What could be more formidable than the Queen of Soul herself, Ms. Aretha Franklin? Her bucket list. "I'm going to sail the Nile before it's all over," says the 69-year-old singer. "I would like to see the pyramids and the Sphinx." That's not all, says Franklin: "I want to do Broadway-on my terms. And I have a standing invitation to have tea with the Queen of England."
Hard to believe this is the same woman who, just months ago, was the subject of worldwide concern as she had surgery for an ailment she's kept a mystery since. Her refusal to name her condition fueled fears that she was gravely ill, particularly in light of widespread reports that she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The candlelight vigil in Detroit and a star-studded Grammy tribute didn't help dispel that notion. But on a recent afternoon at a friend's Bloomfield Hills, Mich., home, a healthy-looking Franklin insists she's fine: "I read the rumors, and they were just ridiculous. I feel fabulous."
So why not reveal what she went through to put any rumors to rest? The diva insists she's just fiercely guarding her own privacy. Medical issues "are very personal," says Franklin. "That just isn't something you go around talking about." What she will admit is that the procedure she had was "not minor surgery." But she says that she did not fear for her life and that her prognosis is good: Her doctor told her the operation "will add 10 to 15 years to my life span."
Though eager to move past the scrutiny over her health, she's deeply thankful for the outpouring of support. Lifelong friend Stevie Wonder was in her room when she came out of surgery ("a touching moment," she recalls), and visits from pals Smokey Robinson and Tavis Smiley kept her spirits up. As did her fans. "People in the checkout line said they prayed for me," she says. "It's amazing how beautiful people can be."
Especially when you're a legend who's more than earned their r-e-s-p-e-c-t. Franklin has performed for Presidents and royalty alike, sold millions of albums and notched just about every accolade in the music biz, including 18 Grammys. Fans of her illustrious 50-year career may take heart that Franklin has learned to treat herself like the national treasure she is. "My habits have taken a 180-degree turn for the better," she says. "I'm really taking far better care of myself. It used to be a struggle for me just to get upstairs in my home."
No longer: Franklin has shed 85 lbs. in five months thanks to a new diet-and-exercise regime and shoots down any speculation that her undisclosed surgery was gastric bypass. "I did not, and would never, ever have bariatric surgery," she says. Instead, with the help of a personal trainer/nutritionist-"She's a blessing," says Franklin-the diva has learned to manage her portion sizes. "Before, I ate whatever I wanted, as much as I wanted. After concerts, I'd get burgers and lie down. It went on like that until my weight got out of control."
Today her trusty measuring cups and spoons, along with daily weigh-ins, help her keep it in check. "I'm finding out that you're not gonna starve [if you limit yourself]," she says. A taste for nuts, greens and fresh produce doesn't hurt either. "I make a mean salad," says Franklin (see recipe box). When she feels like cheating, "I have a cup of ice cream. I don't go hog wild."
And now she knows how to work it off. Three times a week, she walks 1.5 miles on her gym's track ("I want to take it to two miles," she says proudly), and she'll occasionally add 30 minutes on her home treadmill. If she's ever dragging, "I stop and say, 'What could be better than doing something good for myself?' " says Franklin. "So I go for as long as I should and get the job done."
She's digging the perks of her slimmer physique too. Marc Jacobs and Oscar de la Renta "are cutting special things just for me," Franklin says. For more casual occasions she likes Vanderbilt jeans, especially since she wears two sizes smaller than she expected. (She denies reports that she tipped 300 lbs., even at her heaviest; her goal is to slip into a size 16.)
Those new, sleeker duds will come in handy when the singer hops on her tour bus for concerts in New York City, Chicago and Niagara Falls-the first shows since she began doctor-ordered rest in late 2010. The singer (who won't comment on whether she's seeing anyone) can't wait to show the world she's still got it. "I sang a lot to get my voice back to where it was before I went into the hospital," says Franklin, whose new album, Aretha: A Woman Falling Out of Love
, drops May 3. "It's even better now." She also hopes to get over the fear of flying that's kept her off planes since 1983, so she can actually tick off Egypt and Buckingham Palace from her bucket list. And she jokes about one last entry on it: sticking around long enough to make the Today show's centenarian segment. "I'll be at least 100," she says, "and Al Roker will be bent over there, showing my picture!"