Shakira was already a pop superstar in Latin America when her first English-language album, Laundry Service, hit the international charts in 2001. The work of the exotic beauty, whose name means "woman full of grace" in Arabic, combines rock'n'roll, her mum's Colombian roots and her father's Lebanese culture - and has earned her two Grammy Awards and seven Latin Grammy Awards.

"Somehow I"m a fusion of all those passions," she says of her multicultural heritage, "and my music is a fusion of elements that I can make coexist in the same place, in one song."

Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll was born February 9, 1977, to jewellers William and Nidia in Barranquilla, a town on Colombia's Caribbean Coast. As a child, she seemed destined for show biz, learning how to belly dance at four, writing her first song aged eight, and playing the guitar at 11 all without formal lessons.

The aspiring star began entering talent and beauty pageants not long afterwards, travelling to Bogota for a modelling shoot when she was just 13. While in the city, however, she was sidetracked from a fashion career when a family friend set up a meeting with a Sony executive. After singing a capella for the record boss in a hotel lobby, she was signed to the label, and released a self-penned debut, Magia (Magic), in 1991.

A fan of Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, The Police, The Cure and Nirvana, Shakira graduated from high school aged 15, just before she got a part on Colombian soap El Oasis and released a little heard follow-up album in 1994. Her breakthrough disc, 1996's Pies Descalzos (Bare Feet) sold four million copies and put the young star at number one in eight countries.

Shakira made five Spanish-language albums before her raw energy, wild blonde mane and bellydance moves helped make Whenever, Wherever an MTV staple. The single, inspired by a long distance relationship with boyfriend Antonio de la Rua, son of a former Argentine president, was the first release from her English-language debut, Laundry Service.

The singer came up with the unusual album title because she felt "washed clean of the way I looked at things in the past". "I think I am celebrating life more than ever," she said. The language transition, however, was a complicated one for the 5ft singer-songwriter, who used rhyming dictionaries and read poetry to translate her lyrics. "I would feel love in Spanish but I would think about how to express that love in English," she explains. But, she adds, "Afterwards that became such a natural process."

It was a process she pursued on follow up English release Oral Fixation Vol. 2 in 2005. Spawning the immensely popular Wyclef Jean collaboration Hips Don't Lie, which shot to the top of the charts in 45 countries, Don't Bother, and Illegal featuring Carlos Santana, the CD came after a Spanish language release called Fijación Oral Vol. 1 - which itself contained worldwide smash La Tortura featuring latino crooner Alejandro Sanz.

A duet with RnB superstar Beyoncé - 2007's global hit Beautiful Liar - consolidated her position in the English language market at a time when the star was taking time out of her music career to concentrate on her education. After her Oral Fixation tour ended that year, she enrolled at university in LA to study the history of western civilization - using her middle and last name - Isabel Mebarak - and telling the professor she was visiting from Colombia so she wasn't recognised as a celebrity.

The big-hearted chateuse is known for her philanthropy, too. In 1997 she founded the Pies Descalzos Foundation, a charity she set up to help poor children in her native Colombia. She often performs at benefit concerts and in December 2007 spent three days visiting cyclone victims in Bangladesh. "I am more convinced than ever that education is the key to so many of the difficulties that our children face in countries like mine or in developing countries like this one," she said while there. "It's the key to a better and safer world."
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