March 12, 2001 12:00 PM

Last December singer Macy Gray threw a Christmas party for 60 friends and relatives at her six-bedroom house in California’s San Fernando Valley. A performer blessed with an exuberant stage presence, she seemed to enjoy being the life of her own party. Until she vanished in the middle of it. “Her big thing is that she can easily be the center of attention and then all of a sudden disappear,” says her younger brother Nathon. “She’ll throw a party, and then everybody is wondering where she’s at.” Partygoers eventually tracked down their elusive hostess in her basement rec room, where she was playing with a Christmas gift: an ’80s vintage video-arcade game. Her mother, Laura, wasn’t surprised. “Natalie,” she says, “is very comfortable being alone.”

Comfortable or not in her Garbo mode, Gray, 33 (who was born Natalie Mclntyre but borrowed her stage name from a Canton, Ohio, neighbor), had plenty of company at the Grammy Awards on Feb. 21, when the 5’11” soul singer known for her wild hair and high-pitched voice strode onto the stage of L.A.’s Staples Center to accept the Grammy for best female pop vocal. “I Try,” her bluesy, jazz-and hip-hop-inflected hit single, which she later performed, had been nominated in three categories.

Gray’s win over the likes of Christina Aguilera, Madonna and Britney Spears capped a comeback that was remarkable, especially for an artist who just a few years ago had called it quits. She had been dropped by Atlantic Records and retreated to her parents’ house with two children—and a third on the way—from a recently broken marriage. Now under contract to Epic Records for a reported $3 million and touring tirelessly with her 14-member band, Gray galvanizes audiences with emotion-charged songs that delve into dark territory: drug addiction, abusive relationships, even suicide. “She is one of the great singers,” says critic Anthony DeCurtis, “because she is immediately identifiable in a sea of people who seem totally interchangeable.” Sir Elton John seconds that emotion. Her first album, On How Life Is, he says, “blew me away. She’s sexy and unique. Totally unique.”

Gray’s eccentric individuality was evident in childhood, long before her musicianship ever surfaced. “She was either writing or playing solitaire,” recalls Nathon, 26, who found himself barred from her bedroom along with sister Nehlia, 24. “She used to write short stories [that were] very sophisticated,” says her friend Ther-landa Singleton, 37, who grew up next door. “She always wanted to be a writer or a screenwriter.”

That ambition came as a big surprise to her mother. In 1985, her senior year at Canton South High School, Natalie, a gifted student, won a scholarship to the U.S. Naval Academy but turned it down to enroll in film school at the University of Southern California. “I had no idea that she had even applied to USC,” says her mother, 57, a school administrator. (Gray’s father, Richard, 74, is a retired steel worker.) “I said, ‘Natalie, what can you do with film writing in Canton, Ohio?’ This is the Football Hall of Fame town, and that’s about it. And she answered, ‘Mom, I do not intend to be in Canton, Ohio.’ I think she pretty much had her mind made up. And she kept it to herself.”

Ironically, it was at film school that Natalie stumbled into her real career when a friend invited her to perform with his local jazz band. She had always been a pop music buff—so moved by Prince’s 1984 Purple Rain album that she had painted her bedroom purple. But music “opened up an entire [new] door in her life,” says Warner Bros, executive Jeff Blue, who would later launch Gray’s career. “She was surprised. It allowed her to be free.” Her family was surprised too. Even after hearing her on a demo tape, says Nathon, “I don’t think my mom really believed it was her.”

After departing from USC in 1989, Gray won gigs at L.A. clubs while working as a production secretary at Universal and Paramount and trying her hand at screenplays. Her Janis Joplin-style sound drew the attention of Atlantic Records executives, who signed her to a contract in 1994. Soon afterward she adopted the name of a kindly old man who’d lived across the street in Canton and began calling herself Macy Gray.

Two years later she married her live-in boyfriend, Tracy Hinds, now 33 and an L.A. mortgage collector. “All she said was, ‘I’m getting married,’ ” says Nathon, “and we were like, ‘Um, okay.’ ” The couple already had a daughter, Aanisah, now 6, and a son, Tahmel, 5. In August 1997, when Gray was seven months pregnant with daughter Cassius, now 3, she and Hinds separated. In July 1998 she filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences.

Prior to the couple’s split, Atlantic Records dropped Gray’s contract, having decided not to release her debut album. “No one was really into it,” says Jeff Blue. “Once something really doesn’t work in the music industry, it’s kind of a stigma.” Yet Blue, then an L.A. music publisher who had signed Limp Bizkit and Korn, listened to Gray’s album tape one day, and “my mouth dropped open,” he says.

Still, it took two or three months before Gray would agree even to meet with him in New York City. “I didn’t know if I wanted to go through all the disappointments again,” she told the Los Angeles Times last year. “But I also missed [the music business]. I had to give it one more try.” By November 1997 she was cutting a solo demo that Blue shopped to major labels. To guard against any anti-Gray bias, he gave her the pseudonym Mushroom. A year later she was signed by Epic Records, and in 1999 On How Life Is became a Top 5 hit.

These days Gray is in what Blue calls a “pretty serious” relationship with her band’s deejay, Kiilu Beckwith, 30. When she’s on tour, her parents look after her children. “When she’s with them, she’s just a mommy and they’re climbing all over her,” says Therlanda Singleton. Other times “she likes to stay by herself,” says Gray’s mother.

“You’re not going to get a big conversation [with her], even today.” But the small talk matters. “Do I have to call you Macy?” Singleton recalls asking one day. “We just looked at each other and laughed. She said Natalie [would be fine]. To me, she’s still Natalie.”

Steve Dougherty

Lyndon Stambler in Los Angeles, Lorna Grisby in Chicago and Joseph V. Tirella in New York City