Stomping to fame: When Charli XCX (short for "Kiss Charli Kiss") was 8, she would gather her friends together on the playground to play Spice Girls. Because of her wild mane of dark, curly hair she was cast as Scary Spice, but she wanted to be Baby Spice. "Even though I'm not blond, we just have a connection," she says. Now 21, she has become her own fashion statement, storming the stage in sky-high Buffalo Boots, tiny skirts and half-shirts, and flipping her teased-even-higher hair. With her brash brand of pop and in-your-face lyrics, she's landed three hit songs and four MTV Video Music Award nominations (Fancy also earned a best art direction nod). She describes her sound as "pop with a punk energy. It's emotional and intelligent pop music."
Slow burn: Although she's been performing and writing since her teens, her career didn't really take off until 2013, when a song written by her that you might have heard — Icona Pop's I Love It — went nuclear after it was featured in Lena Dunham's legendary cocaine-fueled nightclub scene in an episode of HBO's Girls. She co-wrote Iggy Azalea's Fancy, which has spent seven weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100 this year and is up for four VMAs, including video of the year. Her first solo hit, Boom Clap, off The Fault In Our Stars soundtrack, has climbed to No. 11 on USA TODAY's top 40 airplay chart and landed her a VMA nomination for artist to watch. She's also up for four Teen Choice Awards (one for Boom Clap and three for Fancy).
Early start: Charli XCX, born Charlotte Emma Aitchison, grew up in a small town outside London called Stevenage. She showed early promise, convincing her parents to fund her first album when she was 14 and posting songs on MySpace. Her music caught the attention of a local promoter, who booked her at raves in East London. Since she wasn't old enough to drive, her parents would drive her to her gigs. They were cool like that. "Those raves were so wild and loud, I had no idea what was going on, but that's how I started really doing anything when I performed," she says. "One of my first gigs was in an old peanut factory and I wrote this song called Dinosaur Sex. When I performed it, I'd start yelling 'Dinosaur Sex!' over and over again while standing on a crate."
If you've got it, flaunt it: She grew so accustomed to seeing revelers dress up as anything, from furry animals to running around half-naked with glow sticks, that she's fearless onstage, too. "The female body should be celebrated. I'm happy with my body. I don't think I should have to cover up to prove my integrity. Being sexy doesn't degrade me as a musician," she says. "I don't think that if a woman wears skimpy clothes she's any less of an artist at all. What's important is that she dresses that way because it's her choice."
Party with complete abandon: When she kicks off her U.S. tour on Sept. 26 in Orlando, Charli XCX, who is half-Scottish and half-Pakistani, promises fans a no-holds-barred good time. "I love touring in the U.S. — the fans are so crazy," she says. "I just want to give them an hour of sweating and totally losing their minds, no matter what's going on that day or what you're worried about."
Going commando: "Currently, I'm into not wearing bras," she says. "That makes things interesting when I'm on stage." She does, however, enjoy wearing perfume, especially Justin Bieber perfumes. "Fans give me loads of his perfumes and I don't know why, but they smell quite good, actually," she says. "Fruity."