Nicole Scherzinger simply isn't perspiring enough. ''More sweat!'' yells a production staffer on the Long Beach, Calif., set of the video for ''Whatever U Like,'' the first single from Scherzinger's solo album, Her Name Is Nicole. ''We need more sweat now! The more sweat, the better! We want her to look like she's in hell!'' Immediately, a production assistant hands the singer a spray bottle filled with some kind of mysterious glistening concoction, which she spritzes over her cappuccino- colored skin from head to toe. Finally, Scherzinger is adequately moisturized and work continues.
It's a small problem, with an easy (though slightly messy) solution. Unfortunately, it's about the only small problem Interscope Records has had since signing Scherzinger, lead singer of the multiplatinum girl group the Pussycat Dolls, to a solo record deal almost three years ago. At the time, the decision made perfect sense the Dolls have sold 6 million records worldwide, largely due to Scherzinger's ability to drop it like it's hot while delivering raspily sexy vocals on hits including ''Don't Cha'' and ''Stickwitu'' (which earned a 2006 Grammy nod). Sensing they may have found their next Gwen Stefani or Fergie, the label aligned Scherzinger with an all-star roster of producers, including Timbaland, Ne-Yo, and will.i.am and then waited for the moneymaking magic to happen. Today, they're still waiting.
Over the last year, EW met with Scherzinger three times: in the recording studio, on the set of her first video, and at a rehearsal space in Burbank. But after three failed singles and three official release dates, Her Name Is Nicole still hasn't dropped. (The album is now tentatively scheduled for late February or early March.) Today, the label still has no proof that Scherzinger can be a star without her Pussycat sisters but the singer is not letting the problems undermine her faith in herself. ''I've been working on trying to get a solo deal for 10 years straight,'' Scherzinger told EW in October. ''Now that it's crunch time, I'm scared. I hope [people] get me. I hope they see the truth and the heart of what I do. And will they even care? How could they not care?''
Here's the first surprise upon meeting Nicole Scherzinger: The vixen known for purring ''Don't cha wish your girlfriend was a freak like me?'' used to be gasp! a theater geek. ''One year I wore only all black,'' she says of her life as a teen. ''My friends were so artsy. We would sing musicals and stuff. It kept us out of trouble.'' Another surprise is her Southern twang something she drops entirely when on stage. (Although she was born in Hawaii, she spent her childhood in ''Luuhhhhville,'' Kentucky.) Scherzinger's love of music led her to leave college after two years to sing backup for rockers Days of the New. In 1999, she went to L.A. to record with the band, and the humble Southern girl was instantly seduced by Hollywood. ''I was staying at the Wyndham Bel Age,'' she remembers. ''I had never stayed anywhere nice before. I had a big queen-size bed and I was jumping up and down. I was like, 'There's the Viper Room! That's where River Phoenix died! I've totally made it!'''
When her mother caught a commercial seeking contestants for The WB's Making the Band-style reality series Popstars, Scherzinger decided to try out. The gambit paid off: She ended up winning a spot as one of five members of Popstars' made- for-TV girl group, Eden's Crush. They landed one successful single in 2001, ''Get Over Yourself (Goodbye),'' but then made like the song and swiftly disbanded. Using her Hawaiian family name, Nicole Kea, because it was easier to pronounce, she peddled a demo CD to labels in hopes of a solo deal. One trip in August 2003 took Scherzinger to Arista Records' New York office, but fate or the electric company intervened: Her performance was interrupted by a citywide blackout. The employees began evacuating the building, but Scherzinger didn't want to leave. ''I was like, 'My audition isn't done yet!''' She left the darkened city without a deal.
After a brief detour into acting including a cameo in the 2003 indie Chasing Papi a friend told Scherzinger about auditions for the Pussycat Dolls, an L.A.-based burlesque group founded by choreographer Robin Antin. The Dolls' late-night routine at the Viper Room had caught the attention of Interscope Records head Jimmy Iovine and A&R legend Ron Fair, who both saw potential for a singing group. Despite the Dolls' retro-risqué look, Scherzinger arrived at her audition ready to wow the label with her talent, not her T&A. ''I am a very conservative Catholic,'' she explains. ''I came in with a big huge blouse, buttoned all the way to the top, and my glasses, because I couldn't see. I was just going to sing these people out of the room.''
It worked. ''She walked in and she sang one of her own songs,'' remembers Fair. ''Jimmy just said, 'That's it.' I was a little more numb from seeing 500 people. He instantly identified her.'' Soon enough, Scherzinger ditched her sexy-librarian duds for the Dolls' bedazzled bustiers. As their self-titled 2005 debut album took off, so did the Dolls phenomenon, which included a CW reality series, The Search for the Next Doll, and a PCD-themed casino at Caesar's Palace. Scherzinger, who also lent her vocals to Timbaland's Shock Value and Diddy's ''Come to Me,'' kept hounding the label for a solo shot. ''I was relentless with Ron and Jimmy from day one,'' she says. ''I said, 'You gotta give me a chance, man. I know I can do this.'''
Scherzinger began recording Her Name Is Nicole in 2005, while touring with the Dolls. EW was alongside the singer in the studio this past January as she worked with Future Cut, a powerhouse producing duo responsible for Lily Allen's hit single ''Smile.'' (The track was ultimately not chosen.) Meanwhile, singer-songwriter Ne-Yo gave Scherzinger two songs that were originally written for Britney Spears, including one with the all-too-appropriate title ''Save Me From Myself.'' He explains that after Spears' infamous head-shaving meltdown in February, he couldn't get in touch with the singer or her management: ''In the midst of all of that, I met Nicole.''
Two years after recording began, Scherzinger finally gave fans a taste of her solo sound. The first track, the club thumper ''Whatever U Like,'' produced by hitmaker Polow Da Don (''Buttons,'' ''London Bridge''), arrived in August to little fanfare. (It peaked at No. 83 on Billboard's Pop 100.) EW has learned, however, that Interscope never shipped the song to radio and wanted to use the single to introduce Scherzinger as a solo singer. ''I was surprised,'' says Polow Da Don of the song's failure to connect. ''I think it was a timing thing. We did that record almost two years ago, and pop music in general is a little different.'' Scherzinger's first ''official'' single was ''Baby Love,'' an ''Irreplaceable''-esque jam produced by and featuring will.i.am that showcased a softer, more romantic sound. This time the single only managed to reach No. 75. ''We watched to see if pop stations that supported the Dolls would support [these singles], and they really didn't,'' says Ebro Darden, programming director for New York's Hot 97. ''I'm not convinced people had made emotional investments in her as an artist.'' Adds a top music manager: ''She just happened to be the best-looking one [in the Pussycat Dolls]. Does she have marginal talent as a singer? Sure. But is she a star? I don't think so. I can't even tell you her last name.'' Still determined to change that perception, the label pushed forth her latest track, ''Supervillain,'' on Nov. 13 but only for download.
If a fourth single which the label plans to release in January also fails to generate heat, Interscope may not want to release Her Name Is Nicole at all. To be fair, album delays are just the cost of doing business in the music industry and Iovine is notorious for holding discs until they're up to his standards. Just this year, the label held 50 Cent's Curtis for three months; it went on to debut at No. 2, selling 691,000 the first week. Artists like Gavin Rossdale, whose own solo effort has been on the shelf for years, fondly calls it being in ''Jimmy Jail.'' The Interscope head tells EW he won't apologize for keeping discs hostage: ''I will not put anyone's album out in this climate unless it's properly set up with the right songs.''
Finding herself amongst talented ''Jimmy Jail'' cellmates, Scherzinger says she isn't worried about the wait. ''If it was all left up to me, it would probably never come out, because I'm such a perfectionist. But it's all in the right time. It'll happen the beginning of next year, and I'm loving the new stuff that I've come up with.'' Still, all this reworking comes with a price, and not just for Scherzinger. Interscope won't officially comment on specific costs, but an outside source estimates that the label has laid out at least $1.5 million so far on recording and videos. The delays have also kept Scherzinger from recording a second album with the Dolls, potentially hampering the group's momentum. The Dolls are tentatively scheduled to return to the studio next year and EW has learned that Interscope may rework some of Scherzinger's discarded solo tracks for the band's next album.
If her disc ever does see the light of day, fans can expect upbeat, pleasant pop (at least based on the tracks EW has heard). Highlights are the sexy, funky ''Physical,'' produced by Timbaland; an ode to female genitalia called ''Puakenikeni'' (also the name of a Hawaiian flower); ''Just Say Yes,'' an elegant ballad penned by Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody; and a duet between Scherzinger and Iovine pal Sting called ''Power's Out.'' Added to this lineup are the three previously released singles, along with the Britney tracks and a new song Scherzinger recorded with rising star The-Dream. ''Her album is what the game needs right now because it's so diverse and it's so different,'' says Polow Da Don. ''It reminds me of when I first heard Alanis Morissette or Norah Jones.'' The singer, meanwhile, believes that one day people will in fact know who she is by her first and last names. ''It isn't until you think you're on top of the mountain and then you get rejected time after time after time it isn't until you go through all those things in life that you're like, Okay, now let me make my music.'' (Additional reporting by Shirley Halperin)