Cindy Gomez’s Cinderella story

She used to sell office furniture in Toronto. Now she’s a Nokia-branded singing, dancing global superstar.

Cindy Gomez’s Cinderella storyCindy Gomez is in motion, cruising along Los Angeles’ chi-chi Melrose Avenue in late August in the back of a big black chauffeured SUV. The Canadian singer is travelling with Dave Stewart, who came to fame as the bespectacled guy next to Annie Lennox in the innovative ’80s band the Eurythmics. Today, the 57-year-old British rock legend is a big-picture entrepreneur—performer, songwriter, producer, photographer, activist, new media savant and general connector of cosmic dots.

All of these endeavours dovetail perfectly with his current quest: to turn the multilingual Gomez, with her United Colours of Benetton beauty, into a global, multi-platform superstar. That in itself isn’t the kind of visionary thinking for which Stewart, a Davos denizen, corporate consultant on “disruptive change,” and friend of Bono, is known. What makes it pioneering is that he’s doing it in tandem with US$70-billion Finnish cellphone colossus Nokia as part of that company’s quest to become the world’s biggest entertainment media network. The stakes are big, Stewart says in his soft-spoken, unassuming, sage-like way: “If the experiment works, it will change the way art is made.”

The night before was a late one; Stewart is in recovery mode behind his signature dark shades, eating peanut butter on toast and sipping a coffee. His Rock Fabulous Orchestra, a 30-piece ensemble, played a fundraiser at L.A.’s Conga Room for a local charity that helps disadvantaged kids get to university. All the music came from Stewart’s songbook of hits that has sold more than 100 million albums, both for himself and for artists such as Céline Dion, Gwen Stefani and Tom Petty. Gomez performed, too, soloing on a few songs. This morning she’s radiant, L.A. fabulous in black leggings, high-heeled sandals and a long white T-shirt with the slogan: “God Wants Me to be Sexy.”

The past year and a half has been a heady time for Gomez, who two years ago was selling office furniture in Toronto, plotting her breakout moment. Today she’s living in L.A., working with Stewart, now her mentor and manager who has introduced her to a network of star-makers, among them songwriter-producers Glen Ballard, who launched Alanis Morissette, and Desmond Child, who refers to Gomez as a seemingly unbeatable marketing hybrid: “A combination Madonna, Christina, Gwen, who looks like Angelina in Tomb Raider meets J-Lo with the ambition of Evita!”

Gomez’s image and voice have been creeping into public consciousness. In February 2008, she appeared in Stewart’s celebrity-studded video for American Prayer, a song he co-wrote with Bono for Barack Obama. May 2009 brought Gomez’s global debutante moment as she emerged from a clamshell on stage at the Life Ball in Vienna, Europe’s largest AIDS benefit, where she and Stewart performed before a crowd of 65,000. In June, she was introduced in avatar form on Dance Fabulous, Nokia’s mobile phone game, which also offered for downloading five of her new songs co-written with Stewart. This week, Gomez will be in flight again—to Germany for acting lessons to prepare for her feature film debut in a movie inspired by the Dance Fabulous game, due to start filming in Mumbai and Singapore next year.

The movie is why Stewart and Gomez are en route now to the West Hollywood apartment of the acclaimed Indian songwriter A.R. Rahman of Slumdog Millionaire fame: they want to hear his Bollywood-style remixes of tracks they’d recorded weeks earlier off the coast of Turkey on the 414-foot yacht owned by Microsoft’s co-founder Paul Allen, another Stewart crony. The summer of 2009 has involved much helicoptering onto Allen’s boat: in May, Gomez and Stewart performed for a crowd that included Quentin Tarantino and Mick Jagger.

“Magical” is how Gomez describes the past 15 months. Professionally, her packaging is sexy Bond girl—PVC leggings, bustiers, Cleopatra eyes. In person, she’s fresh, enthusiastic, without pretence, possessed of a ready quicksilver laugh. “I pinch myself and say ‘Is this for real?’ ” she says. “I’ve been wishing and praying for this since I was a little girl. But I didn’t expect it to happen all at the same time.”

Gomez’s digital Cinderella story begins in Mississauga, Ont., around a quarter of a century ago. When asked about her age, Gomez is uncharacteristically coy: “I’d really like to keep it a bit mysterious so I am not placed in any particular category, just like my music,” she says. Her early influences were classical with a Latin infusion: her father is Colombian-Belgian, her mother is of Colombian heritage. She grew up listening to opera, Edith Piaf, mariachi, salsa and meringue. But it was a pop tune by the ’80s teen star Tiffany that she heard at age eight that motivated her to become a singer. There was no money for singing lessons, so her father suggested she practise by singing in front of the mirror every day. When it sounded good, he’d tell her. “My dad can’t sing to save his life,” Gomez says with a laugh. “But he has an ear.” Her stage debut took place at a Christmas concert at the daycare centre where her mother worked. Gomez describes performing as a “crazy high”: “I’ve never taken drugs, but it must be the equivalent of taking heroin.”

Lacking resources or contacts, Gomez did what she could to get a foot in the door—modelling, entering a Miss Latin America pageant, playing the Super Latin Fest at the CNE. The fact that she speaks three languages (English, French, Spanish) and sings in eight (English, French, Spanish, Italian, Latin, Hindi, Cantonese and Mandarin) led to gigs on multicultural radio and television stations in Toronto.

Believing it would help her navigate the music business, she earned a bachelor’s degree in commerce at the University of Toronto. She also wanted to avoid stereotyping: “There’s this stigma—she’s a female Latina singer, she doesn’t have an education.”

Toronto record producer Tom Stephen began working with Gomez in 2003. “She had the X factor,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘I just hope she can sing.’ ” Her a cappella version of Piaf’s trademark La Vie en Rose wowed him. He brought in American guitarist Stevie Salas, who has worked with Jagger and Rod Stewart, to develop her songwriting chops. “She had superstar presence,” says Salas, who praises her work ethic: “Cindy is tough. She’s no queen bee diva.” Gomez searched to find her sound, dabbling in pop, techno, dance and hip hop. Early on, Stephen marketed her as “Jennifer Lopez meets Sade.” He saw her potential to be a brand. In 2005, in a move that foreshadows Gomez’s Nokia relationship, Stephen approached both Bell and Rogers to try to forge a marketing relationship. Rogers (which owns Maclean’s) expressed interest, he says, though discussions never went far. Bell was more enthusiastic, but talks ended when it became the takeover target of BCE.

Gomez soldiered on—writing songs, travelling to the U.S. to record, and playing charity events and awards shows while working temp jobs. In 2007, she took a full-time job as an account manager at an office furniture company. That fall, she opened for Boy George at Montreal’s Olympia Theatre, where one newspaper reported she took the stage around midnight in silver short shorts, blazer and bustier before a “well-liquored crowd.” She was stalled, she says: “Nothing was jelling. I was frustrated. I knew I couldn’t just stay [in Canada]—I had to move to New York or Miami or something.”

In November, she was fired from her day job, an event she calls a blessing in disguise. “They said, ‘We feel you love your music and that’s what you should do,’ ” she recalls. She drew on her faith in positive thinking and visualization. “I was into The Secret before Oprah was,” she says.

In late January 2008, Stephen received a call from Mike Bradford, a musician and producer Gomez had met in L.A. who’d worked with Stewart for years. Bradford had thought Stewart would connect musically with Gomez, but wanted to wait for the right opportunity. That arrived when Stewart’s orchestra suddenly needed a backup singer for a few shows it was doing with Ringo Starr that included a gig on Larry King Live. Gomez remembers her amazed reaction: “Oh my God, it’s a Beatle!” She didn’t know all of their music, she admits: “But I knew a Beatle was a Beatle.” Bradford asked if she was free. “And I said, ‘Wait, let me check my schedule.’ ” She laughs. “And I said, ‘Of course I am free.’ And then he said, ‘You have to memorize four or five songs.’ And I said ‘I’ll do whatever it takes. If I have to pay my way I will. Don’t pay me any money. I just want to do it.’ ”

She met Stewart backstage in the Larry King Live green room. After a few performances, he was impressed enough to invite her back to the recording studio he shares with Glen Ballard, a serene white space dubbed the White Room that contains a white piano and Grammys lining the long ledge of a window framing the “Hollywood” sign. Ballard and Stewart were working on the score for a stage adaptation of the movie Ghost and needed a singer for the Demi Moore part. “Her voice was perfect,” Stewart recalls. Gomez was hired to sing the demo, which meant a move to L.A. She was ready. “I never thought I could live in L.A. I was always afraid of earthquakes,” she says. “But this time I fell into the right family. As soon as I met Dave I knew.”

Gomez has evolved into Stewart’s protege—and current muse. The two began writing songs together. Stewart praises Gomez’s “three-dimensional thinking”: “When I play and she has no idea of where I’m going to she naturally goes with it.” He also began photographing her—stylized glam images with guns and tasteful nudes in which she’s artfully shielded—one of which will front her upcoming CD on Interscope Geffen A&M Records. “They both sparked something in each other,” says Stephen. Gomez recalls a eureka moment they had before they started composing together. Stewart asked her how she’d ideally fashion her professional imagery: “I said, ‘I like songs that touch the heart—emotional, melancholic songs.’ And I told him I wanted to be like a James Bond girl—cool and sexy and very classy, not too risqué.” Stewart had just given an interview to Variety in which he was asked what advice he’d give an aspiring musician. His answer: “They should wear a PVC catsuit and heavy makeup (male or female) and should sing very sad songs just with acoustic guitar.” A plan was hatched. Gomez called a friend in Canada to make her a PVC catsuit. Stewart filmed an arresting video of Gomez singing, and sent it to Nokia with “Empowered by Nokia” at the bottom. Nokia didn’t understand at first, he says. “They asked: ‘Did we do that?’ I told them ‘No, not yet, but you should.’ ”

Stewart’s relationship with the cellphone giant dates back to 2006 when he and Tero Ojanperä, now executive vice-president and chief technology officer, met at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Stewart was enlisted as the company’s “change agent” to provide a portal to pop culture, forge connections, and bring ideas. “He’s the catalyst,” says Ojanperä. Certainly, few people traverse the worlds of music, art, politics, film, theatre, and technology with the same two-degrees-of-separation as Stewart. A typical conversation is peppered with offhand references to Yoko Ono, Desmond Tutu, Damien Hirst. His 2001 wedding to photographer Anoushka Fisz was officiated by Deepak Chopra, with whom he has a consulting business. He’s writing an album with France’s first lady, Carla Bruni. Chatting about an idea he has for a stock market index for YouTube advertising, he casually mentions directing a prototype ad starring Kevin Spacey and Isabella Rossellini.

In terms of technology and music, Stewart has long been a trailblazer, producing landmark videos in the 1980s that paved the way for the Eurythmics’ American breakout. But the days of MTV are long over, as is studio control, he says: “The fence is down.” The future as he sees it is open-platform and open-source, a format mirrored by Nokia’s corporate culture, he notes: “They encourage sharing. They aren’t saying, ‘What’s our cut?’ They become the hub.”

And a huge hub it is. Nokia is the world’s biggest cellphone company with more than 1.1 billion customers in more than 150 countries, or as Stewart puts it: “the largest distribution network in the history of mankind.” Last year the company sold 472 million handsets, the vast majority of them in India and China. It also dominates the global smart-phone market, though its share is declining in the face of increasing demand for Apple’s iPhone, RIM’s BlackBerry, and the new Palm Pre. In the first quarter of 2009, Nokia’s smart-phone market share fell to 41.2 per cent while Apple’s rose to 10.8 per cent.

Becoming the world’s biggest entertainment company requires content. Here Nokia has to play serious catch-up to Apple, which is constantly breaking ground: just last week it launched I Am T-Pain, an app that lets users sing and record with the Grammy-award-winning hip hop artist’s signature sound. Nokia is busy seeking exclusive content for its Ovi Store, the open-platform answer to Apple’s iTunes and App Store. (Talks with Bono to get U2 to release its new album on it didn’t pan out.) The company is working on deals to offer movie and TV downloads as well as on collaborations with Spike Lee and Heroes creator Tim Kring. Stewart has been a key point man, bringing Nokia together with record and studio executives, as well as directors like Baz Luhrmann, and established performers like Jagger, whose daughter Georgia May is dating Stewart’s son Django James. Jagger is part of Stewart’s “stealth” band Super Heavy, a collaboration between Stewart, Jagger, Joss Stone, A. R. Rahman, and Bob Marley’s son Damian, expected to premiere on the Nokia network.

A few years ago, Stewart recommended Nokia pair with British pop star Katy Perry (she credits him with inspiring the artistic breakthrough that led her to write I Kissed a Girl), but the company passed. “So when I sent the thing with Cindy a year later they said ‘Let’s do this,’ ” Stewart says.

The company had been developing a dance game targeted at girls for several years. Gomez provided an opportunity to merge music and gaming platforms. Writing music for the game helped focus her sound, Gomez says. Originally, they’d been thinking “Sade meets Edith Piaf” to show off her classical range and stadium pipes. “But it didn’t have as much rock influence as it does now,” she says. She travelled to Barcelona for dance instruction, then on to Berlin where she donned a motion capture suit that matched the avatar’s movements with her own—a lot of effort for a generic anime character.

Dance Fabulous, which costs $4.99 to download, went live in June in 200 countries; the songs are available on Nokia’s online music store. Nokia won’t give out numbers but Mark Ollila, Nokia’s director of X-Media Solutions, Media & Games, says that response in China has been huge.

Nokia also bankrolled Gomez’s and Stewart’s five-week tour to promote the game; they played small venues in Paris, Toronto, Milan, Helsinki, and Rome. Salas went to see them at Toronto’s Spoke Club: “I was so proud of her,” he says. “To see the years of working and trying so hard and people not responding. If I was the head of Warner in Canada, I would have signed her in five minutes. To see her with a superstar like Dave Stewart, it was like, ‘Right on.’ ”

Stewart has spun out Dance Fabulous into a concept for a feature film he calls “a little Little Miss Sunshine, a little Slumdog Millionaire,” bringing in Slumdog composer Rahman: the story is about a boy in Bombay who finds a Nokia cellphone, starts playing the game and sets out to become a contestant on the dance contest hosted by Gomez’s character. Exactly how Nokia will exploit such explicit product placement is unclear.

Financing is being handled by Hyde Park Entertainment, a Hollywood-based production company. Gomez’s lack of acting experience isn’t a worry, says Hyde Park’s CEO Ashok Amritraj: “She has a terrific look and great voice.”

Stewart is already looking ahead to the next Dance Fabulous iteration: artist-centric platforms to connect with fans. A “Cindy World,” for instance, could offer concert tickets, send messages, provide an acoustic version of a song. That, he hopes, will lead to increased transparency so artists can follow their fan base, measure how many people watched their video or film, receive direct payment and fund projects in development. “It will offer encouragement to so many new artists because there has always been this huge food chain and a nine- to 27-month wait for payment,” he says.

Music is only one income stream, says Stewart, who notes rapper Dr. Dre has made more money on his “Dr. Dre Headphones” than any music he has produced. Cindy Gomez-branded product is in the pipeline. In October, the Gap will launch a Flip brand video recorder with Gomez’s image as part of its charitable (Product) Red line co-founded by Bono. A lingerie line is about to be announced. Given Stewart’s knack for cross-pollination, it’s likely to be tied to his new Rock Fabulous Clothing line, a partnership with designer Christian Audigier. One of the items in the collection is the “God Wants Me to be Sexy” T-shirt, which is also the title of a Stewart-Gomez techno-beat song. Stewart also has big ideas for a video that would feature Gomez with women of various cultures. “It would be great to show a Muslim woman in a burka singing God Wants me to be Sexy.”

On the question of possible Cindy Gomez oversaturation or her being seen only as a Nokia product, Stewart is sanguine. Those are old-world-order concerns, he says: “It will all roll out over time.”

For now, Gomez is delighting in a life she once imagined, which still contains the rare unproduced, spontaneous moment. Stewart tells the story of going out for dinner with Gomez at Paris’s La Coupole. They struck up a conversation with an American couple celebrating an anniversary, one of whom happened to be an executive with their record label. As a gift, Gomez stood up, and began singing La Vie en Rose. “There were a thousand people in the restaurant,” Stewart marvels. “That really takes a lot of guts. It was Paris.” A hush slowly fell over the huge room, he recalls. When it was over, everyone stood and cheered. Her bosses at the office furniture company had it right.