It was like a reality show. ''One day Ricky Martin was there with a hundred Latin journalists glued to him like a swarm,'' Nelly Furtado says, describing the scene at Miami's Hit Factory as she recorded her third album, Loose. ''The next day paparazzi were hiding in the bushes to get a glimpse of Paris Hilton making her record.'' It had all the ingredients of a Surreal Life casting call, but how did the Grammy-winning Canadian singer, who once shared the stage with Aretha Franklin and Mary J. Blige, end up amid these pop-cultural punchlines?
After a debut CD, 2000's Whoa, Nelly!, that sold 2 million copies and made her a worldwide star at 22, Furtado's follow-up, Folklore, failed to click with listeners and sold just 500,000 units. ''It had a lot of cynicism,'' she admits. ''People were wondering, 'Where's Nelly? Where's the butterflies?'''
Nearly three years later, there's still no sign of butterflies, but Furtado has emerged from her cocoon with the aptly named Loose (out June 20), a confidently sexy mix of party anthems and slow jams. As the first single, ''Promiscuous,'' and its follow-up ''Maneater'' (a song so hot a speaker caught fire while she was recording it) show, the 27-year-old isn't beholden to fans of her airy breakthrough hit, ''I'm Like a Bird.'' ''It's not about how big my audience is,'' she explains. ''It's about having an audience that understands what I'm doing. I'm not faithful to one style—I'm a musically promiscuous girl.'' And with the soaring popularity of ''Promiscuous'' and its steamy video featuring Justin Timberlake, Furtado is proving an old maxim: Getting around can do a career good.
''To me, Nelly's like Pat Benatar or Fleetwood Mac,'' says rapper-producer Timothy ''Timbaland'' Mosley, who co-piloted the making of Loose. ''She's timeless and can do different kinds of styles.'' That's been evident since Whoa, Nelly!'s quirky amalgam of pop, folk, bossa nova, and Latin sounds. Still, that album collected dust for several months before ''I'm Like a Bird'' took flight up the charts and thrust Furtado into the spotlight. ''It was like being thrown into a circus,'' she says of the experience. ''I matured really quickly. I think that's why you see a lot of young entertainers getting engaged or settling down they mature hyper-fast.''
Sure enough, Furtado soon fell in love with Jasper ''Lil' Jaz'' Gahunia, a DJ, and got pregnant in Dec. 2002. She wanted to keep recording, but the timing was curious: Furtado started work on Folklore five months into her pregnancy. ''Everyone including my mother thought it was ridiculous,'' she says.
Even as her somber sophomore effort was confounding fans, the singer ''was in the coolest mood,'' she says. ''Three weeks after I had my daughter, I had a fitting for The Tonight Show and I fit into like a size 14 pants, but I didn't care. I had that glow.'' With Folklore faring better abroad than in the U.S., Furtado decided to tour with baby and daddy in tow. ''I was breast-feeding Nevis and traveling like a gypsy,'' Furtado recalls. ''Japan, France, Germany we have lots to tell her when she's older.''