nicole

Nicole Scherzinger needs a nap. In person, stripped of the latex corsets, towering heels, and bounty of lip gloss she wore as a Pussycat Doll, Scherzinger is as naturally pretty as, well, a real-life doll: petite, flawless complexion, and dark cascading locks. Padding barefoot down the hallway of her hotel room, Scherzinger yawns, smiles sleepily, and blinks her cheek-dusting lashes. She's a little exhausted these days.

And she might well be. Scherzinger is about to embark on her biggest year yet. She'll be a judge on Simon Cowell's absurdly hyped singing competition The X Factor (complete with a $5 million grand prize) and debut her solo album, Killer Love.

Not that this moment hasn't been hard-won. Back before sleep was so tough to come by, it was her parents' work ethic — her dad was a welder, her mom an office worker — and a worn-out Whitney Houston cassette tape that inspired what Cowell calls her ruthless ambition. "I definitely have the eye of the tiger," says Scherzinger, 33. "I've fought my way to where I am and will continue to do so. I'm a hard worker — I get it from my family. We only know work. Nothing was handed to us. When I believe in something, I go after it. It's very hard to tell me 'no.'"

It's not a word she hears often. Born in Hawaii (check out those hula moves in her "Right There" video with 50 Cent) and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Scherzinger went to a performing arts school, competed in state-fair talent shows, and climbed into a lion mascot suit at Kentucky Kingdom, a theme park. "It was disgusting — so hot! — and the smell," she laughs. "You couldn't get enough Febreeze."

Scherzinger is a reality-show veteran: She won Popstars at age 23 — which landed her a spot in the girl group Eden's Crush — and, most recently, carted home the 2010 trophy on Dancing With the Stars.

But it was last spring that the sticky-sweet Scherzinger pulled off a career-making coup: replacing British judge Cheryl Cole on the American edition of The X Factor. Whatever tensions there may have been on set (Cole was mysteriously dumped — no one's talking) seem to have departed with Cole, as Scherzinger reveals that fellow judges Cowell, Paula Abdul, and L.A. Reid all share a dressing room backstage. "Simon calls it the judges' lounge — everything's open — so we all goof around, eat, and get ready in the same place." It's a dream come true for Scherzinger, who used to sleep in an Abdul nightshirt. "I'm the luckiest person to get a front-row ticket to the Simon and Paula show," she says of the bizarre pairing. "This whole thing has felt like a roller-coaster ride."

And while The X Factor gig will raise her name recognition, it's talking about Killer Love that really wakes her up. "With the Pussycat Dolls, I had four other girls to fall back on — we were a gang, a team, and that gives you extra confidence. Now I'm bringing it all on my own," she says. Even if that took some practice: "I cried when I saw my first Pussycat Doll costume. It was my first photo shoot, and I wasn't used to wearing clothes like that," Scherzinger says of her skimpy outfits. Remind her of the catsuit she was sewn into for a performance last year on British X Factor, though, and the former theater nerd laughs at how far she's come. "Crazy, isn't it? My friends from high school were like, 'Oh, my gosh, our sweet little Nicole!'" she says. "It's growing up, though, right? I'm a woman, and it's part of owning what you are." She hugs a couch pillow before another yawn escapes. "I've been working toward this my whole life. This album is my dream. Everything is timing. My music is the driving engine, and The X Factor is where I can give back to the contestants — pay it forward, since I got my start on reality shows. I'm ready to take it all on." She better get that power nap in now.

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