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Until recently, only Christina Aguilera's intimates knew the details of her hard-knock childhood as the daughter of a tough Army sergeant. Whenever things got too ugly between her mom, Shelly, and her dad, Fausto, Aguilera had a ready recourse. "She'd run upstairs and put on The Sound of Music—that was her favorite video," says Marcie Reilly, a friend since seventh grade. "Somehow, singing would come out of it, and that's how she'd escape all the fighting and the horror."

On her latest CD, Stripped—a follow-up to the '99 debut that earned her a Grammy Award and a Barbie-doll image—Aguilera, 21, bares her past. Notoriously, in her new video and at awards shows and parties, she also bares almost everything else (though, remarkably, even then some of her 11 body piercings remain invisible). In "I'm OK," she sings of the hurt she says she felt watching her mother "every time my father's fist would put her in her place." Another line speaks of "when I was thrown against those stairs," a lyric she told Rolling Stone was drawn from her father's behavior. Though her parents separated when Aguilera was 6 and friends say she has virtually no contact with her father (who could not be reached for comment), the pain is apparently still vivid. "One time she called me up, and she was crying about how it's so hard to sing these lyrics, because it's her," says Reilly. Stephen Sollitto, 37, a close pal who often styles her hair, does her makeup and with whom she shares her five-bedroom Beverly Hills house, adds, "She said, 'Maybe this will help him to face what he's done and process it.' "

As for the outfits, the public debate seems to be, Vamp or tramp? "She just gets more and more naked, and it gets sleazier," says former Spin editor Alan Light. Diane Martel, who directed Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle" video, counters, "She's a young girl having fun." Trish Summerville, her stylist and close friend, suggests Aguilera is simply in the process of evolving: "She's working on her past and her demons and all of that because she feels safe right now."

Things do seem relatively calm at the moment. In September 2001, Aguilera's two-year relationship with Jorge Santos, one of her backup dancers and her first love, busted up. "He was a wonderful guy," says Reilly. "He didn't like being in the spotlight anymore." Friends say that a bad eight-month relationship followed, then fallouts with two confidantes who betrayed Aguilera's trust. Aguilera has said that she then had a breakdown during which "I almost wanted to, you know, hurt myself." Instead, she acted out—sometimes in costly fashion. "She spit water all over $3,000 microphones," says Scott Storch, 28, who produced many of the songs on Stripped. Storch estimates that it cost RCA $100,000 to $200,000 of studio time while Aguilera "played Ping-Pong," one of her favorite pastimes.

The singer's safety net became her mother, Shelly, step-dad Jim Kearns (whom Shelly married when Aguilera was a young teen), sister Rachel, 16, brother Mikey, 6, and a half-dozen friends. "She really hangs out with Rachel a lot," says Summerville. "They have their own funny little language." Out of jet-setting mode, Aguilera is more Valley Girl than Raunch Queen. She loves to shop, see movies, eat junk food and watch Saturday Night Live with Rachel and her two papillon dogs. When she goes clubbing, says Summerville, Aguilera dresses down to deflect attention, travels with a large group and "likes to stand in a dark corner and chat, keeping it personal."

These days, she's open to romance again. "She's met someone really nice," says Sollitto. "He's sort of in the music industry and a few years older." And if she's playing the vixen, Aguilera's comfortable with it. Says Summerville: "She's in a really good space in her life right now."

Jill Smolowe
Rachel Felder in New York City and Teena Hammond, Ruth Andrew Ellenson and Marisa Laudadio in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Rachel Felder,
  • Teena Hammond,
  • Ruth Andrew Ellenson,
  • Marisa Laudadio.