A year ago, Ke$ha Sebert was a woman on a mission: The popster was determined to overcome her lifelong fear of ghosts, so she consulted the Internet, located every haunted hotel she could, and mapped out a spectral cross-country trip for herself. "And they were all spooky and creepy," she bubbles, giddily. "But there was one in San Antonio that I know was real — it was an old whorehouse, and this one ghost whore haunts one specific bedroom there. So of course, I stayed there. And in the middle of the night, I felt her touch my whole body as the room got really cold, and I woke up and she was at the foot of the bed, just standing there."
"But I wasn't scared," swears Ke$ha, who performs sans surname. "I felt bad for her. So there was nothing scary about it. I was sad."
The story illustrates the critical argument that's dogged the 23-year-old diva ever since her first single "TiK ToK" topped charts in 11 countries last winter, paving the way for her Animal debut album to bow in at No. 1: Is Ke$ha for real? Her music brazenly trumpets a libidinous, hard-partying lifestyle, with the oft-vocodered artist rap-crooning conversational trash-talking lyrics over sugary dance-pop melodies and backbeats. On her recent Saturday Night Live appearance, she came out onstage in a space suit for "TiK ToK," then returned to perform her latest single "Your Love Is My Drug" under black lights in phosphorescent body paint. All to a general 'WTF?!' consensus around Monday morning water coolers.
Is the act all a careful calculation? Not as much as Katy Perry's. Truth is, Ke$ha was raised by a singer/songwriter mom, Pebe Sebert, who encouraged her to follow her muse from a young age. In person, she's a genuinely likable eccentric, who was still struggling to get by even after music Svengali Dr. Luke discovered her at 18. It's why she added a dollar sign to her name, she says — she found it both funny and ironic that her voice was featured on "Right Round," Flo Rida's worldwide 2009 hit, "when I literally didn't have enough money to go out to a real restaurant and eat. I didn't even have a car."
She holds up her hand to reveal the same '$' tattooed between her thumb and forefinger.
"I have it there because that's where me and all my friends would shake the salt and take our $1 shots of tequila together, because me and my friends were all beyond broke," she recalls. "That was my life for the longest time — each day for four years, I'd walk to this restaurant where — if you bought a $1 shot — you got three tacos, free peanuts and a beer. And if all your friends are there? What's better than that? So this record, I wrote everything on it, and I had fun with it. And I wanna be a ringleader in the battle of people not taking themselves so seriously."
Animal does credit some co-writers — top-flight hitmakers like Max Martin and Benny Blanco. But in the end, it's definitely Ke$ha's campy, confident show, one that reflects the most important lesson her mom taught her: "Don't ever take no for an answer, with anything," says Ke$ha. "People always told me 'No, no, no — you're not gonna be a pop star, there's no way.' And I'm like 'Yeah? Watch me!' The answer is never no."