"I hope I can remain focused and versatile," says Canadian pop sensation Nelly Furtado of her meteoric rise to fame. "I love being able to do what I do and yet hook up to do rap with Missy Elliot or a Portuguese folk song with my family. I feel it's all a product of being Canadian."
Young Nelly's success is not without its fairytale element. Back in 1999 she was earning her keep as a housemaid in her hometown of Victoria in the western province of British Columbia. Within two years, she was rocketing up the charts with the Grammy-winning single I'm Like A Bird, opening for U2 on their US tour, and winning plaudits from stars such as Michael Jackson and Elton John. To celebrate, she bought herself 50 pairs of sneakers, having developed an aversion to "sensible shoes" during time spent working for a Toronto security firm. Nelly's strong family ties have gone a long way to keep her feet on the ground, however. "We grew up simple," she says of her childhood. "If I'm not healthy and happy then all this means nothing to my parents."
Born on December 2, 1978, Nelly was the third child of working-class Portuguese immigrants. Her parents, Antonio, a stone mason, and Maria Manuela, a hotel maid, had moved to Canada in the late Sixties from their village in Portugal's Azores islands. The Latin roots the singer displays in spades on Whoa Nelly extend back to her childhood gigs when, dressed in Portuguese folk outfits and singing songs from her parents' homeland, she would perform at neighbourhood festivals and community events.
In her teens Nelly was playing the trombone in a marching band by day and blossoming into a hardcore hip-hop devotee by night. After graduating from high school aged 17, she moved to Toronto and formed the trip-hop outfit, Neltsar. The band gained a sizeable following and won the interest of local record labels, but the singer recognised that her time had not yet come. "Inside I didn't feel ready," she says, "so I decided to move back home to Victoria and live with my parents again."
Back in Victoria, Nelly took creative writing courses, which she paid for out of the wages she earned working as a cleaner with her mum. The hard work paid off and her songs and playing improved significantly. When she returned to Toronto in 2000 to record a demo for the record company DreamWorks, all the songs on her critically acclaimed debut album Whoa Nelly were written and ready to go.
Nelly landed the deal and the rest, as they say, is history. Well almost. Initially radio stations refused to play her music, claiming its eclectic blend of pop, hip-hop, boss nova and melancholy Portuguese fado was difficult to categorize. But as soon as I'm Like A Bird hit the airwaves, the album starting shifting. With the release of her second single, Turn Off The Radio, sales moved up yet another gear, and by the beginning of 2002 she was headlining her own concert tour.
The singer became a mother in 2003, when she welcomed daughter Nevis with producer and DJ Jasper Gahunia. The relationship was not meant to be, however - the couple went their separate ways in 2005 after four years together. The Toronto resident found love again with Cuban sound producer Demacio Castellon. The couple's mutual friend, rap star Timbaland confirmed the pair's engagement in June 2007.