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Image credit: Stefani & Harajuku Girls: Gregg DeGuire/WireImage.com

But not everyone warmed to Stefani's ''whole fashion thing'' — in particular, the showcasing of her admiration for Tokyo trendsetters via an entourage of four Japanese women that she called the Harajuku Girls. The Girls silently accompanied her on photo shoots and to public appearances, and subsequently appeared on her tour. Stefani regarded the Girls, all of whom looked as if they had come straight off the streets of the capital city's hip Harajuku district, as a figment of her imagination brought to life in a culturally positive manner. But last year, Korean-American comedian Margaret Cho publicly decried them as ''a minstrel show.''

''She didn't do her research!'' spits Stefani, who says she's been a fan of Japan and its mix-and-match fashion sense since first visiting the country with No Doubt in the mid-'90s. ''The truth is that I basically was saying how great that culture is. It pisses me off that [Cho] would not do the research and then talk out like that. It's just so embarrassing for her. The Harajuku Girls is an art project. It's fun!'' (Cho told EW via e-mail, ''I absolutely agree! I didn't do any research! I realize the Harajuku Girls rule!!! How embarrassing for me!!! I was just jealous that I didn't get to be one… I dance really good!!!'')

Stefani continues: ''I was surprised how racist everybody was about them. Especially when I came over here and they'd make all these jokes, like Jonathan Ross.'' Ross, a British TV host, asked Stefani whether an ''imaginary hand job'' from one of her ''imaginary'' dancers would count as cheating on his wife. Stefani responds, ''Everybody's making jokes about Japanese girls and the stereotypes. I had no idea [I'd be] walking into that.''

The Harajuku Girls make an encore appearance in the ''Wind It Up'' video (as von Trapp children, of course). Also returning to Stefani's side for the Sweet Escape project are the Neptunes and Kanal, who helped Stefani pen her favorite song on the record, ''Four in the Morning.''

After Kingston's May 26 birth, Stefani sought out new collaborators, including rapper Akon, producer Sean Garrett (Beyoncé's B'Day), and Tim Rice-Oxley of the British band Keane. The latter co-wrote a tortured and not un-Keane-like lament called ''Early Winter.'' ''She likes to write from the heart,'' Oxley-Smith says. ''She's obviously quite an emotional person. Within 10 minutes of us sitting down, she was crying. I played her a little bit of a thing that I'd been working on just before she came in and she welled up about it.''

Though Stefani made her solo-career mark with the upbeat ''Hollaback Girl,'' it was the melancholic 1996 ballad ''Don't Speak'' that took No Doubt from little ska band to serious platinum recording act and made Stefani a celebrity. Their first No. 1 single, ''Don't Speak,'' dealt directly with Stefani's tortured, drawn-out breakup with Kanal. Stefani also got personal on the 2000 No Doubt single ''Ex-Girlfriend,'' in which she references a brief separation from Rossdale: ''I kinda always knew I'd end up your ex-girlfriend.'' Given all that, it seems reasonable to ask how much fans should read into the heart-wrenching lyrics to ''Early Winter,'' the chorus of which finds Stefani singing, ''And I always was, always was, one for crying/ Always was the one for tears/ No, I never was, never was one for lying/ You lied to me all these years.''

''The lyrics on this album are probably more autobiographical than the last,'' she concedes. ''A song like 'Wind It Up' isn't about anything. But there are definitely a few relationship songs on there.''

But does Rossdale ever say, Look, if you put this on the album people are going to be thinking, What's going on here?

''No, of course he doesn't,'' she replies before continuing, hesitantly. ''I mean... I think it's like... It's vague enough that it's... And... To be honest, everyone has the same problems. We all have the same problems. And there's nothing to hide about that. I could have a problem with Gavin at some point in our marriage. I've been with him for over 10 years. I'm not ashamed of it. It's just, like, working through it. And songs are so good at helping you get through things. I think it's a really good way to put things behind you and document it and move forward. I'm not ever scared to share my situations with people.''


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