Fans jamming a San Diego coffeehouse about 15 years ago to bask in the warm glow of Jewel Kilcher's voice had no idea the singer went home to a Volkswagen van outside, parked in a different location each night as a precaution against curious strangers and a serial rapist who had attacked a score of women in the area.
After a somewhat reckless youth–she grew up singing with her dad in Alaskan cowboy bars and performed on street corners for train fare during a solo adventure across Mexico–Jewel landed in California to be near her mother, who was ailing with a heart condition.
She found an apartment and got a job at a computer warehouse. But she lost both in rather short order after declining the amorous advances of her boss, she says.
"My rent was due. I went to get my paycheck the next day, and my boss wouldn't talk to me," she says. "I got kicked out of the place I was living, and I didn't have the first or last month's rent to put a deposit down on another. I was broke. I thought I'd live in my car until I got another job and I'd get another apartment."
Then a kidney infection came along, depleting the cash she'd been saving to get off the streets.
A vow to help
"It was a real vicious poverty cycle," recalls Jewel, now 34, who spent all of her money to buy antibiotics and doctor-ordered bottled drinking water. "I had to drink about a gallon a day, which I couldn't afford. And I thought, 'If we can't drink clean water in America, what's happening in the rest of the world?' I decided if I ever got in a position to help, I would. And as fate would have it, I got in a position to help."
But that position didn't come along overnight. Even after she was discovered at 19, her problems didn't vanish. Jewel, who dropped her last name when she started performing professionally, laughs when she recalls that her instant celebrity initially meant being jetted off for a record-company dinner in New York, only to come crashing back to the reality of her VW home.
"Still," she says, "I'm pretty lucky. My life's exceeded all expectation."
Now, she works to pass on some of her good fortune to those less fortunate.
Her testimony in 2007 before a U.S. congressional subcommittee was instrumental in getting November officially recognized as National Homeless Youth Awareness Month, a banner for a campaign to educate the public about the many programs that assist youth who are living on the street or are at risk of becoming homeless.
"We can use it as a platform to be able to get interviews and get on TV shows to talk about it," she says. "It's an invisible problem. There are a million kids on the street. A kid dies every week on the street."
Jewel's homeless days and kidney infection led her in 1997 to launch Project Clean Water, which works to find sustainable solutions to drinking-water problems around the world. "Water's a big issue, she says. It's already more per gallon than oil. It's a critical topic." So far, the project has led to the digging of 35 wells in 15 countries.
From pop to country
Last year, Jewel migrated from pop to country music with her well-received Perfectly Clear album. She used her new Nashville connections to rally country superstars Brooks & Dunn and Carrie Underwood for a Project Clean Water fundraising event.
Fellow troubadour and songwriter Steve Poltz isn't surprised by his friend's charity. "Jewel's really smart and really generous and really kind," says Poltz, whose songwriting collaborations with Jewel include the 1996 smash single 'You Were Meant For Me,' from her 12-million-selling Pieces of You album.
He experienced that generosity long ago, when Jewel reached into her savings–stashed in a cowboy boot in the back of her van–to bail his car out of impound. "I think I still owe her $1,100," he says with a laugh.
Jewels recording success and occasional forays into acting qualified her for a glamorous Hollywood lifestyle. Instead, she found happiness in the arms of rodeo champion Ty Murray at his rustic 2,200-acre ranch in Stephensville, Texas (pop. 14,921). After a decade together, the two were married last August on a Bahamian beach, with Jewel's 7-year-old Shih Tzu, George, her constant companion, standing in as a witness.
She says it was important that she and Murray spent more than a few years together before wedding. For one thing, they had to test whether the relationship could survive their ongoing separations, as she traveled as a musical princess and he as a cowboy king.
"It's been very nice to get to know him, and him get to know me, in all sorts of circumstances," she says. "We've seen all our friends get married and divorced, so we wanted to get it right."
Planning a family
"We want to start having kids," says Jewel. "I'm 34 and he's 39, so I figured if were gonna do it, we better get on it."
They hope for two children, but the cowboy adds a caution learned from years of birthing calves. "You got to get one on the ground," Murray says, "before you can even think about the other one." Murray tips his cowboy hat to his mate. "She helps me quite a bit with the feeding, branding or whatever else is going on," says the superstar cowboy who retired in 2002 with seven All-Around World Championship titles and co-founded the Professional Bull Riders organization.
The girl whose risky teenage years laid a foundation for humanitarian acts has found peace on horseback and in the ranch house filled with Tibetan antiques, rodeo championship buckles and other eclectic touches.
But Jewel says she likes getting outside, underneath the wide Texas sky, as much as possible. "I grew up on a ranch in Alaska," she says. "I've always felt like the outdoors was like my church. I fit in neatly with God when I was outside."
Finding her place also meant changing her last name to Murray. "It's sweet, its old-fashioned, she says. And it didn't hurt my career, because I'm still Jewel."
She laughs. "One day we'll be lancing a boil on a calf's neck, the next day we'll be at the Oscar's. It's a good balance."