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Christina Aguilera changes her image about as often as Britney Spears switches rehab centers.


There was the blazingly blond Christina, oozing vintage Hollywood glam, in last year’s video of “Ain’t No Other Man.” Suddenly, she’s become the Andrews Sisters—with three hair colors—in the new “Candy Man” video. It wasn’t long ago she was a raven-haired, scantily clad sexpot getting her slut on in “Dirrty.” That was a huge stretch from the perky pixie who emerged with “Genie in a Bottle.” And let’s not even talk about “The New Mickey Mouse Club.”


So, who is the real Christina?


All of the above, she’ll tell you.


“If I didn’t change, I would be lying about the real Christina,” said Aguilera, 26. “I’m really showing people I do get bored easily. Not only is it important for me to challenge myself and evolve as an artist, but it’s important for me personally.


“I’m not the same person that I was on the last record, `Stripped,’ and I wasn’t the same person on `Stripped’ that I was when I first came out. And the different looks is just me having fun with that whole style, because when I really dove into this world, I really wanted to literally get involved.”


Her new world is “Back to Basics,” a collection inspired by her childhood musical influences. Before recording started, she put together a “producer packet”—two CDs of her favorite blues, jazz and R&B tunes by Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, Otis Redding and others—and challenged songwriters and producers to create modern-day answers to those sounds.


Linda Perry, who has worked with Pink and Gwen Stefani, responded with an organic, old-school approach of live instruments while DJ Premier (Jay-Z, D’Angelo) preferred the more contemporary mode of drum machines and samples. The results added up to a strikingly mature double disc packed with 23 songs that show off Aguilera’s remarkable range, both vocally and musically.


“Ain’t No Other Man,” a horn-accented R&B rouser about her love for her husband of 16 months, earned Aguilera her fourth Grammy last month. The bluesy “Oh Mother” addresses the abuse her mom suffered. On “Candy Man,” she swings “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy”-style, and she gets gospelly on “Makes Me Wanna Pray” with Steve Winwood on organ.


Releasing a double disc at a time when CD sales are declining was a bold decision—one driven by creative, not commercial, impulses, she said. She didn’t have that kind of freedom when she made her bubblegum-pop debut in 1999.


“I had to play by the rules and go according to what my label kind of wanted me to do,” she said. RCA must have known what the public wanted, because more than 8 million copies of “Christina Aguilera” were sold, and it earned her a Grammy for best new artist. In 2002, she startled with “Stripped,” her sex-rated “coming of age” disc that featured two very different hits: the skanky disco stomp “Dirrty” and the pained piano ballad “Beautiful,” which snared her another Grammy.


During an hourlong conversation, the chameleonic Aguilera exuded ambition and focus. That, more than any of her changes, may define the real Christina. Whether talking about the staging of her current tour or the sadness of her childhood, she sounded intense and driven. Only once did she seem emotional, when she relived her genie-in-a-bottle wish come true.


Aguilera got to meet her idol, 69-year-old R&B great Etta James, at a photo shoot for a July 2006 InStyle magazine spread on current stars and their influences. Neither singer has ever been hesitant about bringing a bold sexuality to the stage. And Aguilera, who has long done a show-stopping concert version of James’ classic “At Last,” found her conversations with the Rock Hall of Famer rewarding and reassuring.


“When we sat down together, I was so nervous because you never know who’s going to have maybe an ego or be kind of weird,” confided Aguilera. “But she was so down to earth and so real. And it was so refreshing and nice to sit down with someone that you admire so much and then their personality just exceeds your expectations.


“She called me an old soul and said that my voice actually reminded her of almost a Janis Joplin to a Dinah Washington. She made my life with her compliments.”


Moreover, James encouraged Aguilera to ignore detractors and “just keep doing what you’re doing and stand up for what you believe in.”


Even over the phone, one could sense Aguilera beaming with pride.


“Those words will stick with me forever,” she said. “It was just so inspiring to hear that, not only from another woman, but a woman that lived at a time when artists didn’t have any say-so over anything.”


And to top it off, Aguilera got to sing an impromptu gospel song with her idol at the piano.


Since she was 6, Aguilera has been serious about a singing career. At 8, she tried “Star Search” (and lost with Etta James’ “A Sunday Kind of Love”). At 12, she joined Disney TV’s “The New Mickey Mouse Club” for one season. At 19, she exploded into teen stardom with her first album. But, unlike her former Mousketeer buddy Britney Spears, who released four albums in five years and then flamed out, she said she didn’t want to exploit the youth market.


“I never wanted to rush,” said the singer, whose three pop albums have sold 25 million albums worldwide (she also has released a Christmas CD and a Spanish-language disc). “Growing up, you see the Debbie Gibsons burn out and you see people just come and go so often. I did want to make a conscious effort and choice early on to make sure it was about quality and not the quantity.”


Her current tour is a balance of quality and quantity: Eight dancers, nine musicians, three backup singers, 10 knockout outfits for the star and various set pieces, including a circus, a pole dance and a military scene.


“I’m so into the visuals and making sure that the image that goes along with my music definitely tells the story and lets my audience’s imagination run wild,” she said. “This tour is the most fun I’ve ever had with a show of my own onstage—ever.”


While the show draws heavily from “Back to Basics,” the star promises oldies reimagined, including “What a Girl Wants” with “an old-school reggae twist.”


On her previous arena tour, Aguilera shared the bill with Justin Timberlake. This time, her opening acts are Pussycat Dolls and Danity Kane, girl groups that want to be as glammed up as she is.


“It’s nice to have an all-female, girl-empowered kind of show,” she said. “I’m happy that we all are able to do it together and be in support of other women. I think so much out there tries to pit people against people, especially females, and instigate catfights. Trust me, I’m not a stranger to being the victim of that in the press. At this point, why any drama at all? Let’s team together and really give them something to talk about.”


___


MOUSE TALES


Besides Christina Aguilera, here’s what other members of “The New Mickey Mouse Club” from 1993 to `94 are up to:


Britney Spears: In rehab and career free-fall. But wait—her fifth album is in the works.


Justin Timberlake: Biggest pop star on the planet. Just scored his third consecutive No. 1 hit.


Ryan Gosling: Nominated for best-actor Oscar for “Half Nelson.” Tries to prosecute murder suspect Anthony Hopkins in “Fracture,” due next month.


Keri Russell: Married on Valentine’s Day and expects a baby in summer. Good reviews for lead role in “Waitress” at Sundance. Will co-star in “August Rush” with Terence Howard.


JC Chasez: Ex-N’ Syncer is waiting to finish his second album (“Kate,” with Justin producing).


Rhona Bennett: Has been a replacement singer in En Vogue since 2003.

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