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When a woman who looked and sounded like British sensation Adele slid into a booth at Max's Grille in Boca Raton, Fla., for a cozy lunch with her boyfriend last month, the waitstaff did double takes. "I was 90 percent sure it was her," says waiter Alejandro Jimenez of the diner who wore sunglasses and ordered maple-ginger-glazed salmon and a soda. "She looked beautiful and had a beautiful voice." But her down-to-earth demeanor and lack of entourage made them wonder. Asked by a server if she was, in fact, Adele, the woman laughed and said no. Then her paid bill told a different story: On it was Adele's autograph and a note saying, "It was me!" Says Jimenez: "It was amazing."

Any remaining bit of anonymity seems sure to vanish after the Grammy Awards Feb. 12. That night Adele Laurie Blue Adkins, 23, who is up for six trophies, including Record of the Year for "Rolling in the Deep" and Album of the Year for 21, is expected to walk away with them all. (Her fans aren't just members of the Recording Academy either: 21 has spent 18 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and last year Adele sold 6.7 million albums in the U.S.-more than Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber combined.) Just as important, when she takes the Grammy stage, it will be her first public performance since a vocal cord hemorrhage and related surgery silenced her last fall. "[It's] exciting... and nerve-racking," she said in a statement, "but what a way to get back into it all."

If there were a Grammy for surviving heartbreak, Adele would win that too: Most of 21's wrenching lyrics are about her devastation over a failed romance. She often refers to her ex (whom she's never publicly named) as "the love of my life." After the release of her 2008 debut, 19, the two became inseparable. "It was my first grown-up, intense relationship," she has said. But things fell apart after more than a year, and though he didn't cheat on her (like the ex who inspired 19 had), the breakup was still crushing. "We fell out of love," she explains. 'It was more devastating than actually having something to blame it on." Her agony pushed her into an emotional abyss. "I locked myself in my house for nine months drinking four bottles of wine a night," she told PEOPLE last year. "That was probably the lowest point of my life."

And yet she's willing to give love another go. The man she may write (happier) songs about in the future? Simon Konecki, 36, a fellow Brit who heads Drop4Drop, a charity that brings clean water to developing countries. The couple were first photographed during their January trip to Florida, where they visited his mother and sister, took in a Miami Heat game, visited a pet store-where Adele cooed over a toy poodle-and turned an airboat ride in the Everglades into an amorous adventure. Says a witness: "They looked happy and romantic." When they returned to London, Adele defended Konecki after a British tab claimed he was still married to his ex (with whom he has a daughter). "Simon is divorced and has been for 4 years," she blogged Jan. 17. "Everyone in our lives... wish us nothing but the best."

Her fans seem to as well. Her music resonates with anyone who has ever loved and lost Says Adele: "That people find some comfort in my songs is the most amazing feeling." Many also identify with the real-size woman behind the glam exterior. "I've never wanted to look like models on the covers of magazines," says the singer, who embraces her curvy figure. "I represent the majority of women, and I'm very proud of that." And she seems determined to resist any pressure to slim down. "I'd lose weight if I was an actress and had to play a role where you're supposed to be 40 lbs. lighter, but weight has nothing to do with my career," she says. "Even when I was signing, most of the industry knew if anyone ever dared say [lose weight] to me, they wouldn't be working with me."

"Adele has a burning intensity but makes you feel immediately at home around her," says producer-songwriter Fraser T. Smith, who cowrote "Set Fire to the Rain," her latest No. 1 hit. She loves margaritas and peppers her concerts and conversations with giggles, four-letter words and self-deprecating one-liners. "I think I'm hilarious," she says. "If I wasn't doing this, I'd try to be a comedian."

Her sense of humor was honed growing up with little money in the working-class London neighborhood of Tottenham, where the crime rate is twice the national average. "I'm from a pretty rough area," she has said. Her parents, Penny Adkins (a teen mom who has at times worked as a masseuse and furniture maker) and Mark Evans (now a plumber), lived together until their daughter was 3, at which time Evans moved out. "I know I was a rotten father," the recovering alcoholic told a British tabloid last year. "I was not there for [Adele] when I should have been." Though he claimed Adele has forgiven him, she told Rolling Stone afterward, "I never knew my dad. He has no f----n' right to talk about me."

But her bond with her mother couldn't be stronger. "She's a great mum," says Adele. "She's always been supportive. She's my best friend. I want that connection [with my kids]." Being with her mother's big, boisterous family also provided good showbiz training. "If you wanted to be heard you had to literally be standing on a table," she recalls.

Her interest in music developed early, thanks to artists including Ella Fitzgerald and the Spice Girls. "I did little concerts in my room for my mum and her friends," she's said. At 14, she started attending London's BRIT School, a performing arts high school. (Amy Winehouse was an alum.) "She was an ordinary teenager who had a special talent," recalls Arthur Boulton, one of her teachers. "There were no artificial airs about her. She got to where she is through sheer hard work."

And a bit of luck: During senior year, Adele's friend posted a few of her songs on MySpace, drawing e-mails from music execs. (Initially "I thought it was just some pervon the Internet," she has said.) When she signed with XL Recordings in '06, "We thought it would be an underground London thing," she says, "not a worldwide thing."

So when she won two Grammys in 2009, "I had gum in my mouth, my shoes were off, my belt was undone, I was texting under my chair," she has said. "But it was the most amazing night of my entire life." The rush of fame afterward led to what she calls "an early-life crisis." Terrified of the photographers who had taken to staking her out, she began canceling appearances and seldom left her home. "I couldn't walk down the street without the paparazzi chasing me," she says. But the singer also worried she'd lose her fans and her record deal by hiding out. "I was really frightened." And though she bounced back with her old routine-playing Twister with pals, cooking and watching The X Factor-she's still not entirely comfortable with stardom. She fears flying-making touring a challenge-and she often vomits from pre-performance anxiety. "Thing is," she said to U.K. Vogue, "the bigger the freak-out, the more I enjoy the show."

Grammy night will be her biggest stage yet, and millions will watch in rapt attention. After conquering the music world, what's next? Adele wants to follow in her mother's footsteps. "I really want to be a mum," says the singer, who told PEOPLE her goal was to have three sons by the age of 30. "I better start getting on with it!"

  • Contributors:
  • Philip Boucher/London,
  • Monique Jessen/London,
  • Liz Corcoran/London,
  • Marisa Laudadio/L.A.,
  • Jessica Hemdon/L.A.,
  • Lesley Messer/New York City,
  • Kevin O'Donnell/New York City,
  • Linda Marx/Miami.