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Jeffrey Bender.
Asian pop star Coco Lee.

'Everyone Remembers a Name Like Coco'
Exclusive interview with Asian pop star Coco Lee

November 20, 2000
Web posted at 7:10 p.m. Hong Kong time, 6:10 a.m. EDT

Jin Coco Lee, 25, was born in Hong Kong, raised in San Francisco and now lives in Taiwan. She is the first Asian pop star to make a splash in the U.S. She spoke recently to TIME Asia's entertainment reporter Stephen Short and Kate Drake. Edited excerpts:

TIME: How did you come about your name?
[My sister] Nancy gave me the idea. Her favorite perfume was Coco Chanel, and we both thought it was a really cute name. Everyone remembers a name like that.

TIME: Is Coco Lee an anarchist, rebel, or what?
I'm sporty, active, bubbly, I like to make people laugh...I'm the jokester. But I'm also very traditional. My mom was very strict when I was growing up. I could not talk to boys until I was 18. I had to study and work hard.

TIME: Why do people call you a Taiwanese pop star? Do you like it?
I've been in Taiwan almost six years now, but I was not born there. I don't speak the local language, though I learnt Chinese about six years ago. I'm proud of my roots. There are not many Asians in the music industry so it's important for me to tell people where I'm from.

TIME: Who or what inspires you?
I listen to Santana, Brian McKnight, Mary J. Blige...people that I think are hot. I listen to musical arrangements meticulously. But the mixing and arrangements in Asia are not that good. And I don't want to listen to something I can't learn from.

TIME: Are you trying to be Asia's first black female?
I have received huge support from the African American community. The rappers in the L.A. studios loved me. They're like, "My mother loves you, my cousin likes you, my whole family likes you." They went nuts. They had to struggle to get in the industry, so we had common bonds.

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TIME: Your fan base is black in the U.S., too?
I'm influenced by Whitney Houston, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Brian McKnight, so there's going to be some of that. They were my favorite singers when I was growing up. I worked with Macy Gray's U.S. songwriter Darryl Swann and he said, "Coco, you've got some soul." I'm like, "Some?" And he's like, "Coming from a brother, if I say you've got soul, trust me girl, you've got soul." That was nice.

TIME: When is your next English album?
Maybe March next year. I'm looking for the greatest songwriters in Asia. I'm keeping my eyes open.

TIME: Someone comes up to you and says you've got to do a duet with Britney [Spears] or Christina [Aguilera]. Who do you pick?
Definitely Christina. She's got amazing vocal skills, and she can really dance. I met Britney once but we never got to talk. She's very petite and has a very friendly face. But I was really surprised. I thought she was much taller.

TIME: What do you do for pleasure? How do you relax?
I hang out with friends. Most of them are in the Internet business. None are in showbiz.

TIME: Are they richer than you?
A couple of them may be. I'm very casual when I go out. I don't even bring a wallet. I don't even have a credit card. I'm not a businessperson. I have no sense of money. My mom does everything for me. She makes all my decisions for me, and even buys my clothes. She's very protective.

TIME: Do you watch what you eat?
I believe you should eat whatever you like. I have maybe one burger a week. I have to watch my throat so I don't do spicy food, drink or smoke.

TIME: Have you had any romance in your life. Is there a boyfriend?
Yeah, I did have one. But it is so difficult to have a boyfriend and work at the same time. They aren't always understanding.

TIME: Are there any TV shows you'd like to star in? Ally McBeal, perhaps?
Not Ally, but I'd love to be in "Friends" or "Married with Children." If I ever went into movies or acting, I'd definitely want to be someone like Meg Ryan. She's my favorite. And she's dating the guy I really love, too. Russell Crowe. He's a real ladies man. I saw him in "The Insider" and "LA Confidential" and I thought, "My God, this guy's good looking."

TIME: I believe you like George Michael. Would you ever ring him up and suggest working together?
Yes, I'd love to. But he'd be like, "Coco what? Coco who?" I could call Ricky Martin: "Hey Ricky?"

TIME: You two are buddies, aren't you? [Coco performed at his recent concert in Hong Kong.]
We're not. I'd love that, but we're not. He's a really nice guy and very genuine. He's really reserved, too. There are a lot of similarities between us.

TIME: What are your views on the whole Napster thing? Is it a threat to artists?
The biggest users [of Napster] are college kids because they don't have the money to buy hundreds of CD's. But Napster does lower the quality of music. I could write lousy music and people would download it. As artists we spend a lot of time and creativity [creating music]Šwe sweat blood. These people take that away. It's a problem for many artists. Hopefully, people who enjoy an artist download only a song or two and not the whole CD. Or make a copy and sell it to someone else. That's piracy.

TIME: How did you look the first time you did a TV show?
Like the Spice Girls before they were the Spice Girls. Little tank top, a Versace thing, super-short shorts and funky hair -- that was unique.

TIME: You must have been chuffed to bits scoring "Runaway Bride" [the theme song for Richard Gere and Julia Robert's romantic comedy of the same name]?
That was fate. The guy in charge of soundtrack for Columbia heard this song playing, took it to his boss, and they picked it. It was the first time that I saw my name in a truly international context. I was so excited about the release date of the soundtrack. I was at the record store, just like a little girl, and when people picked it up I wanted to say, "hey thatıs me."

TIME: Do you ever want to go up to people if they're listening to your music in a store and say, "hey, that's me singing?"
Not in Asia because I'd feel that I'm showing off. But I would in the U.S. because people don't know who I am.

TIME: Are you going to be very sad if you don't make it in the U.S., like Robbie Williams, Kylie Minogue?
It's important that the record company doesn't give up on me. It's up to them. I always try to do my best.

TIME: Do your friends in Taiwan make fun of you and your music?
They love my music, because if you listen to Chinese music, it's so commercial. No one tries to be daring. They always follow the format and I hate that. It's more important to break new ground.

TIME: Does it worry you that people doctor pictures of you, nude, on the Internet?
It's so uncontrollable. There are some sites that say I have a new boyfriend every night. I guess fans believe what they want to. My fans are pretty devoted, it's like a protective bond.

TIME: The press in Hong Kong always gives you a hard time.
I think that's because I'm never in Hong Kong and people don't understand me or know me, so they have to make up things.

TIME: Do you think you're very sexy?
No. I think I'm cute, but not drop-dead gorgeous. My mom thinks I have a nice shape, and I don't mind wearing clothes to show my body. Women's curves are a beautiful thing, but I'm not trying to sell sex. I'm selling my music. I'm very open and spontaneous on stage -- I like my performances to be dynamic -- but I'm not gonna take off my clothes or anything like that. When I'm singing I don't care what I look like.

TIME: What's your favorite physical feature?
Well, my mom likes my arse. My behind. My bon bons.

TIME: Do you agree?
Men tell me the small of my back is beautiful. But I like my smile.

TIME: What's your worst?
My nose. It's so insulting when people say I've had a nose job." I mean, Jesus, if that's the case, the surgeon really made a mistake. Everyone else in my family has a good one. I hate my forehead too. Gee, I could just complain all day.

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