Utada Hikaru has a hidden life. She appears to be an ordinary American college student. Last fall she attended classes by day, hung out with friends by night, and like most of her fellow Columbia University freshmen, she hasn't settled on a major yet. But there were rumors about her among the students during orientation week--stories that were hard to believe. "Most of my friends know the truth," says Hikaru. "Even before the first day of school, I was talking to this friend who was going to Columbia also, and he told me, 'People all know you're coming.' And I go, 'What do you mean?' And he said, 'Well, all the Asian kids know, but even the non-Asian students have heard something about the Japanese Britney Spears coming to their school.'"
She's virtually unknown in the U.S., but Hikaru, 18, is Japan's biggest pop star. The Japanese media sing her praises: BILINGUAL STRAIGHT-A STUDENT! and THE DIVA OF THE HEISEI PERIOD! The Japanese public devours her music: her debut CD, First Love (1999), sold more than 9.5 million copies, making it the best-selling album in Japanese history. Her new CD, Distance, is selling just as fast. While other Japanese pop divas are content to sing throwaway tunes in baby-girl tones, Hikaru, who says that growing up she used to go to sleep to Metallica and wake up to Pearl Jam, performs songs that draw from R. and B., rap and even rock. During a recent MTV Unplugged concert, she surprised fans with a rendition of the Irish rock band U2's song With or Without You. Except for such occasional covers, Hikaru writes almost all her own material, combining light melodies and strong grooves. Her lyrics, though mostly about adolescent angst, can be intriguingly off center. "Our last kiss/Tasted like cigarettes," she sings on First Love.
Although the press has compared Hikaru to Spears, the two are sharply different. First, there's the issue of clothes. Unlike Britney, Hikaru keeps hers on. "I'm not like a gorgeous bombshell or anything like that," she says modestly. "It was just always my music at the front." Mobbed in Japan, she relishes anonymity in America. "I can never really enjoy being famous," she says. "So when I can just take a walk and go grocery shopping in New York, it takes a huge load off my back and I feel great. I feel human again, almost."
Hikaru was born in New York City but raised part-time in Tokyo. "When people ask me exactly how much time I spend in each country, I always tell them I have no idea," she says. "Because my parents have taken me back and forth ever since I was a baby." Her father Teruzane Utada is a producer and musician who now runs her management company. Her mother Keiko Fuji was a popular enka (Japanese ballad singer) in the 1970s who broke her fans' hearts by giving up her career and moving to the U.S. to find a little peace. ("I don't sing anymore," is all Fuji says now, smiling.) Hikaru says she got her start when she followed her parents into the studio and began to make recordings around age seven. ("No, younger!" shouts her father from nearby.) Like her mother, Hikaru plans to retire young--as early as 28--and perhaps pursue neuroscience. "I kind of see myself in a white coat in a lab, working till late evening in front of test tubes," she says. It's hard to imagine that Spears has a similar vision of her future.