well.’

Shakira has long been involved with Antonio de la Rua, the handsome lawyer son of the former president of Argentina; in South America, they are as famous as Posh and Becks, only with more A-levels (Shakira went, incognito, to the University of California in Los Angeles in late summer of 2007 to study history).
They met almost a decade ago, and are now engaged – ‘He is my best friend, he and I started another foundation together a couple of years ago; he is not jealous about sharing me with the children’ – and she says she wants to start a family ‘some day’. She loves fashion, shoes, nice things. 
‘I had a conversation about early childhood development with President Obama’
‘I do like to enjoy things any normal girl my age enjoys: I jog in the park, watch really bad movies. I used to feel guilty – I am a Catholic girl after all – but today, the way I see it, shopping keeps the world rolling. A world where people don’t consume? The economy gets worse.’

She says that the only reason she can cope with the fame, the paparazzi, the gossip, the endless sniping (now her base is in Miami, she is often accused of selling out, ‘which could not be further from the truth – I go frequently to Colombia; I will be visiting some of our schools in the spring if you would like to come with me to see how we work’) because the money, and having a platform, offers ‘some hope to the children back home. I grew up understanding that in countries like mine when you are born poor, you are destined to die poor. I have seen how many children are recruited into the militia or into the drug-trafficking business at an early age because they are not safe at school, and I understood that I could do something about it even in a small way. No child wants to be a drug dealer or in the militia.’

I ask her to describe herself. ‘I am romantic. I am shy.’ She has been in therapy for many years. What prompted that, and what has she learnt about herself? ‘I have understood that no human being should be judged. I now understand how vulnerable we are, and that we should all cut ourselves some slack. I like to have a map of my psyche, it means I am closer to forgiving myself, I am more free. Freedom is happiness.’

I really like Shakira, and admire her. ‘Men are born good, then society corrupts them, I think Rousseau said. Children, what they want, what they dream about are true aspirations, pure dreams. They aspire to become good members of society, they aspire to become doctors, nurses.’ A pop star who quotes Rousseau rather than name-drops Gucci and Hermès. A woman after my own heart. 
Shakira’s album She Wolf is out now


One Response so far.

  1. Hola! la revista you se vende en España?gracias!!

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