The Empress of Pop

PETER STEINHAUER FOR TIME

Japanese pop superstar Ayumi Hamasaki

"Good. Beautiful." the photographer throws a thumbs-up from atop a ladder, and Ayumi Hamasaki swings her legs off her perch on a raised horizontal mirror. An assistant hurries over with a pair of furry mules. Hamasaki slides into them and shuffles quickly to the computer monitor. The 20 photo assistants, stylists, makeup artists and record-label entourage at the shoot now gathering behind her look on in silence while Hamasaki leans forward, concentrating on the digital images of herself flickering on the screen. Dressed in a futuristic black kimono over scuffed jeans, her face painted like a cross between a geisha and...