When Adele takes the stage at the Hollywood Bowl next Sunday alongside Etta James, it will be a dreamgirl moment. More than her stint at the famed BRIT School, the performing-arts breeding ground that also spawned Amy Winehouse, Adele credits her prodigious talent to the high priestess of soul, whose albums she listened to religiously in her bedroom as a teen.
But style, not song, first hooked Adele (born Adele Laurie Blue Adkins). At 13, she spotted an Etta James CD in a bargain bin at the HMV store in her native London. She had never heard of James but was instantly smitten. "Her blond weave and her catty eyes and her curves and her tight gold shimmery dresses, and just that attitude in her face and figure -- I was like, 'Oh my God, to die!' "
Replace the blond weave with a brushed-out beehive and the shimmery dress with a baggy "jumper," as she calls her oversize sweater, and Adele could easily be describing herself: a soul diva for the MySpace generation. Her figure, hair and liquid-lined eyes confer a retro swing that her dressed-down cool simultaneously refutes. When she thrusts out her hand to show off the 16-diamond Tiffany ring she gave herself for her recent 21st birthday, it's clear she's patrolling the border between streetwise girl and glamorous woman.
Lounging in the courtyard of the Greenwich Hotel in Manhattan, a far cry from her South London roots, Adele sips an espresso and drags on a Marlboro Light, exhibiting a poise that belies her years -- more Beyonce than Britney. That outsized confidence is matched by outsized features: down-pillow lips, gem-green eyes, flame-red mane, rosebud complexion, heart-shaped dimpled chin. She exaggerates nature with plenty of nurture. "Oh, I love looking like a drag queen," she gushes. "Hair back-combed beyond belief, eyelashes galore, heavy contour. And I love my big, square, ghetto nails."
Her body is also big, if we're talking fashion-world metrics. Adele says she weighs 11 stone (154 pounds) and wears a British size 14 (size 12 in the U.S.) Does she feel pressure to slim down? "I've been the same since I was 15 and went on the contraceptive pill. I've got this far without looking like Britney Spears. I think I can go a bit further," she says with a satirical bite worthy of Jay McInerney.
Despite some to-be-expected snarkiness about it in the blogosphere, Adele's voluptuous figure is working in her favor. If a chance record-store encounter was her fashion awakening, her christening was landing a four-page spread in Vogue for this past May's annual "Shape" issue as the "curvy" icon. Topping that, Anna Wintour, Vogue's editor in chief, dressed her for the Grammys in a custom Barbara Tfank black satin dress belted to show off her waist, with a Stephen Russell 19th-century diamond brooch perched atop her generous decolletage.
Adele walked away from the night with two Grammys, and the event also placed her irretrievably in the fashion spotlight. Which is not entirely where she wants to be. "I'd much rather dress comfortable than become a trendsetter. I'd much rather be like this," she says, gesturing at today's outfit: a striped H&M baggy sweater over black American Apparel leggings, ankles peeking out of Chanel ballerina flats.
"I'm not that fussed about fashion," she says bluntly. But she's hardly ascetic. She raids the racks of Topshop, H&M and American Apparel for basics. She names Donna Karan, Moschino and Vivienne Westwood as beloved designers. Her London apartment is too tiny to accommodate her shoe and bag addiction -- Louis Vuitton, Gucci, tons of Manolo Blahnik and Chanel -- so she keeps stuff in storage at her dad's place. "I get bored of things after two months," she says. Yet she has an adult savvy about investment pieces, like her seven Chanel bags. "They'll be nice to have when I'm older," she says. "My favorite Chanel [a navy quilted-lambskin purse] I could probably still buy in 30 years."
Siren in waiting
Adele has come a long way since her early grunge days. More recently, she has shed kewpie bangs for the side-swept beehive that's now her signature -- "a neat housewifey one, not like Amy Winehouse's," she explains. Her go-to trapeze shapes are yielding to tailored silhouettes.
"When she walked into my studio, she reminded me of Lynn Redgrave in 'Georgy Girl,' " says Tfank, a Los Angeles designer who is creating Adele's outfit for the Hollywood Bowl. Tfank saw a '50s Hollywood siren waiting to be tapped. "She needs to show her body, not hide her body," the designer says. "She is more like Marilyn Monroe, who said, 'This is who I am.' "
For her part, Adele says, "Barbara brought out that thing of me wanting to dress up. People my age in the public eye -- a lot of them are, like, sluts." In the July issue of Nylon, she parades her newfound look: black, waist-defining dress with three-quarter length sleeves and knee-skimming skirt, black tights, vertiginous heels.