Lights swirl, pyrotechnics explode, and a thrilled audience goes wild as the Black Eyed Peas launch into their smash "I Gotta Feeling." As Apl.de.ap-the Pea with the mohawk and sunglasses-scans the stage, the only things he can make out are three moving blobs better known as Fergie
, will.i.am and Taboo. Explains the singer bluntly: "I can't see s---."
Don't blame the shades. Due to a rare lifelong condition called nystagmus-which makes his eyeballs constantly vibrate, resulting in chronic blurry vision-and severe nearsightedness, Apl's vision is so poor that even with optimal contact lenses for his condition (his prescription is -11.0), he's legally blind. And yet he's won six Grammys, busted countless backflips and will rock the Super Bowl halftime show with the Peas, who released The Beginning last fall. "Until I discovered hip-hop," he says, "I felt I wasn't going to accomplish anything."
So how does a pop star who can't see hit his marks during the group's club-thumping grooves? "When I dance, I picture myself and the floor in my head," says the Filipino star (born Allan Pineda Lindo), 36, adding that people in motion are big enough for him to make out. During rehearsals, he moves more slowly and cautiously as he familiarizes himself with new stages. Giant-screen TVs, large fonts, a stylist (he's color-blind too) and tip-offs from pals also make things easier. "If there's a Filipino flag [in the audience], Will whispers, 'Filipinos are over there,'" he says. "Then I wave!"
As for what he actually can see-wearing contacts-"I'm good at shapes," he says. The letters on a soda can just a few feet away? Not so much. "If I'm not close, even if it's big, I can't read it." While close pals know his challenges, he barely speaks out about them-but not out of shame. "I'm comfortable not using my vision," he says. "I weave around my problems."
The fact that he's come this far amazes Apl himself. During his childhood in the Philippines, "everything was hard," he says-especially at school, where he was teased for his thick glasses, dreaded reading aloud because he held his book so close to his face ("I thought girls wouldn't like me") and sat with his desk pushed up to the blackboard. "That was embarrassing," he says. While his mother, Cristina, a domestic helper, always encouraged him, one teacher shattered his confidence. "She said, 'What are you going to be when you grow up? You can't see anything!'" recalls Apl, who'd hoped to become a nurse. "I doubted myself for a long time."
His morale got a big boost when he noticed kids break-dancing and realized, "That's something I could do!" Then, at 14, his life changed drastically when he was adopted by Joe Ben Hudgens, a California-based attorney who had sponsored Apl for years via the Pearl S. Buck Foundation. Hudgens brought him to the U.S., thinking that American medicine might improve his sight. "My vision was my lucky charm," Apl says of coming to the States. There he met William Adams Jr.-the future will.i.am-who saw past his impairment. Says Apl: "He paid attention to my ability to do things: my break dancing, my lyrics, my freestyling."
Getting contacts a few years later made Apl less self-conscious, but even today's technology can't improve his eyesight much. "The amount of nearsightedness and the nystagmus wouldn't make him a good candidate for laser surgery," says his optometrist Dr. Donald Teagle. And Apl says he's scared of invasive alternatives: "I'm cool with what I got."
His one complaint? He's not allowed to drive. Not that he hasn't tried. "I only drove to places I'd been because I'd memorized [the route]," he says. "One wrong turn and I'd be lost for hours." (He's been pulled over and claims, "I learned my lesson.") Still, he chooses to focus on what he can do, like beat pals at bowling, how far he's come and what he'd tell that discouraging teacher. "Look at me now!" he says, adding, "The nerds are the new cool guys."