Ayumi Hamasaki

Ayumi Hamasaki

Ayumi Hamasaki, or Ayu to her fans, is Avex' current powerhouse of pop, and the little diva has turned singing souped-up ballads and dance-lite tracks into a mini industry. Pulling in an annual income of JY700 million, Hamasaki nets a hefty portion from commercials in addition to her multiplatinum music catalogue.

Born in Fukuoka, Hamasaki - don't be tempted to use a "z," or she'll complain - was raised by her mother from an early age following her parents' divorce. Her start in the business is usually glossed over, but insiders get a kick out of recounting her failed beginnings as an actress. Between 1993 and 1996 the young Hamasaki appeared in second-rate TV dramas such as "Twins Kyoshi" ('93) and "Saiyuki" ('94) and a number of B-movies like the girl biker gang piece Ladies Socho Saigo no Hi ('95). Even small roles in better releases, such as Gakko II ('96) and the drama "Miseinen" ('95), didn't keep her career afloat and so her management decided to repackage her as a singer. Hamasaki was speedily shipped off to New York for vocal training in 1997 and made her music debut the following year.

Fortunately for the ambidextrous Ayu, the market has responded well to her self-penned, sappy lyrics and high-gloss packaging, though her success is probably more down to savvy super-producer Max Matsuura than her originality. Using a weird symbol instead of her name, a la Prince, and stealing song titles from Madonna ("Vogue") and All Saints ("Never Ever") doesn't seem to stop her fans from idolizing her creative powers - apparently she even designs her own costumes and nails. Those closer to her are often less idolatory, and her video director has dubbed her "The Monster," a nickname that's caught on within Avex. Still, last year Hamasaki innovatively decided to release four remix albums simultaneously - Ayu mi-x II - and follow them up by releasing singles for three consecutive months.

The media at large can't ignore a cash-cow when they see one and so have heaped a series of bizarre awards and titles on Ayu. She is Best Jeanist - which basically means she wears denim a lot - Best Dresser (this is a woman who thinks veils and animal prints are classy), and recently Bulgari honored her with an award for wearing diamonds a lot.

Hamasaki supplements the media attention with an ever growing menagerie that has included two Chihuahuas, a Yorkshire terrier, a bull terrier, a shibainu, puffer fish, octopus, tropical fish and an iguana called Ayu - apparently the pampered pets are fed from Gucci boxes. The petting-zoo is completed by her Aibo robot dog, which bears the moniker Ayubo - it also stars in her latest music video. Not content with having two pets named after her, Hamasaki takes egotism a stage further with her own brand of mobile phone from Tuka, which comes in a very stylish leopard skin pattern.

Despite her dodgy fashions and lyrics, Hamasaki remains at the top of the pop pile and her fans remain increasingly voracious. Still, there's no accounting for taste.

Matt Wilce

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380: Ken Hirai
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379: Ayumi Hamasaki
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378: Makiko Tanaka
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377: Junichiro Koizumi
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362: Hina dolls
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361: Mitsugoro Bando X
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360: Chonmage
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350: Umeboshi
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ISSUES 248/9-