For a woman who makes a living with a microphone, Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott can be surprisingly soft-spoken in interviews. "Before my albums come out, I practice not being shy," says the hip-hop star, relaxing on a dock near her Miami-area condo. "I'll be in the bathroom doing an interview in the mirror, just preparing myself."

Then again, she can always elect to stay mum and let her accomplishments do the talking. Whether crafting hit albums (her fourth, Under Construction, just went platinum), writing and producing songs for the likes of Whitney Houston and Beyoncé Knowles, winning a Grammy (for 200l's "Get Ur Freak On") or shedding 71 lbs. (see box, next page), Elliott, 31, has yet to encounter a challenge she hasn't seized. "She is one of the most talented people in the rap world," says Sean "P. Diddy" Combs. "There is no limit to her creativity."

Not that it hasn't been severely tested over the years. The deaths of close friends Aaliyah (in a 2001 plane crash) and TLC's Lisa Lopes (in a car accident last year) hit Elliott hard. Suddenly, "a lot of stuff I paid attention to before was really irrelevant in my life," says Elliott, who began spending more time with family, including her 5-month-old godson Jay. "She's never taken life for granted, but she takes it more seriously now," says friend Andrina Green.

Born Melissa Elliott, Missy took performing seriously as a girl growing up in Portsmouth, Va., and Jacksonville, N.C., the only child of Marine staff sergeant Ronnie and Pat, a power-company coordinator. While visiting relatives, "she would get on the bed and sing to them," says Pat, 51. "I'd finally say 'That's enough!' and lift her off the bed, and she would say, 'But I don't want to stop!' "

And she didn't, though her home life became horrifying. At age 8, Elliott says, she was raped almost daily by a 16-year-old cousin, until an aunt discovered the abuse nearly a year later. "I think about it all the time," says Elliott, who adds that the cousin has since died of a drug overdose. "You have to find some kind of peace. I believe in a higher being, and that gives me faith to be strong and go on."

Faith also carried her when father Ronnie was physically abusing Pat throughout Elliott's childhood. "I was always scared to stay with my friends because I never wanted to leave my mother alone," says Elliott, who sought help by writing daily letters to her idols Michael and Janet Jackson. "I would give Michael my whole schedule so he could come and get me." The Jacksons never responded, but her mother finally escaped when Elliott was 17, moving them to another section of Portsmouth.

Elliott finally forgave Ronnie six years ago. "I'm past a lot of things," she explains, "because I wouldn't want to leave this world with that kind of animosity, anger and hatred in my heart." Still, she has not spoken to her father since 2001 and says that witnessing the abuse "makes me in no rush" for a relationship of her own.

Instead Elliott, who graduated from high school in 1990, has focused on her music. She formed a vocal quartet called Sista, and in 1991 they auditioned for DeVante Swing of the R&B group Jodeci, who signed them to a deal. When Sista broke up, Elliott began songwriting for artists like Aaliyah and signed her own record deal in 1996. Her 1997 debut, Supa Dupa Fly, went platinum as did 1999's Da Real World and 2001's Miss E...So Addictive.

Now, Elliott is enjoying the fruits of her labor, splitting time between her New Jersey home, a condo on Williams Island outside Miami and the 14,000-sq.-ft. Virginia Beach home she built for her mother. She tools around in any one of her seven cars, including a Ferrari and a Lamborghini, though she says the Hummer is her favorite, "because it's big and makes you feel powerful." It's a feeling she'd better get used to.

Jason Lynch
Kristin Harmel in Miami

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  • Kristin Harmel.