September 03, 2001 12:00 PM

After graduating from high school in 1996, Nelly Furtado took a job at a Toronto security alarm company, where she handled complaints from irate customers. “I had to wear sensible shoes,” says Furtado, now 22. “That’s when I realized I never want to work a 9-to-5 job again.”

That rebellious streak may explain the 50 pairs of sneakers Furtado has purchased since becoming a pop sensation. On the strength of “I’m Like a Bird,” her hit single about letting go of fear, Furtado’s debut album, Whoa, Nelly!, has sold nearly 2 million copies since its release last October. “People are really touched by the song,” she says. “Someone even wrote me a 50-page university-level thesis on it.”

Pretty heady stuff for someone who started out playing trombone in a marching band while growing up in Victoria, B.C. “She had a lot of spunk,” says her brother Michael, 24. Still, her Portuguese immigrant parents—Antonio José, 60, who runs a landscaping business, and Maria Manuela, 54, a hotel chambermaid—never imagined the youngest of their three children would someday open for U2 (as Furtado did in March). “We grew up simple,” Furtado says. “If I’m not healthy and happy, then all of this means nothing to my parents.”

These days, California dreaming makes her happy. “I’m so West Coast,” says the single singer, who lives alone in a Toronto loft where she burns incense and meditates. Furtado, who headlines her first U.S. tour this January, is even considering moving to L.A. “But lately,” she says, “I’m getting cold feet.” Better get out those insulated sneakers.

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