Many know the Colombian singer Shakira for her potent, sultry voice and swiveling hips. The world has seen her play at last summer's World Cup in Berlin, the world's biggest sporting event.
And she dominated the Latin Grammys in November — winning four of the five nominations she received. Now, she's wrapping up an exhausting world tour, singing in English and Spanish and showing why she's Latin America's most successful crossover artist.
In a recent stop in her hometown, Barranquilla, Shakira told thrilled fans attending her concert at the huge soccer stadium that everything she's learned, she's learned from Barranquilla — and that the night belonged to the city of her birth.
With hits like "Hips Don't Lie," from her latest album, Oral Fixation Vol. 2, Shakira has become a superstar, one who has achieved a crossover appeal in the United States that most Latin singers can only dream of.
Born to a father of Lebanese descent and a Colombian mother, Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll says in a rare interview that she started singing at a young age. She wrote her first song when she was 8.
But not everyone in the Catholic girl's school she attended thought she had a future. She says she wasn't able to join the school choir because a music teacher thought her voice was "too strong, too powerful."
"My voice was strong and I wanted to sing out loud, and he didn't think I was the right choice for the choir," Shakira says.
Instead, she went her own way — winning a string of local singing competitions. She then talked her mother into moving to Bogota, the capital, where she could get close to the record companies. Her two first albums were lackluster.
Then in 1996 came Pies Descalzos, or Bare Feet, which sold 4 million copies. That led to another hit album and, finally, her first English-language album, Laundry Service. It sold 13 million copies worldwide.
Her most recent two CDs — one in English, one in Spanish — both made the top five on Billboard's U.S. album chart.
"I take pop music very seriously, and I try to give the best I can give through my music, always improve and always learn because I think that's the only way you can't get bored with what you do," she says.
Fans have come to expect a fresh sound with each Shakira album. They may not know that Shakira speaks three languages, is conversant on existentialism and holds forth on Colombia's complicated guerrilla conflict.
Indeed, a big reason for coming home is to tout her Pies Descalzos (Bare Feet) Foundation. It's raising money to build schools for poor children.
At a press conference, the singer discussed poverty, the sorry state of schools, and political violence.
"Latin America is the world's region with the most inequality," she said. "There are a few who have much; many who have very little."
Those close to Shakira say that she feels a certain responsibility.
Coming off a hit album, Shakira says she is now going to take some time to ponder which direction she'll go next. Her albums take time to produce — up to three years.
She acknowledges that she is at a crossroads that's familiar to rising stars — pressured to produce top-selling albums and still sound fresh and inventive. She knows it's easy to sound crassly commercial.
"That risk is there, it's definitely there because we're humans and we're vulnerable and we let ourselves be tempted with fame and the glitters of popularity," she says. "I think the risk becomes greater when you start repeating formulas. When you stop competing against yourself, when you lose authenticity, when you don't rely on your own feelings."
In her concert in Barranquilla, Shakira prepared to go on stage with some of Colombia's best-known folkloric musicians, among them Joaquin Guillen of the Brothers Zuleta band. He remembered when she was just a girl and how she got advice from him and other established musicians.
Now, he says she's the future.
"Now Shakira represents us in the world," Guillen says. "For us, she's the Colombian Madonna."