After record-setting success and personal loss, the pop queen sees the light and roars back to the top

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"Honestly, I'm just masquerading as a pop star." Coming from Katy Perry -- that most DayGlo of pop stars -- such a statement could verge on the absurd. But today, Perry has stepped outside the smoke and mirror balls. Sitting on a couch in a rehearsal studio in Burbank, Calif. -- where she is preparing for a live appearance at the iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas in just a few days -- Perry carries only a fleeting resemblance to the cotton-candied persona she's crafted during the last five years. Wearing zero makeup, with her hair pulled back and sporting black Adidas workout tights and a faded hoodie over a "Christian Death Metal" T-shirt, Perry sips on a grande Starbucks iced green tea. She more resembles an art-school undergrad on her way to the gym than, well, Katy Perry.

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The reason for that is simple: To get ready for the rigorous routines of the new stage show that she unveiled at the iHeartRadio festival on Sept. 20, Perry has undertaken intensive training regimens. "I am exhausting so much energy right now," Perry exclaims between bites of Cheez-Its -- furtive bites, because eating Cheez-Its is breaking training. "For eight days straight, I've been conditioning -- just going, going, going at the height of my physical capabilities. I'm supposed to eat meals every two hours, but it takes me an hour to think of what I want to eat, so by lunchtime, I'm starving. I'm just so hungry all the time."

Hunger and drive have characterized Perry's career up to this point-and despite past triumphs, right now is no different. The success of 2010's "Teenage Dream" -- Perry's second major-label effort-set a dizzying amount of records and has sold 2.8 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. Most notably, she became the first woman, and second artist overall following Michael Jackson, in the 55-year history of the Billboard Hot 100 to send five songs from the same album to No. 1. The bar, meanwhile, keeps rising: With the rapid ascent of "Roar" -- the instantly ubiquitous first single from the upcoming "PRISM," due Oct. 22 -- Perry has tied Rihanna for the most No. 1s on the Pop Songs tally with her ninth chart-topper. At this point, all metrics suggest PRISM will equal Teenage Dream's multiplatinum trajectory, but Perry doesn't take such rosy projections to heart. "It's a comfy spot to be in, but I can't get too comfortable," she says. "Otherwise, I'll lose perspective."

It's an approach shared by Steve Barnett, who became chairman/CEO of Capitol Music Group in November 2012, two months after the Universal Music Group (UMG) acquisition of EMI's recorded-music group was finally completed. His appointment followed a seven-year stint helming Columbia Records that included transformative campaigns for Adele and Beyonce, among others, making Columbia the industry's top imprint for the last two years of Barnett's tenure.

"In the first meeting I had with Katy, we found we shared the philosophy of taking nothing for granted," Barnett says. "Last week, Universal made history: We had 10 songs in the Hot 100, and Katy was No. 1. That was fantastic for Universal and [Universal chairman/CEO] Lucian Grainge, who supports Katy's vision completely. But it doesn't matter how many No. 1 singles you have. There is no more important artist or album than this to the company, so we had to have the most massive, far-reaching global plan possible. Put that together with the fact Katy made a fantastic record, and I couldn't be more thrilled."

What that record was going to be, however, proved to be the subject of much speculation in the months leading up to the announcement of "PRISM"'s release. In a June 2012 interview with L'Uomo Vogue, Perry stated that her next album "would be a much darker album than the previous one. It was inevitable, after what I went through." And in November 2012, when she was honored as Billboard's Woman of the Year, she joked that her "upcoming adventure" with her new UMG family would be a change of pace: "I just have to let you guys know my Saturn has returned, so it'll be ugly."

That cathartic experience to which Perry refers is the tumultuous dissolution of her short marriage to British comedian/actor Russell Brand-unflinchingly captured in "Katy Perry: Part of Me," a combination autobiographical documentary/concert film that proved another Perry win, with a worldwide ticket gross exceeding $32 million, according to Box Office Mojo. Perry recalls one particularly telling encounter: a scheduling snafu that made her late for a TV sit-down with Barbara Walters.

"I shouldn't have done the interview: I was playing Madison Square Garden that same night, and I knew that the end of my marriage was coming. I was just exhausted and stressed," Perry says. "I'd prepped everyone that I was running late, but Barbara showed up at the original time anyway. When I got there, I apologized immediately, but then she said to me, 'You know, I've only ever waited for one other person this long, and you know who that person was? Judy Garland. You know how she turned out, right?' I was like, 'Oh, snap! Yes, bitch!' I think it's the coolest thing that Barbara Walters shaded me. I just couldn't tell her as we were sitting down for a mega-interview, 'Hey, my marriage is falling apart. Give me a break.'"

Katy Perry's 'PRISM' Preview: 10 Things You Need To Know

However, the creative process behind "PRISM" turned it into quite a different beast from what even Perry expected. "I was really inspired by this little six-minute thing by Eckhart Tolle where he speaks about loss," she says, referring to a video from the author of the best-selling inspirational tome "The Power of Now." "When you lose something, all your foundations crumble-but that also leaves a big hole that's open for something great to come through."

According to Perry, "PRISM" began with a process she calls "slow cooking." While on tour promoting "Teenage Dream," she began recording fragments of ideas into a dictaphone on her iPhone. Then Ngoc Hoang, a member of Perry's team at Direct Management Group, transcribed them and put the results into a "treasure chest" that Perry referred to throughout the album's creation. Perry notes the sessions for "PRISM" began to "dibble-dabble" last November, when she went into the studio with longtime collaborators Greg Kurstin and Greg Wells. "I was still in a dark place," Perry says. "I hadn't let the light in."

When sessions for "PRISM" began anew in March, however, Perry had already gone through an intensive period of self-examination. "I took a trip to Africa that really put my priorities in perspective and started doing more work on myself," she says. Renewed, Perry reunited with her creative team from Teenage Dream, spending a month in Santa Barbara, Calif., with longtime producer Lukasz "Dr. Luke" Gottwald, frequent songwriting partner Bonnie McKee and Henry Walter, aka the young studio mastermind Cirkut. From there she headed to Stockholm to work with Scandinavian pop maestro Max Martin for a few weeks to put "the icing on the cake." In addition to those power players, Perry tapped such hitmaking collaborators as Stargate, Benny Blanco, Juicy J, Jonatha Brooke, Sia, Christian "Bloodshy" Karlsson and Klas Ãhlund of the Teddybears. (Perry shares co-writing credit on all of the tracks.)

"In May, I sat down with my managers and said, 'Guys, I think I'm going to have everything ready enough to come out this fourth quarter,'" Perry says. "We weren't really thinking we'd be able to put anything out until February, but you don't want to sit on something that's about to burst."

NEXT PAGE: "That song is evident of how tough it really was at a certain point. I asked myself, 'Do I want to endure? Should I continue living?'"